Allison Friedman, 34, was running her own restaurant in Brookline, Mass., when she had an epiphany. "For five years, it was enough for me to work hard, make a living and have a good time," she says. "But there was a fourth concept missing, and that was doing some social good." So Friedman sold her restaurant, a Southwestern chili house, went to business school and eventually founded the Web site rateitgreen.com, dedicated to helping consumers and businesses find ecofriendly building materials and services.
Like Friedman, many people feel torn between their careers and their inclinations toward public service. But as Americans grow more savvy about helping the environment, organizations and services are popping up to help workers bridge that gap. "We get this question from a lot of people," says Kevin Doyle, coauthor of "The ECO Guide to Careers that Make a Difference" and president of the work-force development firm Green Economy, Inc. "They want to have their daily work make a difference."
Whether you want to stay in your current job and green your workplace or make a radical career shift, there are a number of steps you can take. The more conservative-minded can start by enlisting colleagues to form a list of goals for their office. "Whether you're a secretary, a bookkeeper or a senior executive, you can take actions to make your institution greener," says Doyle. Ideas include buying ecofriendly office supplies (see thegreenoffice.com), asking your company to buy carbon offsets for corporate travel and pushing for more opportunities to work from home so fewer employees have to commute on a daily basis (for more ideas, see treehugger.com).
If small steps in your current job don't bring satisfaction, consider finding an ecofriendly subspecialty. "There's a group of people in each field who are working to make their profession more green," says Doyle. Architects, engineers and urban planners can visit the U.S. Green Building Council's usgbc.org, which describes its certification course and lists other helpful resources. Those who work in the travel industry can join the International Ecotourism Society (ecotourism.org). People in any field can surf idealist.org, which lists jobs and volunteer opportunities with a wide variety of socially responsible organizations.
If you're ready to switch professions, a number of universities offer midcareer programs in subjects like conservation biology and environ-mental management. Sandra Lauterbach worked as a management consultant for eight years before enrolling in Columbia University's certificate program in conservation biology (cerc.columbia.edu). "I was looking for something I could be really passionate about," she says. She now works as a senior analyst specializing in sustainable investments at AIG Global Investment Group.
Deborah Spalding, 41, decided to earn a master's in forestry from Yale University (environment.yale.edu) after having twin boys four years ago. "I started thinking, what kind of world are they going to inherit?" says the Guilford, Conn.-based hedge-fund manager. While Spalding, who graduated last month, hasn't switched careers, she's incorporating her degree into her everyday work, trying to prove that companies can turn a profit from responsible environmental practices.
Of course, you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on tuition to make a career switch. Friedman, who completed two internships at environmental organizations before starting her new company, recommends that people volunteer, take an entry-level job or enroll in an evening course to make contacts and refine their interests. Then, be prepared for tough questions from friends and family. "It helps to be comfortable taking risks and being ready to deal with disapproval," she says. For Friedman and many others, that risk has already paid off.