Groceryships founder Sam Polk

The “wealth addict”-turned-philanthropist shares why he walked away from Wall Street and reassessed his priorities.

Before launching Groceryships—a nonprofit organization that provides "scholarships for groceries"—Sam Polk made millions, but didn't find his position very fulfilling. The Columbia University graduate had spent eight years as a bond and derivative trader for Bank of America and King Street Capital Management and described himself as a wealth addict. At age 30, he left Wall Street, moved to Los Angeles and began volunteering, including working with homeless youth and teaching writing to foster kids. Polk also wrote about his experiences and speaks at jails and juvenile detention centers about recovering from addiction—alcohol, drugs and wealth.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: So imagine this scenario. You’re in your 20s, working as a hedge fund manager on Wall Street, and you go into a rage when your bonus is only $3.6 million dollars when you were demanding $8 million dollars. That was the narrative created by Sam Polk who, after cooling down and reassessing his priorities, came to the conclusion that wanting more and more money was an addiction like any other, in fact, with all its negative connotations.

And then he wrote about that epiphany in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that is still causing quite a conversation. Sam, good to have you on this program.

Sam Polk: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here.

Tavis: Glad to have you here, man. Did you expect all of the response and fallout…?

Polk: No.

Tavis: And conversation generated by that piece?

Polk: Well, first of all, I didn’t know anybody at the New York Times, so I just sent it in to Op-Ed at the New York Times on a lark. And when it came out, like the response has been so big in terms of the media attention and the positive reviews, but also, you know, some people got pretty upset about it.

Tavis: Why write that and send it to the New York Times?

Polk: Look, I believe that there’s something going on in this world, this inequality problem that is, you know, a few billionaires have more than 3.5 billion people. You know, there’s a lot of people with a lot of theories about why that is.

But my theory is that it’s like people like me that were really the problem, these people that were sort of the 1%, you know, working really hard, but continuing to make more and more money and it was never enough.

So I wanted to write a piece, you know, from the heart that people who might be in the same position that I was in could see and say, you know, maybe enough’s enough. Like maybe there is another path. Maybe I do have enough money and I use some of my talents and resources to help people rather than just accumulating money.

And I guess what I’m saying is like all these things that I had, these talents that were given to me, I feel like they come with some responsibility. And for so long, I just used them to get more for myself, to sleep better at night because I wouldn’t have to be afraid. I was so afraid of being without money and the more money I had, the sort of more safe I felt like I was.

And after a while, it just occurred to me that I was still scared, but also that, you know, the things that were so important to me which was am I gonna make $2 million or $3 million dollars this year was actually less important than, you know, the people on the streets that are struggling or the mom that wants to have surgery for her kid, but can’t afford it. And for a long time, those things were almost equal to me because the most important thing in my life was accumulating more.

Tavis: So if being insecure about not having cash breeds or creates fear, then there are a whole lot of fearful people in this country because a whole lot of us wish we had more cash. Tell me more about the link between your fear about not having enough money.

Polk: Well, look, when I grew up, like I did have a lot of advantages as a kid, but I also grew up in this house where, first of all, my Dad – we were always sort of without money. Like we didn’t have enough and he was always talking about this future when things would be okay. And I guess I learned that the world was a really scary place.

And from his sort of belief systems, I also learned that enough money would sort of cure that. And I guess the point that I want to make is that like, you know, in the end, even though I had something of a tough childhood, my Dad was a super rageful guy. He would lose it and, you know, I was just scared of him a lot.

But on the other hand like, in the end, I was a white Ivy League educated guy who showed a propensity for making money. So, you know, if there’s anybody in the world who didn’t sort of have to fear, it was me. But the truth was, I was still afraid even though I was making millions.

So one of the things that I’ve come to believe about that is that for me it had nothing to do with money. It had to do with this like spiritual problem, this like brokenness inside me. And one of the things I learned on Wall Street was that money wasn’t gonna fix it, no matter how many millions I made.

Tavis: What drove you to Wall Street? I’m asking what drove you to Wall Street and then to working so hard for those excesses? And I’m raising that because it may very well be the case that, who knows, on Academy Award night, Leonardo DiCaprio may go home with a trophy for playing the character that everybody’s talking about in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

So you didn’t have those kinds of excesses, but what drove you to Wall Street to push harder and harder and harder for more, more, more, and it was never enough?

Polk: I’ll tell you, the most simple thing is that we live in a culture that says, if you have money or if you’re famous, then you’re important and you’re valuable. And if you don’t have those things, then you’re worthless. And the truth was that I sort of grew up believing I was worthless.

I think that was because of how I was treated as a kid, but I was so desperate to show people that I was valuable, that I was important, and money was sort of the easiest way to do that.

Tavis: I said a bit in the introduction about the epiphany that you had. But in your own words, just tell me more about how you came – what brought you to the realization that you were on a dead-end path?

Polk: Well, look. First it was like it wasn’t just about me. Do you know what I mean? Like for a while, I’d come to see that I wasn’t happy and that I would – even though I was making millions, I would still sit at my desk and feel jealous of other people who were making more than me. So after a while, I learned that it was because I sort of – that I wasn’t doing this.

But I’ll tell you what. I started reading this Taylor Branch series on Martin Luther King. Even though it was about the civil rights issue and that’s this particular issue, it sort of completely opened my eyes because, you know, Dr. King started talking about this idea that it wasn’t a crime to be punished – to be a racist wasn’t a crime to be punished. It was a sickness to be healed.

