Tippie student at JPEC's Hawkeye Innovation Expo
June 30, 2016
Lesanne Fliehler

In 1996, a $1.5 million gift from Mary and John Pappajohn expanded the scope of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Management, which since 1986 had focused on teaching and cultivating entrepreneurship among Iowa students and Iowa businesses. In recognition of their gift, the institute was renamed the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC).

“The Pappajohns’ support has had a transformational impact across the entire UI campus,” says David Hensley, executive director of JPEC. “The gift was the seed to accelerate entrepreneurship education and new venture creation across the state. We’ve leveraged this gift to significantly expand programming so all UI students and residents in Iowa may have access to entrepreneurial education.”

Academic Impact: Degrees, Certificates, and More

For 20 years, Iowa students have been learning about entrepreneurship through course work and experiential learning opportunities, solving real-world problems for Iowa businesses and professional development activities.

“For each program developed or course taught, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have benefited.  I think it is safe to say that John and Mary Pappajohns’ vision 22 years ago has fundamentally changed the playing field for Iowa entrepreneurs.”

Today, JPEC serves thousands of students each year, making it one of the largest and most comprehensive entrepreneurial programs in the country. It is recognized as a National Model Undergraduate Program by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

JPEC’s academic offerings include:

  • BBA degree in Management (students enroll in the entrepreneurial management track within the management major)
  • Certificate in Entrepreneurial Management (complements any UI undergraduate major)
  • Technological Entrepreneurship Certificate (combines engineering technology, entrepreneurship and business education)
  • Certificate in Performing Arts Entrepreneurship (applies entrepreneurship to arts organizations)

New this year is the B.A. degree in enterprise leadership, a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences degree program offered with the support of the Tippie College. Course work blends entrepreneurship, leadership and professional communications. Currently, more than 300 students have chosen the major.

“We expect this to become a very popular major for liberal arts and science students,” Hensley says, “because it is designed to prepare students for career success—whether they desire to be an innovator inside a large organization or aspire to be an entrepreneur and launch their own business.”

The center has also extended its reach across the state of Iowa, creating unique partnerships with Iowa community colleges. JPEC faculty teach at Des Moines Area Community College, Iowa Western Tech Community College (Sioux City) and at Iowa Western Community College (Council Bluffs).

“This is an example of the program innovation the Pappajohns have encouraged us to pursue,” Hensley says. “Faculty co-teach for the university and at their community college. We believe this partnership is unique among research universities, and it wouldn’t have been possible without strong UI and community college partner support.”

This year alone, the faculty, which includes award-winning Tippie faculty and entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses, taught 60 on-campus courses and 31 online courses.

The BBA, the B.A. and the Certificate in Entrepreneurial Management are now offered online, opening up courses for students across the state.

The courses support Iowans who want to advance their careers but can’t relocate to Iowa City due to family or career commitments.

“The students in the online undergraduate programs develop the same entrepreneurial-minded leadership skills, innovative management tools, strategic problem-solving expertise and business planning skills as students enrolled on campus,” Hensley says.

Soon there will be one more opportunity to enroll in courses away from the Iowa City campus. The B.A. in enterprise leadership will be offered on the former AIB College of Business campus in Des Moines in the fall of 2016.

Scholarship Support: One Thing Leads to Another

It’s undeniable that students see the value in studying entrepreneurship at Iowa: More than 2,950 students have graduated with a BBA degree or a certificate since 1997.

“Entrepreneurs are the ‘doers' and I love surrounding myself with like-minded people who are looking to grow both personally and professionally.”

And the Pappajohn gift has been front and center, supporting many of them through scholarships.

Sydney Kurtz, a junior finance and management major from Ottumwa, Iowa, will graduate with a BBA degree and the Certificate in Entrepreneurial Management. The John and Mary Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Scholarship was “absolutely essential” in helping her pay for college, she says.

“For the most part, I’m taking out loans and working 20 hours a week,” Kurtz says. “That barely gets me by, so being heavily involved in JPEC programming must have shown the scholarship committee that I’m invested in my studies.”

Not one to squander an opportunity, Kurtz jumped head first into JPEC course work during her freshman year. Once enrolled in the college, she was hired as a JPEC office assistant and became a JPEC student ambassador, where she served as a mentor to other students and networked with high-profile alumni.

Although she wasn’t involved in many activities in high school, she says she “can 100% say I changed because of JPEC. It unlocked the entrepreneurial spirit in me.”

That motivation led her to help found Sigma Nu Tau, a new academic honor society that started at Tippie in April 2015, the first in the Big Ten. The organization is selective (capped at 30) and open to those with a 3.2 grade-point average or higher and junior status or above. Today she is its president and is helping to differentiate it from other student organizations to provide value to its members.

“I felt like the entrepreneur who’s finding the focus of that organization,” she says. “Entrepreneurs are the ‘doers,’” Kurtz says, “and I love surrounding myself with like-minded people who are looking to grow both personally and professionally.”

