By B.L. Ochman
Dear What’s Next Blog readers: This is the first in a series of posts about Polymaths – people who are richly gifted and are successful in more than one career. I will share these interviews with you on an occasional basis.
New Yorker Tod Emko is a computer programmer, biodiversity and environmental activist, co-founder of a successful charitable organization, cartoonist, author and photographer, a board member of Lotus Elephant Sanctuary and a crew member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. And he’s just getting started.
He also is determined to change the world and he’s made a start as co-founder and director of the charitable foundation, Darwin Animal Doctors, which provides comprehensive veterinary care for the animals of the Galapagos Islands.
Born in Syracuse, NY, Emko says he was a nerd who’d write computer programs with his brother and dream of rescuing a lot of animals when he grew up. He had no childhood pets, but loved all animals.
His parents wanted him to be a doctor like his cousins, uncles and aunts. “My cousin, who was first in her class at Yale and had a PhD, was the black sheep of the family because she didn’t have a medical degree yet.” She did become a doctor and also married one.
Emko became a computer programmer, which was an easy way to create a career because he has always excelled in math and science. “It was never my passion,” he says, “but it has a future and there are always jobs available.”
Saving the world
He’s had a series of tech jobs, from web development to content creation and design. He wrote a computer book, “Vault Guide to Technology Careers,” which is still sold on Amazon. But no matter what he did, he always longed to experience something more creative. “I wanted to save the world.”
He applied to be a crew member for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a worldwide marine anti-poaching group that goes to Antarctica each year to stop the killing of whales. He accepted a job as a ship’s communications officer – although he knew absolutely nothing about radar or navigation. He quit his job, bought his ticket, and left for Antarctica the next day. “I thought: how could I possibly say no to that!”
“I learned on the job. I’m glad we didn’t get lost.” They did get attacked with grenades and water canons by the Japanese whaling fleet. “We didn’t expect that,” he says in his understated way.
Sea Shepherd soon needed his help in the Galapagos. While there, he realized that there were thousands of homeless dogs and cats, putting extreme pressure on the fragile ecosystem of the islands. Many of the animals were ill. He began raising funds to build an animal hospital, with his fellow crew member, Andrea Gordon.
On the job learning
“I knew nothing about fund-raising, he says, “I just did it.” He bootstrapped the organization with the funds he raised and donations from friends and soon had a one-room hospital staffed by a local vet. Then another vet joined them, and they went door to door offering animal health care.
When government of Galapagos heard about their work, they were invited to start treating every populated island in the Galapagos, without pay. “It sort of evolved and we started figuring out how to run an organization as we went along. Now we’ve collected an amazing set of volunteers and amazing friends who’ve worked in NGOs and who have guided us in how to be a 501C3.”
Emko now spends an average of one to three months in Galapagos each year. Sometimes he has to change jobs when he wants to take a four-month trip, he says, but “tech jobs are pretty abundant right now, so I just find another.”
He recently combined the Darwin Animal Doctors’ work with his life-long desire to be a cartoonist. He wrote a cartoon feature, “A Piggy’s Tale,” and raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter to develop it into a series of books and a mobile game. It stars his real-life three-legged dog, Piggy, and his pal Simon the cat, rescue people and animals in need, saving them from evildoers or even their own sorrow. Emko also created the website that accompanies the project.
How does he do it all? “Coffee!” There’s not much time for sleep, he said, but he has “amazing volunteers” who are veterinary students and practicing vets, as well as people who live in Galapagos. “We couldn’t do any of this without them.”
Follow your most outlandish dreams
As a child, Emko says he had no particular mentor, but looked to fantasy for inspiration. Dr Who, Sulu from Star Trek and people who were trying to save the world became his heroes, he says.
After having seen the world and all the wonderful people and animals in it, he still really wants to save the world. “You can never rest if that’s your goal,” he says, “and there’s still so much left to do.”
Knowing what he knows now, he says, his advice to young people is “start on your dreams earlier. The world puts so many expectations on you and it’s hard to narrow down what you want to do. The sooner you start following your most outlandish dreams. The sooner you will get to what you really want to do.”