A millennial's math on compensation

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I graduated from business school with roughly $200,000 of debt and a choice. I could manage investments in the family office of one of the world’s top hedge funds or I could take a job at the Connecticut Green Bank. The difference in salary and bonus was, to put it mildly, appreciable. I chose the Green Bank.

For the (many) people who measure the worth of a job by its paycheck, my choice is mystifying. They rationalize my decision as the admirable, perhaps naïve, pursuit of meaningful work: I’m a public servant. I’m helping society. I feel good about what I do. Yes, this is all true, but such assessments are incomplete for three reasons. First, they conflate a job with a career. Second, they oversimplify the math on compensation. Third, they ignore a fundamental shift underway in the business community: The idea that we have to choose between "doing good" for the world and "doing well" for ourselves is increasingly misguided.

My decision to join the Green Bank was personal, of course, but it reflects a wider transition within the market. Here are three key considerations for employees building their careers and employers looking to recruit top talent.

The difference between a career and a job

The basic assumption, especially pervasive in business school, is that reputable private-sector institutions are ideal for honing skills; two years of work experience at a brand-name firm, regardless of the actual work being done, will carry the rest of your career. Given this assumption, my situation merits the career equivalent of a sympathetic pat on the back. Surely, I must be at a competitive disadvantage.

In fact, the opposite is true.

At the Green Bank, I’m one of a seven-person finance team. I analyze, structure and make investment decisions on clean energy-related projects. These decisions contribute significantly to the direction and performance of our $130 million fund. While classmates at large financial institutions are getting a high-pressure, repetitive education in a handful of skills, I’m assuming far more responsibility than I thought possible two years out of school.

Responsibility aside, the work itself is inherently more complex. By definition, a traditional private capital investor wants to maximize risk-adjusted returns, and that’s part of what I do at the Green Bank. But, as an impact-related business, we must balance more than one variable, which means more complexity, which means more learning, which often means long-term career payoff. The income I’m passing up at the Green Bank is compensated for by exposure.

Factor in the happiness quotient

Numbers don’t tell the full story, and they often obscure the facts. Consider the simplest case: is a wage of $75 or $100 better? The answer is obvious unless you fold time into the equation: what if two hours are needed to earn $100 but only one hour to earn $75?

Though a simplistic example, the point stands: Time is one of many factors that subtly inflate or deflate the value of a dollar earned. How should stress and anxiety affect our assessment of an offer letter? Or, as in my case, what about the critical availability of loan forgiveness for alternative career choices?

Not only are these considerations absent in the headline of a job offer, but intangibles such as happiness and wellbeing are, too. How does love or aversion for a job influence the importance of a salary?

I enjoy what I do. My office, of course, can be stressful, but my work — and all that it represents — makes me a happier person. My colleagues and even external counterparties tend to feel the same, which compounds the happiness quotient. It’s been shown time and again that quite a few indirect health and wellness benefits flow from a happy workplace, which means I may even live longer at the Green Bank than I would have at the hedge fund. Lifespan benefits weren’t written into my contract.

Making a difference alongside making money

According to a survey out of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, and the Global Network for Advanced Management, all else being equal, 44 percent of business school students are willing to accept lower salaries to work at sustainably minded companies. Nearly one-fifth said that they would refuse to work at a company with bad environmental performance. The survey polled 29 business schools on five continents and responses across this broad geography proved remarkably consistent. This is the landscape companies face when competing in the war for talent.

Such behavior indicates a fundamental shift in the way that students identify and value career-related benefits beyond a paycheck — benefits that often pay positive social dividends. Carving out a path that uses the powerful tools found in business to create positive social impact no longer means settling for a second-rate career.

Roughly six months after joining the Green Bank, we closed a $100 million deal with a private capital partner to deploy renewable and energy efficiency projects across commercial, industrial, nonprofit and multifamily properties. The program was designed to benefit both property owners and investors. Structuring the deal, and continuing to underwrite and place new projects into the program, has been a complex, educational and innovative boon to society. 

Yes, I chose to work at the Green Bank instead of a hedge fund. Yes, I make less in salary and bonus than I could have. Yes, my current job, in name, may carry less prestige. But salary and bonus are just two among many job-related considerations, and the prestige of a single job should not be confused with the success of a career. My current position is an investment, and so far the returns have been beyond my wildest expectation.