The existential entrepreneur

Flickr photo by Ian Collins

Getting a job has never been easy for me.

I haven’t quite figured out why that is. Perhaps it’s bad timing in the economic cycle. Or maybe I don’t have the skills or education that easily place me in a traditional role. I prefer to think something fundamentally inherent in my character and makeup: I’m more excited by the prospect of creating something new versus filling an existing job. And I don’t think I’m alone — many graduates are out there looking for a job that reflects the values and principles of sustainability they have grown passionate about during their studies, and coming to the realization that this job may not actually exist.

This may be especially true for those seeking a “green job,” or a job that reflects an integrated approach to sustainability, because many of these jobs simply haven’t been invented yet.

But there is a silver lining for those of us who find the job search akin to fitting a round peg in a square hole. Where there is a gap there is an opportunity for growth, so why not harness your inner entrepreneur and invent the job you want to have?

While you may not immediately self-identify as an entrepreneur, chances are you hold many of the traits that pick one out of a crowd. When you are in the middle of a job interview, do you find your mind wandering to that groundbreaking idea for a business you’ve been mulling over? Do you find your thrills while planning and talking about new business ideas? Do you stay up at night dreaming about what that “big idea” could be, what the company could look like and what it might be named? If you answered “yes” to a few of these, you might just be an entrepreneur.

And this is good news. The reality is that much of green business growth is being driven by entrepreneurs—people who have caught sight of a business opportunity of the future before the rest of the market has. And that’s because green markets are growing fast, and the future opportunity is larger than ever before, so it requires an entrepreneur’s forward-looking insight to really comprehend the potential of the idea.

While certain sectors like solar and wind are already mainstream, many others in the green economy have yet to take hold. Next-generation biofuels, electricity storage, electric vehicles and smart grids are examples of inascent sectors whose potential has not been fully expressed in the marketplace. This is also true, I believe, of many non-technological business opportunities. Consumer goods, financial services, advertising, new media and communications will all see an explosion of new green business ideas in the future.

If you have the desire, and are willing to do what it takes and put up with the inevitable hassles and challenges that come with running your own business, you should consider the option of starting one. Though tremendously difficult and exhausting, the pay-offs are equally exhilarating.

If you choose this route, here is some advice to get you started.

First, just because others say it cannot be done does not mean it cannot be done. But you have to listen to them anyway.

Whenever you pitch a new idea, you will get a much longer list of why it cannot be done than why it can. And indeed, if it were obvious or easy, it would have been done by now. But heed the advice. Satisfying those concerns is important because you will run up against them again and again when you raise money, hire people or pitch to customers. The ability to listen to the objections without folding and walking away from the idea is a critical balancing act.

My second piece of advice is to write a plan, even if it’s just for your own use. Not only will it help get your idea straight in your mind, but it will also help get you feedback and advice, along with confirmation that your idea is a good one.

Finally, surround yourself with intelligent advisors and get them engaged.

These should be people you trust, but not necessarily your friends. Above all, they need to be people who have a good business sense and who are also willing to tell you what you may not want to hear. They will also be the ones to help you through the challenging times and keep you focused on your ultimate goals.

With a good idea, a written plan and good advisors, you’re well on your way to realizing your entrepreneurial aspirations. There will be many more challenges to face, of course, and each step of the journey will have its own obstacles, but at least you’ll be pointed in the right direction.

The entrepreneurial route is certainly not for everyone, however, and many find it impractical to take the financial risks that usually accompany a start-up venture. If this is the case for you, don’t despair—you still have promising options to pursue your ideas in green business.

Getting involved with an early-stage business that has some history, customers and a good track record can be the perfect incubator for sustainability innovation. Seek out companies that have received venture funding, which means they have some capital to invest, and try to set up a meeting. Since these companies are typically not doing formal job searches, taking the initiative may be the only way to uncover these diamonds in the rough. To narrow your parameters, try identifying a particular industry you are interested in, and begin to attend related trade shows and conferences. Over time, you will build up your connections and put yourself on an inside track for job opportunities.

Of course, these strategies take time and investment—luxuries not available to everyone. For you, being part of the solution may mean working from within a more traditional job, Trojan Horse style. This is an often-overlooked way to create change, but it is no less effective, especially if you are comfortable working within large organizations. Look out for companies that are actively recruiting positive change agents—in a company’s corporate social responsibility department, for example. No matter what your tactic, by helping your company improve its environmental performance and become more competitive, you will be performing a great service to the company and to the world.

I like to refer to those who create change from within a company as intrapreneurs. This approach can be monumentally effective because the large companies often have the resources and clout to get things done. But intrapreneurship is not for the faint of heart. Working from within an organization requires careful thought and strategy into building the necessary support and infrastructure for change. Volunteering for your company’s sustainability committee, or starting up such a group, is the kind of action that can quickly set you apart and put you a position to innovate for sustainability. Remember: patience is a virtue. You aren’t likely to change an established company overnight, but the energy and input to create positive change will be fruitful in the long run. Larger companies are like super-tankers; it can take a long time to get them to change direction, but when they do, they are more committed to the course.

So don’t be jaded by the tortoise pace of the green job market – harness your revolutionary spirit and set a new pace by leading the way with your own ideas. Whether you choose the path of an entrepreneur starting a new green business from scratch, or plant yourself as an intrapreneur working to influence and change a corporation from within, there is some commonality to the quest: you have to be bold and you have to let your best ideas drive you. In the end, your success will be determined by the quality and effective communication of your ideas. If you focus on those two factors, you can indeed be the master of your own domain, and be the change you want to see in the world.

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