Aspiring professionals seeking sustainability careers have a veritable blank slate before them, a reality that can inspire more confusion than confidence in even the most seasoned intern. The prospect of entering a burgeoning field with the potential to save the world is certainly attractive, but the path to profitable green business can be elusive. Questions I usually hear include, “I want a green career, but which one?” Or more urgently, “How do I figure out how to make money?”

These inspired people have been bitten by the green bug. This bite can inject such unbridled enthusiasm into the bloodstream that it befuddles the brain. How does one gain enough clarity amidst the confusion to find a niche? How and to what exactly does the aspiring eco-preneur apply sustainability?

As I’ve found out, more and more students here at Cal Poly are demanding that their university provide them with the skills they will need to help build a better world. They are realizing that in order to have the knowledge and tools for the jobs they want in the 21st century, they’re going to have to integrate ideas of sustainability, ecology and social justice into whatever field they pursue. From business to biology, traditional fields of study are transforming to give students who want to make a difference the knowledge they’ll need to become part of the sustainability revolution. But this revolution is not like the ones that came before. It will not be characterized by weapons or singular voices, but with knowledge and cohesiveness; with educated agents of change, ready to fill the niches of the bright green revolution.

If you plan to someday run a company, particularly a products-oriented enterprise, roadmaps exist to guide you in going green. Methodologies such as The Natural Step provide a framework to integrate sustainability into every aspect of your business. However, if you are studying information technology engineering or even public relations, you need to be more innovative.

Sustainability is not merely in the output. For every finished green product, there are hundreds of processes behind the production, packaging, distribution, and marketing of that product. The demand for sustainable services is rapidly increasing in every sector. A company that engages in sustainability reporting using a framework such as the Global Reporting Initiative will be careful to scrutinize its suppliers upstream and downstream. Thousands of companies worldwide, including hundreds in the United States alone, seek sustainable suppliers and services professionals. This is the space that screams for green innovations.

IT and consulting services professionals can tap into tremendous opportunities by addressing the challenges that sustainability presents to various industries. Developing a concept for a data management system focused on a sustainable supply chain may not be as sexy as designing the latest electric sports car, but it is no less relevant in the scheme of green. In fact, discourse over environmental IT solutions has reached a critical mass, warranting its own news site, produced by GreenBiz,

Shallow sustainability focuses merely on the production and sale of green products. Sophisticated sustainability strategies rely on systems thinking, where every aspect of a process has the ability to affect every other aspect. What distinguishes whole-systems thinking is a keen awareness of the importance of interconnections, relationships, consequences and feedback loops. It involves a willingness to consider all significant aspects of an issue, and not to jump to appealing (but usually wrong) simplifications. Within this context, everyone can find a part to play in green business, even you accounting majors out there.

Steve Jobs said it best during his commencement speech at Stanford, “You’ve got to find what you love.” This becomes easier when you actually know what you like. You may love the idea of green business, but if you don’t like sales, then becoming a green retailer may not bring you happiness or success.

Anyone with a successful career has at some point taken an inventory of their skills and interests and funneled them into a position that pays. Turn what you are merely good at into a career you love by finding a way integrate sustainability into your area of expertise.

So answer these questions:

-What do you love to do that you’re also good at?
-What type of work environment is best for you (individual consulting firm, large company, etc.)?
-What industry do you have the greatest affinity?

Make a diagram of these relationships and consider how you might fit into the sustainability movement. Do informational interviews and ask people where your skills might be of value. And ask each person you interview to suggest 2-3 other people.

This is a process of self-discovery but it is well worth the time. When you find a way to express your deepest values in your work, you have a calling, not just a job.

Warning: It’s addictive. It may force you to make big changes in your life!

Research. Brainstorm. Develop your ideas. Once you have something that resembles a workable concept, conduct a feasibility study. Let your potential future clients be your guide. Before you know it, they will become co-creators in the process. The result could be a pioneering breakthrough or a proprietary tool that you can market to an entire industry.

Sustainability offers opportunities for future professionals from every discipline. Nobody has the market cornered on anything. If you could be sure the best applications for sustainability hadn’t yet been discovered, would that knowledge grant you the freedom to at least try? If you stay persistent in your passion, you’ll find your niche and maybe even the next great idea. Now get to the drawing board. What in the world are you waiting for?

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