Learning Outside the Classroom

Student organizations are only the tip of the iceberg of offerings JPEC makes available beyond the classroom. Among them are those that support student learning while providing opportunities for Iowa businesses to connect with students and JPEC:

  • Iowa Student Internship Program provides grants to Iowa companies in advanced manufacturing, biosciences and information technology industries to support internship programs;
  • Iowa Innovation Associates offers real-world job experience with Iowa-based startups and early-stage companies through internships;
  • Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute immerses students in a week-long program on entrepreneurship and business strategy through a team-based computer simulation venture, entrepreneurial and career mentoring, and networking;
  • Entrepreneurial Management Institute students serve as consultants to Iowa business organizations and entrepreneurs while conducting strategic market research, competitive analyses and financial assessments;
  • Iowa Medical Innovations Group introduces students to all phases of medical device/technology development;
  • Institute for International Business brings students and Iowa companies together to help Iowa businesses pursue global opportunities;
  • Founders Club, a student group located in the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL), a business incubator where students apply their knowledge to create new ventures or work on growing their existing company; and
  • Summer Accelerator/Venture School helps launch new ventures and teaches participants how to utilize the Business Model Canvas and perform customer discovery for their entrepreneurial activities.

The BELL celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Since its inception, more than 600 students and 324 student teams have started new businesses. This year, there are 60 new startups, 15 of which are located in the BELL. As BELL participants, they are designated as Founders Club members.

Connor Alne, a junior prebusiness major from Fort Dodge, Iowa, is a Founders Club member. His company, the National College Gaming Association, gives amateur video game enthusiasts the opportunity to participate in tournaments hosted by the association. E-sports (teams playing video games against each other in tournaments) is the fastest-growing sport in the world, Alne says. His company’s tournaments have been held at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, the University of Illinois and a fourth tournament is scheduled in Kansas City. Typically, 100 gamers will be participating.

Statistics and videos from tournaments, where gamers play Call of Duty and Halo, are collected and sent to professional teams, who may be recruiting members.

“Gamers get a bad rep nowadays for being lazy and not going anywhere, but there are kids making millions of dollars playing on professional teams,” he says. “We’re giving gamers an opportunity to grow and possibly have a career doing what they love.

Alne has taken advantage of Founders Club membership: office space, funding opportunities, workshops, networking and community exposure. Students are also given one-on-one mentoring. His mentor is Jeff Nock, a lecturer and entrepreneur-in-residence with JPEC.

“Jeff helps connect me with people, gives me extremely valuable advice on growing my business and offers great insight from his experience in business,” Alne says.

Two other successful Founders Club members are Matthew Rooda and Abraham Espinoza whose company, SwineTech, hopes to reduce the number of piglet deaths in the pork industry by creating a biotech device that prevents the sow from laying on her piglets. Piglet deaths cost pork producers $8.9 billion a year. Just a year after founding, they have surpassed the $100,000 level in competition prizes. Their most recent win of $30,000 was at the International Business Model Competition in Redmond, Washington.

Across Iowa: Launching New Ventures

As important as it is for JPEC to educate students about entrepreneurship, the Pappajohns’ gift also helped the center support entrepreneurs statewide.

“Our center has always strived to provide education, training and support to all Iowans; several of our programs, including one of our newest, UI Venture School, are designed to enhance the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Hensley says.

Taught by successful entrepreneurs, Venture School is a six-week intensive program offered in Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Davenport, Iowa City, Des Moines, Sioux City and Council Bluffs. Participants learn to evaluate their business concepts through customer discovery and strategic business analysis to find out if their idea or new product has a market.

Elizabeth Caven attended the Venture School in Des Moines in 2014. During that time, she was working on development of Pick-a-brain, a consulting company. She quickly learned that the sales cycle for such a company is “incredibly long.”

“It was going to be very capital-intensive up front because we wouldn’t have customers for almost 9 months,” she says. “Letting Pick-a-Brain fail fast was key so that I didn’t waste a lot of time, energy and money on a business that wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Caven’s new business, UpCraft Club, makes available high-quality digital sewing patterns to brick-and-mortar fabric shops and for purchase on the web. This past year, she received $75,000 from pitch competitions to support the company’s development, including winning $10,000 in last summer’s Venture School pitch competition.

“Using those resources, I was able to bootstrap the company, get a patent and trademark filed, create a website and market it,” she says.

San Francisco’s 500 Startups accelerator took note of her work and she became one of 53 companies this year to receive a $125,000 investment in her company (500 Startups receives a 5% stake in the company). She spent four months in San Francisco, learning more about e-commerce distribution.

“Venture School helped me execute my vision, which is what having an entrepreneurial mindset means,” she says. “I’ve also learned what my strengths and weaknesses are and brought in the right people to work with me. That’s being a successful entrepreneur, which I’m working on every day.”

The programs and academic offerings that JPEC supports have helped to create a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem across the UI campus and around the state, Hensley says.

“For each program developed or course taught, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have benefited,” he says. “Maybe they’ve started a company or affected change within a company as an intrapreneur. In addition, the availability of equity capital and growth in other community-based programs is at an all-time high. I think it is safe to say that John and Mary Pappajohns’ vision 22 years ago has fundamentally changed the playing field for Iowa entrepreneurs.”