And when I read that, I started thinking about my own self and I was like, you know what, I’m not a terrible guy. I’m not an evil guy. A lot of people judge Wall Street and that’s not how I felt.

But I do think that I had a sickness and that sickness left me sort of trying to accumulate more money. And I just suddenly saw that I was a part of this system that really created two Americas, right? This upper class America and, at the bottom, this America that’s just struggling to get by.

And I guess I just saw that, you know, what was true about civil rights I sort of believe was true about the sort of 1% in equality. Like there was some spiritual sickness that I didn’t want to participate in anymore.

Tavis: It’s funny you mention Taylor Branch. I was just talking to Taylor the other day in part because I’m working on a book now about specifically the last year of King’s life, just the last 12 months. He starts April 4, 1967 with the most controversial speech of his life when he comes out against the Vietnam War April 4, 1967. He’s dead a year later to the day, April 4, as you know, 1968.

So that one year, I’m focusing a laser on what’s happened to King, what kind of man does he become in the very last year of his life. So I’m working on that text now.

So I’ve been talking to Taylor now and other people to get their perspectives on the text that I’m working on. I raise that only because one of the things that comes through loud and clear when one looks at King’s life, particularly the last year of his life, when he’s focused on these three things that you started to mention a moment ago.

King calls it the triple threat, the triple evil, you recall from reading Taylor’s brilliant trilogy. Militarism, racism and poverty. That is the triple threat that King says, if we don’t get serious about, we’re gonna lose our democracy.

Polk: Yeah.

Tavis: Racism, militarism and poverty. So here we are as we move toward 50 years since his death and we still as Americans don’t want to get serious about militarism, racism and poverty.

So you have this epiphany in part because you’re reading Taylor’s brilliant trilogy about America in the King years and you decide you want to do something at least about one of those things, the issue of poverty, which is a nice way to ask you about Groceryships.

Polk: Yeah. Well, thank you very much. So Groceryships is this program. It’s like scholarships for groceries. So families that are low income and struggling with obesity, and as you know, there’s this huge confluence of hunger problem and obesity in often the same families. So we started this program where families that really want help can apply and then we give them effectively a scholarship.

Tavis: Groceryship.

Polk: A Groceryship is a scholarship for groceries. So for six months, these families, we give them money to buy only the healthiest foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. We also provide them a sort of curriculum like going to school, education in nutrition, in cooking skills.

But even more important, and this is sort of the key to the whole thing, I believe, is like there’s 10 families at a time and the last half of each weekly meeting is like a support group.

You know, I don’t know if you have sort of personal food experiences with struggles with food. I certainly do. I’ve been on a thousand diets in my life. I grew up a really overweight kid. And I just know how sort of scary that is. You know, obesity is a really complex thing with heavy emotional issues, also heavy poverty issues.

And the idea of like my sort of experience is that nothing is as powerful as a group of people kind of locked in common pursuit together supporting each other. So that’s what Groceryships is. If you get a Groceryship, then you become part of this group that has your back while you’re working through this stuff.

Tavis: What makes you feel like you can have an impact on an issue that is so massive to begin with and some might view as even being intractable?

Polk: You know what? It’s a great question and I really go back to Father Greg Boyle’s book. What he talks about is definitions of success. You know, the idea that I’m gonna go in there and fix any of this or change these folks or even that they need to be changed or that I have something to teach them is, to my mind, crazy.

I will tell you that what I think success is is spending six months with these families and they’re hungry and we’re providing them healthy food.

Whether or not they sort of change or what pace they change at, that’s not up to me. What I want to do is stand beside them and at least in some small level help alleviate the burden that they’ve been given to carry. I know, for me, I had all these sort of privileges growing up and I had some hardships.

And the reason I’m here sitting talking to you is because there were some people that came into my life that helped me share the burden that I was carrying, a counselor, a boss at work, like people that really took an interest in me and said, you know what, what’s going on with you matters, you know. Your health matters to me. Your well-being matters to me.

So that’s what I’m going into these families and I’m saying I don’t have the answer. I’m not, you know, Dr. Oz or anything like that. But I will stand here with you and I will talk about stuff with you. And you know what? I have the same problems that you do at least when it comes to food and I’m gonna share those too.

Tavis: Dr. King said a lot of stuff that’s worthy of being quoted all these years later. But one of the things that King said was that life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others? Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?

I encourage you to go online and read about Groceryships and you’ll see what Sam Polk and his team are doing for others. And if you haven’t seen or heard about this piece from the New York Times I referenced at the top of the conversation, go to the New York Times, to their website. I’m sure it’s still trending for them.

A lot of conversation about this Op-Ed piece that Sam Polk wrote for the New York Times which started this conversation on this program and, for that matter, other programs as well. Sam, congrats on your work you’re doing at Groceryships, and good to have you on the program.

Polk: Thank you so much.

Tavis: It’s good to see you, man.

Polk: It’s an honor.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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  • helen langley

    My heart is so full of graditude for angels. Sam and kristen, who come to south central, without judgement or blame…..and give love and compassion, and their knowledge, freely, to help us learn how to, eat live and love, and become a family of unity. By bring us safety, so we are able to bring our emotions outside of our bodies, and start to heal completely…..body, soul and spirit….they have brought us moments of peace, inside and out. We love love yall so much…….helen and kids. In south central.

  • Dee TheProducer

    We learned a TON on what GMO’s are and why they’re so bad, check this out! http://www.blogtalkradio.com/ignoranceequation/2014/06/29/the-ignorance-equation-garbage-the-other-white-meat

Last modified: February 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm