Groceryships founder Sam Polk on his unflinching memoir of greed, addiction and misogyny on Wall Street
By Bliss Bowen
“I was standing with a group of very intelligent people, and we were expending enormous amounts of energy developing sophisticated levels of expertise. But we were not building anything or creating anything of value. I knew hundreds of derivatives traders. I was a derivatives expert. And it occurred to me that the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. I’d become an expert in a profession that wasn’t worth a damn.”
That’s a remarkable observation from a man whose driving need to have his worth validated propelled him through a poor, insecure childhood, drug-addled school years, dot-com startup jobs and internships until, at age 30, he was a senior trader for a leading Wall Street hedge fund.
It was a dream-come-true job, but Sam Polk walked away when he was offered an annual bonus of $3.6 million — an amount he angrily deemed insufficient, even as he recognized the unhealthiness of his response.
In 2014 Polk compared Wall Street traders’ greed to addiction and discussed his experience in a New York Times op-ed that went viral; last week he penned another provocative piece, about women being objectified on the job on Wall Street.
Wealth and women, and “the often muddy confluence between them,” are key themes in his new memoir, “For the Love of Money.”
The book chronicles his Southern California upbringing as an obese twin in an emotionally abusive household; a horrifying scene with a dog and his father’s casual cruelty graphically convey the emotional neglect he endured, and how that shaped the dynamics of later work relationships.
A poignant, sometimes uncomfortable read — Polk is more relentless than conscientious during chapters when he’s climbing the corporate ladder and cheating on girlfriends — “For the Love of Money” will be the topic of Polk’s conversation with Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle on Tuesday at Diesel Bookstore in Santa Monica.
The discussion will also touch on Polk’s post-Wall Street life as executive director of Groceryships, a nutritional justice nonprofit he founded, and Everytable,
a public benefit corporation that he says “grew out of what we learned in the nonprofit.”
Have you received feedback from other traders about “For the Love of Money”?
Most of them haven’t read it yet because it doesn’t come out until July 19. I definitely think it’s going to be a hot topic on Wall Street, let’s put it that way. I’ve heard some people are nervous about what I’m going to talk about.
Have you stayed in touch with the trader who mentored you, the one you call Marshall Masters?
I am closer with him now than I was even on Wall Street. In fact, I was just staying at his apartment in New York a couple weeks ago. He’s gone on to become a board member for Groceryships and an investor for Everytable. But beyond that, he is a very important and reliable father figure in my life.
The book tracks your lifelong attempts to earn your blood father’s respect and love. Did writing help resolve your feelings of loss?
I think that my pain around my father is a primal wound that at best has become a scar. So I think it will always be with me. At the same point, the process of writing the book and also becoming a father myself has allowed me to finally take full responsibility for my life and [has brought] an understanding and appreciation of who he is without any expectation of changing that. So even though my dad and I still pretty rarely talk, I feel better about that relationship than I have for a long time. I think that’s because in a pretty simple way, I’ve basically become, for lack of a better word, my own man. So I’m not looking for the same things I was looking for from him for so many years.
Has he read the book?
I’m sure he knows about the book. Don’t think he’s read it. And I don’t really know much about how he’s going to react to it.
Your op-ed about wealth addiction resonated with readers at a time when Bernie Sanders was addressing similar themes of inequality and Wall Street excess. Did you attend any of his presidential campaign rallies, or feel like he was speaking to your experience?
Yeah. I am a deep fan of Bernie Sanders’ message. I’m a little bit hesitant around him. Woody Allen once said, “Hey, I’m a bigot, but from the left.” I feel like that was sort of true for Bernie Sanders. After that New York Times piece, his chief of staff reached out to me and said, “Listen, Bernie is a big fan of yours, and basically we’re calling to see if you know any whistleblowers on Wall Street who can speak to the deep criminality.” What I said to him was, “Look, I have a lot of problems with Wall Street, but I personally think it’s much more systemic and cultural than it is about individual criminality.”
