The year was 1996. Iowa’s economy “was lower than whale poop at the bottom of the ocean,” says John Pappajohn, founder and president of Equity Dynamics, Inc. and sole owner of Pappajohn Capital Resources in Des Moines.
“Ag was in trouble, many industries and businesses were in trouble. There had been a time when Iowa was very entrepreneurial, but not any longer. I told my wife that we just had to do something,” he says.
By the mid-90s, Pappajohn had already made a fortune investing in new businesses: “I got lucky with a couple of investments. That changed everything,” he says.
An enthusiastic and long-time supporter of many charitable causes, Pappajohn was in a position to help Iowa rebuild its entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“I had this idea for Iowa to establish a $5 million fund to support new ideas and new businesses,” he says. His wife, Mary, agreed. After the couple created a fund to help launch entrepreneurial centers at five of Iowa’s colleges, Pappajohn met with then-Governor Branstad, who rallied behind the idea.
John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers Begin
In September 1996, Pappajohn and Branstad traveled to University of Iowa, Iowa State University, North Iowa Area Community College, Drake University and University of Northern Iowa. One by one, each institution received a check to use to develop an entrepreneurial center that would provide the education, resources and tools to support aspiring entrepreneurs. How the schools would do it was up to them – no strings attached.
“At that time, there were very few entrepreneurial centers in America,” Pappajohn says. In fact, there were only 12 entrepreneurial education programs nationwide.
With so few models to follow – and none that embraced Pappajohn’s vision of a truly statewide entrepreneurial network – the five new John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers rolled up their sleeves.
20 Years of Growing Iowa's Entrepreneurs
Over the past 20 years, Iowa’s five John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers have supported approximately 237,500 individuals and 6,123 new business starts, which led to the creation of an estimated 11,941 new jobs.
- 1996 John Pappajohn and Governor Branstad fly to University of Iowa, Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa, North Iowa Community College and Drake University to announce investments to start John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers at all five schools.
- 1997 John Pappajohn launches the John and Mary Pappajohn Scholarship program, which annually supports ethnic and disadvantaged students at Drake University, North Iowa Area Community College, Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa.
- 2000 – 2009 Pappajohn Centers launch and jointly host the annual Iowa Entrepreneur and Venture Capital Conference in Des Moines.
- 2000 John Pappajohn donates $15,000 in awards to launch the annual Pappajohn Student Entrepreneurial Venture Competition. The 15th student competition occurred in 2016.
- 2001 - 2010 Pappajohn Centers jointly host the first annual Collegiate Entrepreneurs Iowa Conference (CEIC) at Iowa State University. This conference rotated through each of the schools.
- 2002 On the advice of John Pappajohn, Iowa-based Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield taps the Pappajohn Centers to administer the Wellmark Community Ventures Fund, established with $5 million of the company’s projected insurance premium tax reduction.
- 2006 John Pappajohn funds the launch of the annual, statewide John Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition, which annually awards $50,000 to top entrepreneurial ideas.
- 2008 Pappajohn Centers support and host EntreFEST, a statewide conference initially started by the UNI Center for Business Growth & Innovation.
Creating the Nation’s Only Statewide Entrepreneurial Center Network
As they have from the beginning, the Pappajohn Centers work together to build effective on-campus and community education, experiential learning and business/startup assistance.
The Centers share information, products, resources and ideas. They jointly host student and community business competitions. And they leverage each other’s unique academic strengths, often referring entrepreneurs to the school with a specific and needed expertise.
Over the past two decades, the Centers have helped spawn a vast array of entrepreneurial initiatives, programs and success stories across the state. For instance, the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and many other private and public entities have joined the movement by supporting and funding entrepreneurial development.
Judi Eyles, associate director of the Pappajohn Center at Iowa State University, says, “To have a set of entrepreneurship centers that are so connected, so networked and making such a difference – there’s nothing else like this in the rest of the country.”
Indeed, Iowa’s broad entrepreneurial network has put Iowa on a trajectory to become the most entrepreneurial state in the union – just as Pappajohn envisioned.
This story presented by John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers. John and Mary Pappajohn seeded the five John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers in 1996. The centers are located at five of Iowa’s colleges and universities including Drake University, Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa and John’s two alma maters, North Iowa Area Community College and the University of Iowa. The shared purpose of the centers is to strengthen Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and help make Iowa one of the most entrepreneurial states in the nation. The Pappajohns are committed to helping others pursue their dreams, particularly through the creation and growth of Iowa businesses. The Pappajohn Centers offer unique educational programs across their respective campuses, work together on specific community-based programs and collaborate with other regional and state partners to foster entrepreneurship across Iowa. Together, the Centers helped start more than 5,600 new Iowa businesses.
Over the past two decades, the Pappajohns have gifted more than $30 million in support to the five Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers. Through their leadership, vision, and generous gifts, John and Mary have established a legacy for the State of Iowa that will continue for years to come.