Stephen Chen, formerly of Bear Stearns, shows off a pair of sandals made from recycled tires, sold through his new company, GreenSoul Shoes.
Stephen Chen, formerly of Bear Stearns, shows off a pair of sandals made from recycled tires, sold through his new company, GreenSoul Shoes. Adrian Mueller/SwissPress
Will and Rachel Haughey stand at the site of her planned coffee shop in Darien, Conn. He formerly worked at Goldman Sachs; she was a hedge fund analyst.
Will and Rachel Haughey stand at the site of her planned coffee shop in Darien, Conn. He formerly worked at Goldman Sachs; she was a hedge fund analyst. Jim Zarroli/NPR
Over the past year or so, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs on Wall Street. Many were highly paid analysts, traders and investment bankers. And with the downturn in the financial services industry, it has been hard for them to find work. But some have found creative solutions.
Stephen Chen pushes some boxes around his tiny Manhattan office looking for a place to sit. Then he perches on the edge of a desk and takes out a pair of dark rubber sandals. They're "100 percent recycled post-consumer use" sandals made out of tires, Chen says.
Chen, 26, is a partner at a company called GreenSoul Shoes. He's scrupulously polite, though he stops to look at his BlackBerry every chance he gets. Chen grew up in the Bronx — a math wiz who went to Brown. He later landed a job at Bear Stearns. He loved the intense competition of the place, and he would have stayed, but then one weekend last year, Bear Stearns collapsed.
"It was a sort of wake-up call for me personally," he says. "We were always known as the folks that worked twice as hard and put in twice as many hours as other investment banks. And so it was kind of sad to see a really great institution falter like that."
Chen could have looked for another job on Wall Street, but fate intervened. He ran into a friend, Iris Chau, who had just lost her job at JPMorgan Chase after 11 years. She says when you lose a job, you go through a kind of emotional shift.
"It's really interesting because you finally get a chance to stop — almost like stopping time — and sit down and figuring out what is your passions and what do you want to do in the next 10 years from now," she says.
What she and Chen decided to do is start a business. The idea came from Chau's husband, Alastair Onglingswan, who had recently visited Manila and toured the city's notorious dumps, where old tires are stacked as far as the eye can see.
Onglingswan thought, why not hire local residents to collect the rubber so it can be recycled and made into shoes?
A little more than a year later, GreenSoul sells a line of sandals over the Internet. The company hopes to sell a million pairs of shoes a year by 2014.
For Chau and Chen, the world of entrepreneurship has taken some getting used to. Chau says that at JPMorgan Chase, she had a huge corporation with vast resources to support her. Now it's just the three of them doing everything. Then there's money: No more fat Wall Street bonuses.
"We're not currently paying ourselves," Chen says. "I've been pretty savvy with how much I've saved, which means I should be fine for a while, and by a while I mean probably like six, eight months."
But the potential rewards are huge — and not just in the monetary sense. At JPMorgan Chase, Chau helped design software that would be used by analysts to write research reports to help salespeople close deals. She felt far removed from the product's end result. Now she's making shoes you can touch and hold — shoes that she and her partners hope other people will want to wear.
Still, she knows that new businesses are notoriously prone to failure, and even the best-laid plans can fall apart.
It's a lesson Rachel Haughey, 26, could teach her.
She unlocks the door of an empty store she has leased near the train station in Darien, Conn. It's where she hopes to open her first coffee shop this summer. As excited as she is, things haven't turned out exactly as she and her husband planned. They figured Will would quit his job at Goldman Sachs to start a business with his brother and Rachel would support them with her job as a hedge fund analyst
"I was to have the stable job, the stable income, which now is just laughable thinking about the fact that I was working at a hedge fund and we thought that was stable," Rachel says.
Last Halloween, Rachel lost her job. Now both she and Will are starting new businesses at the same time. Will, who is 27, has a toy company called tegu.com that sells magnetized building blocks. And Rachel has this coffee shop. Neither expects to make money anytime soon. Will says they've had to scale way back on expenses.
"I'm a capitalist at heart, and I believe in the power of the market," he says. "And we sort of had to come to terms with accepting unemployment insurance. But the truth is that it's really serving its purpose. It's given us the breathing room to actually take a chance, to do the homework, to do the research and to prepare for something that we might not have otherwise been able to do."
Will says this part of Connecticut has been walloped by the recession, and people regularly tell them they're crazy to launch businesses now. And yet the Haugheys don't seem to have any regrets.
"We're young," he says, " ... and we sort of felt we had plenty of time to face the worst-case scenario of failure, entrepreneurial failure, and kind of happily move on from that having had some good experiences."
Will says he keeps in touch with his old friends at Goldman Sachs and sometimes misses his job there. But, like a lot of people, the Haugheys try to look forward, not back. Wall Street has turned a page, and so too must they.