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Second Act: Putting Street Smarts to Work

Luanne Zurlo, from Wall Street to philanthropy.

Excerpt from the new AARP book, Crash Course in Finding the Work You Love: The Essential Guide to Reinventing Your Life.

For more than 10 years, I worked as a securities analyst on Wall Street.  I spent time at Smith Barney, CSFB, and Goldman Sachs, managing Latin American equity research.  For much of that time, I loved the job. It was a perfect fit for my skill set and personality, it paid very well, and the benefits and perks were extraordinary.  The work was intense—especially in the 1990’s as emerging markets were opening up and taking off.

Then came the dot-com meltdown and 9/11. It was obvious to me that the party was over.  I also realized that I had drifted away from my original passion, which was to make a difference in the lives of people in developing nations.  My father worked for a pharmaceutical company, so I had group up in different places around the world.  I received an international orientation at a young age.  Later I earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Dartmouth, then a master’s degree in international affairs from Johns Hopkins. I spent a year teaching in Spain on a volunteer basis and began to feel a desire to do something that revolved around development.  My earlier travels in Latin America, for example, had shown me the abysmally low quality of education there: Huge numbers of people were functionally illiterate, leaving them unable to participate in today’s global economy.

But then I decided to attend Columbia Business School instead. There I earned an M.B.A. in finance and accounting. Afterward, somewhat serendipitously, I wound up on Wall Street.  One day at Goldman Sachs, I looked at my bonus check and realized that my total income for the year was somewhere around $1 million.

According to the rest of the world’s perception, I should have felt on top of the world.  But I didn’t feel that way—I felt kind of depressed. Is money all there is to life?, I recall wondering. Somewhat belatedly, I realized that I desperately needed to reprioritize my objectives.

I left Goldman Sachs on July 2, 2002. By December I had incorporated a new not-for-profit organization, Worldfund, which supports education and worked out of my apartment in New York City, and it just grew from there.

Today our annual operating budget is approximately $5 million, and we have a staff of seven people. And this may sound formulaic, but had I known back then how tough it would be to make this organization work, I might never have tried to do so. I lived off my savings and did without a salary for the first couple of years. I pulled together every scrap of knowledge and experience I had gathered in the business world. There were a couple of points where our cash flow was so low we almost didn’t make it.  But we managed to grow, and now I feel as though we’re making a significant impact.  It’s possible to see the tangible results of our efforts: We are directly affecting the lives of children.

As the executive director of Worldfund, I’ve had to grow a Teflon carapace and not take everything personally. I hear the word “no” all day long, but it doesn’t undermine the positive things we are doing. When I first started out, I found myself riding an emotional roller coaster; the highs were great, but the lows were awful.  Now I just try to stay on mission and keep an even approach. Still, it is incredibly up lifting to travel to Latin America and watch our efforts toke shape and improve lives. I love interacting with the people—that’s what really recharges me.

I’m hoping to build Worldfund into a $10 million-a-year organization. I feel it has the potential to become a major NGO. One of my biggest challenges—and not an uncommon one in the nonprofit world—is encouraging the organization to grow beyond its founder. I don’t want Worldfund to be “The Luanne Zurlo Show.”  At some point, we may need to bring in a more experienced leader.  When that day comes, I’ll be willing to accept it. The cause is more important than my ego.  (I’m a practicing Catholic; without some kind of calling, or a feeling that there’s more to life than the material world, I can’t imagine exchanging a career on Wall Street for the problems of the developing world.)

I’ve never been one to develop a five- or 10-year plan. So even though I can’t imagine doing this for the rest of my life, right now I am doing what I love.  I feel as though I’ve been endowed with the skills and personality to help Worldfund develop, grow, perhaps even flourish.

This is the place where I can add the greatest value. I consider myself fortunate to have discovered my identity.