Not to say that I don’t think there’s plenty of criminal behavior that goes on on Wall Street, but my personal perspective is I know a lot of guys who work really hard and got into the “right” school and got a job at Goldman Sachs and began trading mortgage bonds, and have been making lots of money — they’re basically doing what was laid out for them as a successful, good thing to do. I think the problem is that they are not stepping back and becoming aware and taking responsibility for where they fit in the entire system, and whether or not that system is working for all of us. But I do think it’s less about personal criminality.
Speaking of presidential campaigns, one issue receiving little attention is one you’re addressing with Groceryships: the prevalence of urban food deserts. You write that seeing the 2012 documentary “A Place at the Table” blew your mind with its exploration of “the confluence of poverty and obesity.”
I was sort of aware that there was a problem with obesity and health and the food system, but what I was less aware about was the deep, structural health inequality. In large part what I’ve dedicated the last years of my life to working on is sort of fixing this idea that, you know, in South L.A., per capita income is $13,000 a year and life expectancy is 10 years less than Pacific Palisades; a lot of that is food related. Food deserts are a symptom of a much greater problem, which is that businesses need to be about solving problems and they’ve somehow become about creating them.
You don’t discuss Groceryships and Everytable until the last three pages of your book; let’s talk about them.
Groceryships is a program that helps moms living in food deserts get healthy. So a mom joins a group of 10 other moms who go through a six-month program that’s built around two-hour weekly meetings in which there’s nutrition education, healthy cooking, fresh produce — each family gets about $30 to $40 worth of fresh produce each week. It’s all done in the context of support groups, so it focuses on the emotional and stress-related and mental health issues of eating, which often go unaddressed. It doesn’t have to be a mom, it just has to be somebody who wants to get themselves and their families healthy.
Everytable I’m not talking a lot about because the launch is July 30, but I will say that Everytable is a social enterprise that grew out of two realizations. One was that the moms in Groceryships kept saying, “Look, I’m a single mom with four kids and two jobs, and this produce is great, but I don’t have time to cook. I need to get food on the go, and in this neighborhood that means McDonald’s.” And us saying, “There’s gotta be a better solution for these moms than just bringing in a ton of produce.”
Think about McDonald’s; you’re competing with one of the largest companies in the world that is creating delicious, addictive food and selling it at an extraordinarily low price and marketing it with some of the most sophisticated advertising the world has ever known. To think you’re going to beat that by bringing in kale is just not gonna work. So we knew we had to provide a better solution for those moms.
I love nonprofit work, but nonprofits will never be equipped to solve the problems created by the ambition/capital side because they’re just too financially unequipped to do so. So Everytable is about creating a business that has real economic firepower to solve a major problem in the world in an inclusive as opposed to exclusive way.
There’s some overlap between your observations and those of urban gardening advocates. Do you get your produce from local growers?
We’re in talks with farmers markets in lower-income areas. We’d love to be sourcing entirely from the Watts farmers market; that’s our long-term goal. At the same time, price is really important to us and logistics are really important to us. So it’s going to be a work in progress.
Do you identify yourself as a writer now? Or do you see writing as an expression of your work in the non-profit world?
I do think that with this second New York Times piece and a book published by Scribner that I am becoming a little bit of a writer, and that’s a nice feeling and experience. On Wall Street, there is a lot of pressure and it is tense, but it really is very conformist; it’s almost against the rules on Wall Street to stick out. One of the benefits I’ve had after leaving is that all of the things I’m doing — whether it’s Groceryships, Everytable or this writing — are ways to express who I am and what I believe in the world, and manifest things into them that hadn’t existed before. I’m incredibly grateful and thrilled by that.
Ultimately the book is about redefining success to include making an intentional, positive contribution in the world. That’s what I’m hoping my work and my writing is part of.
Sam Polk discusses “For the Love of Money” with Father Greg Boyle at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, Free. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit sampolk.me.