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Students Get a Taste of the Real World in Business Boot Camp

John Slump and Jared Garfield say their route to startup success started at summer camp.

The training they received and connections they made at the weeklong Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute in Spirit Lake a few years ago have brought their medical device startup Corvida Medical to where it is today.

Slump and Garfield have started to pitch the Coralville business to potential investors, a skill they were able to hone in front of actual business owners and investors at Okoboji.

“It was easily the best week of college,” said Garfield, who attended Okoboji as a junior in 2008, one year after Slump attended. “There are so many opportunities presented each day.”

The pair returned to Okoboji this month to talk to 32 handpicked college students from across the state about their journey. After just four years as a company, Corvida has earned high praise as it pursues a device that will make handling hazardous medications easier for nurses and other health care workers.

Slump and Garfield’s appearance and willingness to give back is precisely the goal of youth entrepreneurship programs like Okoboji. The institute is just one example of a renewed statewide effort to encourage entrepreneurship, spearheaded by the state and John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

The Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship runs two summer camps, one in Iowa City and one in Des Moines, for students entering seventh, eighth and ninth grades. In addition, the Pappajohn center hosts a small business competition every year, rewarding prizes to students who submit the best business plans.

Okoboji tries to give students on the verge of starting a business the final nudge necessary to take the plunge.

Students from three universities and two local colleges were put in teams and run through a computer simulation that hands them a fictional business to run. Along the way, they mingle with successful business owners and other influential people in Iowa’s entrepreneurial scene.

Midweek, the student teams pitch their fictional ventures to area business owners and investors, who grill them to simulate the experience of pitching a real business.

Students’ claims, such as “We have the best product,” do not go unchallenged. This direct approach helps both student and business owner learn a little bit about each other at the institute. That interaction can lead to future assistance, Slump said.

“A lot of the relationships we started at Okoboji, those are the same people who have opened up a lot of doors for us,” he said.

To attend Okoboji, students must write an essay that tells committee members about a workable business they want to pursue after college.

Several entities, including the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corp., work together to coordinate the institute.

The effort started in 2006, when officials from the Iowa Lakes region, in the far northwest part of the state, wanted to interact with the state’s entrepreneurial scene.

David Hensley, executive director of John Pappajohn’s University of Iowa center, said Okoboji has succeeded in part because entrepreneurs, host families, government officials and others have bought into the program.

“People here, they really care about the community,” Hensley said at this year’s workshop, which ran Aug. 5 to 10. “They care about these young people, and they want to do what they can to help them be successful.”

Throughout the week, students attend workshops in nearby Milford at Lakeside Laboratory, a 103-year-old campus owned by the state and run by the state’s Board of Regents as a field research station.

Government officials and successful business owners take turns encouraging students and telling them their success stories, while imparting some advice.

This year, Gary Smith, the fourth-generation president and CEO of Sioux City-based popcorn company Jolly Time, met with the students privately following a keynote address during lunch.

“You have a CEO of a huge company, talking adult to adult to them,” Hensley said. “It gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment and readies them for what’s coming.”

While Smith imparted business advice to the class, one of Iowa’s best known businessmen, Tom Bedell, represented philanthropy. Bedell ran his family’s fishing-tackle business and founded Two Old Hippies, which makes guitars and sells rock music apparel. In addition, his family name is on a local YMCA and performance center.

Hensley said bringing the Corvida team to speak, along with people like Bedell, illustrates how successful businesses contribute to a community.

“We teach them that you have a responsibility to give back,” he said. “They see firsthand what it means to be a successful member of the community.”

Although Okoboji exposes the students to new people and situations, it does not serve as an independent training ground. Instead, the workshop supplements work students do in the classroom.

In today’s business climate, speed is almost as important as an idea, Hensley said.

“More people have that feeling that they can do this,” he said. “Because of the advances in technology, you can go from an idea to market in a fairly short period of time.”

For many of the students, those ideas come after a family member has owned a business. Instead of going into the family business, the students hope to set out on their own paths.

For University of Northern Iowa junior Stephanie Dick, that means trying to brand herself as a motivational speaker. She said she was a little nervous as she and her team pitched their fictional software business to faux investors, but she said she appreciated the help she received all week.

“There were a bunch of entrepreneurs all in one place, and we got to talk to them,” she said. “You usually don’t get that opportunity, because they are working all the time.”

With that face time comes lessons the students must learn.

John Blough of the U of I, one of Dick’s three teammates, said he feels comfortable speaking in public, but that he might have dominated the pitch and should have held back. Blough runs a small home maintenance business that he said is his first venture.

“Okoboji is inspirational, but we also get knowledge about what to do with our ideas,” he said.

As for Hensley, watching the students evolve during the week is inspiration enough.

“I never got a chance to meet people like this when I was in college,” he said. “To see how the students change during the week — it’s amazing.”

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