We co-hosted a cleantech/student mixer this week, and I had the opportunity to speak with an impressive number of students from local colleges and universities.  They ranged from first-year engineering students to graduate students pursuing joint degrees across two universities. To a person, their energy, enthusiasm, curiosity and drive were visible and contagious.  If I weren’t already drinking the cleantech Kool Aid, I’d be a convert after meeting them.

I moderated a panel conversation with three great participants: Scott Kirsner of The Boston Globe (@ScottKirsner), Jon Karlen of Flybridge Capital Partners (@jektweet), and Jessica Townsend, Assistant Professor from Olin College (@thermoprof) discussing the roles of students in cleantech. We discussed whether students’ inexperience is a disadvantage or hidden asset, how to leverage student status, and more.  In all of the panel discussion, it was clear that students have great opportunities to begin entrepreneurial careers.

While talking to students throughout the night, the most common question was, “How do I become an entrepreneur?”  There’s no set path to becoming an entrepreneur.  You just have to go for it.

If you have an idea you’re passionate about and think it might at least be able to cover your living expenses, I’d advise you to just get started.  Don’t worry about trying to start the next A123 or EnerNOC.  What you need at the start of your career are some formative experiences.  There is no better way to learn what is involved in bringing a product to market and building a company than actually doing it.  You will learn a tremendous amount about your skills, shortcomings, blind spots, areas for growth and where you shine.  And, if you’ve been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, the itch probably isn’t going to go away.

Not quite ready to do your own thing?  There’s nothing wrong with starting your career in a bigger company where you’ll have a chance to learn some valuable skills.  Ideally, find a job where you won’t get pigeonholed too tightly. Make sure you have a chance to learn about different parts of a business and, particularly, have a chance to work with customers. Some of the most valuable lessons I learned in business came from my time in Sales, so I would also suggest learning what it’s like trying to get a customer to part with their money while you face quarter-ending quota pressure. That gives you a real appreciation of a value proposition!

In addition to picking a job, try to hire a good boss. Don’t just focus on what you’ll be doing, but make sure you can learn from someone who can be a longer-term mentor for you.  Working for a great boss can make a mundane job still feel interesting. And, working for a horrible boss can ruin even the best job.  This can also be the start of some great business networking as you leverage your boss’s contacts as well as her experience. All of this will be valuable when you make the move to strike out on your own.

Panelists also pointed out that students should make the most of having a student ID. You have great access to people and resources and a license to learn inside the classroom and beyond.  Most people are happy to help students with projects, career advice, networking, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask!

The mixer attendees’ passion for sustainability and applying their agile brains to the challenges facing the world were truly impressive.  It was great to meet the people I did, and I wish I could have met everyone there.  Next time.

In the meantime, thank you to everyone who attended – students and panelists – and to our co-hosts and friends at CHEN PR, who recently blogged about the mixer, too.