How exactly does one get started on the road to saving the planet? We talked to a few environmental heroes about the jobs that got them started in life and activism.
President & CEO, World Wildlife Fund in the U.S.
First job: Dishwasher
It was in the kitchen of a French restaurant in Atlanta called Bernard’s. My job was washing dishes, surrounded by hot water on hot summer nights in Georgia. But I also had to do anything and everything needed to get the kitchen through the night, including cleaning out the grease traps, where months and months of grease had accumulated. Rodent control was also part of the job, and they weren’t the cute animated rats like the ones in the film “Ratatouille.”
My job was the bottom of the heap, but by the end of the summer I had learned how to make dishes like Oysters Rockefeller and chocolate mousse from scratch. I was basically the assistant chef for those two dishes, which I prepared before the evening began and we all descended into hell.
What was great about that job is that it was a combination of the most humbling, backbreaking work, along with the most sublime high-end creative work. It was a combination of heaven and hell, and nobody had any idea what went on behind the swinging doors to the kitchen. At the end of every hot summer night, when the last customer had left, we broke out some beer from the freezer or had a little wine together. We had survived another day.
President & CEO, The Nature Conservancy
First job: Paperboy
That job had a big impact on my life. I delivered the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which came out every day, no exceptions. It had to be delivered by 6:30 am – that was the rule, because the local dads usually had factory jobs and they wanted to read the paper before they went to work.
I started at age 10, and back then paperboys had to purchase newspapers from the publisher at wholesale, and then sell them at retail. So I would buy them at seven cents, and sell them at 10 cents. If any customers didn’t pay - and sometimes they didn’t - I would actually run a loss.
It taught me a lot about entrepreneurship. I had to show up and deliver every damn day. And the weather was rough: This was Cleveland in winter, it was freezing cold, and I would be out there at 5:30 am. At that time of day, there are some not-so-nice people out on the streets.
One happy outcome was that they actually had paperboy scholarships, and because of that I got into a top boarding school. From there I went on to Harvard, and then Goldman Sachs, and eventually served as board chair of the school I had gone to as a boy. So delivering papers turned out to be an enormously pivotal time for me.
President, National Resources Defense Council
First job: Senator’s assistant
When I got back to Colorado after doing my Fulbright fellowship, I was really burned out. So I got a season ski pass, and waitressed and just wanted to hang out – much to my parents’ chagrin.
But eventually I got bored with myself, and I had always been interested in politics, so I decided to volunteer for somebody. I literally got out the Yellow Pages and started cold-calling elected representatives.
The third one down the list was Ben Nighthorse Campbell, whose staff liked the fact I had an environmental background. Two weeks later they offered me a job. Partway through his term he switched parties, so that was pretty eye-opening. I had to pick up all my stuff and just move to the other side of the political aisle.
That was during the Gingrich Revolution, so at the time it was the most partisan thing I had ever been through. But boy, does it pale compared to what we are going through now. The world has changed during my lifetime – and not for the better.