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Businesses Growing in Iowa from Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute

The Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute convenes for the fourth time next week, and the program's alumni have already started several businesses around the state.

"One of the goals of the Okoboji Institute is to inspire young Iowans to build and grow businesses in their home state, and we're off to a good start in achieving that goal," said David Hensley, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at The University of Iowa and institute organizer.

First held in 2006, the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute brings eight students each from The University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa to learn about starting and developing a business. The program also brings four students each from Buena Vista University and Iowa Lakes Community College.

This year's Okoboji Institute will be held Aug. 9-14. The program is held at the Lakeside Lodge on the shores of West Lake Okoboji. The students attend class sessions, workshops, seminars, play a simulated business development game, make presentations before a panel of Iowa entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and hear about what it takes to build a business.

Several of those who've attended in the past took what they learned to start their own business. Shane Mairet attended the program in 2008 and graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in horticulture. He has since opened Mairet's Garden Center in Muscatine, which sells gardening supplies and locally grown produce.

"The Okoboji Institute gave me the extra boost of confidence I needed to take the leap into entrepreneurship," he said. "The program helps connect young entrepreneurs with experienced business owners, who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences with the students. The friendships that we formed were incredible, and I will never forget the people I met there."

John Slump and Jared Garfield also took what they learned at Okoboji and put it to work in their start-up, J&J Solutions. The pair has designed a drug dispensing system that keeps hazardous medications from coming in contact with people while the drugs are being prepared, administered, and disposed.

The two University of Iowa graduates are currently raising capital for the company, and recently received a $150,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Economic Development to take their device to the production stage.

"There were a lot of things we weren't sure of before we started the company, but the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute helped us to formulate a plan to address our questions," said Slump, who attended the institute with Garfield in 2007.

Grant Schultz said he was not only inspired by his Okoboji experience to start his business, but the network of friends and colleagues he built there is helping it grow.

"The Okoboji Institute has created a great network of Iowa entrepreneurs, many alums and sponsors keep in touch—and there have been quite a few collaborations among alumni," said Schultz, an Iowa State University graduate who started VersaLand, an agricultural land brokerage based in Cedar Falls.

As a result of those connections, Schultz and several other Okoboji alumni are starting a new business, FarmLease.com, an online platform for farm managers and landowners to exhibit cropland and recreational land for lease.

Among the Iowa business leaders scheduled to attend the institute are Tom Bedell, former CEO of Spirit Lake-based Pure Fishing; Mark Huston and Robert Heard of Cimarron Partners in Des Moines; and several northwest Iowa business leaders, including Bruce Tamiseia, Neal Conover, and Amy Zahradnik.


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