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Jeremy Wilhelm

Defining moments.

They sound big, don't they?

Big and loud.

Moments that say: 'Life change headed your way.'

But they are quiet, and usually only seen with hindsight.

Jeremy Wilhelm is not even 35, but he's had his share.

His biggest was more like a defining 30 seconds, during a round table board meeting of a new renewable fuels company based in California.

Wilhelm was leading the meeting, when, 15 minutes in, the board member with an MBA from Harvard looked at Wilhelm and told the farm kid from Unadilla, Nebraska:

"You don't have the pedigree to lead this company."

Wilhelm has often thought of how he could have responded; he pictured elegant prose and witty comebacks.

But he's glad he chose these simple words.

"Watch me."

The comment was motivation, like something an athlete hangs in the back of his locker to focus before a big game.

When the dust settled, he had successfully led one of the largest private equity rounds in the renewable fuels industry, raising over $200 million from investors like Virgin Fuels, E-Bay and the Yucaipa Companies and securing another $200 million in loans.

The company, Cilion, was recently named one of the Top 100 Companies Going Green in the world. 

And Wilhelm and the board member work together just fine now.

Wilhelm's defining moments go all the way back to a morning of his youth, when the little boy in the seed corn cap walked into the Unadilla bank with his father and knew that he wanted to someday be part of the world of finance, with its big numbers and bigger stakes.

Choosing Doane was a defining moment, too. Faculty and academics gave him the real-world basis for his career. He had the chance to play tight end on one of the best football team's in Doane's history, to become a two-time Academic All American and a double-major cum laude graduate.

Not long after graduation, a fellow Doane graduate told him "You really ought to talk with (another Doane graduate) at U.S. Bank."

Wilhelm did and he started his climb, from banks to Farm Credit Services to co-founder of Cilion.

And don't forget the moment when he looked at the fledgling ethanol industry and decided -- even though oil cost about $10 a barrel -- that ethanol was an important and profitable part of the future.

He logged thousands of road miles through numerous states and was the main reason Farm Credit Services financed 40 percent of the ethanol industry as it began its boom.

It all led up to the day a man on the receiving end of a Farm Credit loan asked Wilhelm to become co-founder of a new California-based company, a company with a mission to "be a part of the solution" to America's fossil fuel addiction.

Two years later, the company is like Wilhelm's second child and he can't wait to see what it's going to do in the world. Cilion has built and invested in ethanol plants across the nation, plants that generate their own electricity, use 33 percent less natural gas and leave a much lighter carbon footprint than their counterparts.

He predicts ethanol will be a springboard to better fuels of the future.

Sustainable, renewable, environmentally superior fuels.

It may be switchgrass. It may be algae.

It may be neither.

It might be only two-to-five years away.

Wilhelm's best advice for students standing on the brink of their own defining moments?

Stay grounded in your roots but get out of your comfort zone.

Embrace new ideas and work really, really hard.

The best advice for those who may work with Wilhelm someday?

Don't tell him he can't do something.