A million dollars or a million otters? Should I take a big pay cut to help the planet?

Marisa Messina had a big tech salary. Now she taking a pay cut to work for "ocean justice."
(Via Marisa Messina)

Marisa Messina had a plumb job in Seattle’s tech industry after she graduated from Stanford University. Now, six years and a Stanford MBA later, she realizes her passion is environmentalism. She thinks she can use her skills to make a difference. But she’s shocked at the low salaries offered. She wonders what it means for our world when serving the planet is not financially sustainable.

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I still remember the phone call during my senior year of college at Stanford when the recruiter from Microsoft offered me a job. I had to ask him to repeat the salary amount several times because it sounded so staggeringly large I figured it had to be a mistake.

I’d never really considered myself a techie. But I was excited about the opportunity to learn professional skills at a reputable company, and I liked the idea of earning enough money to pay off debts and start saving. I imagined myself subsisting on ramen and squirreling away cash until I found a passion to put all my savings toward.

It’s now more than six years later, and I’ve found that passion. Or rather, it has found me.

I’m living in a world that’s hotter, drier and smokier than it was when I left undergrad, and I can’t ignore nature’s pleas any longer.

I used to forage for chanterelle and bolete mushrooms on the weekends during my years at Microsoft (and later Amazon). The Seattle area’s perpetual rain made an excellent mushroom habitat. But when I went back in September to visit, I found the hillsides transformed by wildfire. No mushrooms, just ash.

I’ve been working as a part-time kayaking guide on Elkhorn Slough while I finish business school at Stanford. Kayaking has exposed me to more climate struggles. The sea stars that used to be abundant in the slough are now largely absent, having fallen prey to a disease called sea star wasting syndrome — a virus made more virulent as the water temperature has warmed in recent years.

It’s clear we need to put brainpower toward keeping our planet healthy. I’m eager to contribute and I’ve started researching jobs in the environmental realm.

I found a role focused on climate change and plastics that looks like a hand-in-glove fit given my environmental passion, my upbringing as part of a family company that manufactured plastic packaging, and my years of project leadership at a couple of Fortune 20 organizations.

Marisa Messina has an MBA from Stanford and wants to work to save the planet.
Marisa Messina has an MBA from Stanford and wants to work to save the planet.
(Via Marisa Messina)

But the salary listed is troubling. It’s half what I was earning when I left Amazon to start business school.

Many of my MBA peers talk about their upcoming roles in fields like consulting and finance, which come with mind-blowing paychecks of something like half a million dollars annually. Conversations frequently center around the pay bump that having an MBA confers.

I’ve already been blessed with a salary that far surpassed my early career expectations, thanks to the way product managers in big tech are compensated. I’ve been putting away some savings.

I’m lucky — I don’t need to select my post-MBA job wholly on the basis of salary.

But I still need to pay rent and buy groceries, and it’s hard to imagine taking a substantial pay cut from my pre-business school salary. Even if I’m doing work I care about, California’s cost of living is high. If I took a job that fulfills my passion — director of ocean justice, for example — I’d likely not be able to save. I’d still be eating ramen — which is laughably counterproductive given the abundance of plastic packaging around those noodles.

Marisa Messina, an MBA student at Stanford, wanted to be a surfer, but could never quite get vertical on her board. She...

It’s an odd crossroads. Either make money commensurate with my peers and save enough to contribute money to environmental issues once I retire, or make a pittance and contribute energy and expertise right now. The problem is that the former scenario assumes that things won’t get so bad during the next 30 years as to be irreparable when I’m retiring.

Marisa Messina used to go mushroom-hunting in Seattle.
(Via Marisa Messina)

I don’t think that’s a reasonable assumption.

So I guess my path forward is clear after all: work my butt off to try to help slow the earth’s catapult into catastrophe. Burn through the savings from my tech jobs to survive on the salary that this climate career entails.

As exhausting and undercompensated as it sounds, I feel fortunate I have this option. I know my financial situation is the exception, not the rule.

How many other smart people are out there, passionate and willing to help combat climate change, but not able to afford it?

The question is painfully ironic because soon, all those higher-paying jobs will be producing stuff for a world that’s falling apart too quickly for its inhabitants to consume. It’s tough to slow the environmental disaster when work in the sustainability space looks more like volunteerism or is available to be undertaken only by the 1%.

How can we expect meaningful change to be made in saving our planet when we won’t pay meaningful money to make it happen?

Marisa Messina is an avid outdoorswoman who loves bringing people and nature closer together. Currently earning her Master of Business Administration at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (where she’s focusing on sustainable business), Marisa spends her non-class hours working as a fellow for an early-stage venture capital fund, guiding tours with Kayak Connection, exploring new hiking trails and listening to the ocean. Her previous piece for Lookout, “I failed at surfing, but Elkhorn Slough’s otters changed my life,” appeared in September.

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