Welcome to Iowa Public Television! If you are seeing this message, you are using a browser that does not support web standards. This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device. Read more on our technical tips page.

Iowa Public Television


Entrepreneurship in Iowa

posted on October 9, 2007

The venture capitalist's vision of nurturing entrepreneurs in Iowa is shared by our two guests tonight. David Hensley is the executive director of the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Iowa. And Maureen Collins-Williams is the director of the University of Northern Iowa's regional business center/SBDC.

Mundt: David, is there any way to measure the impact of entrepreneurial spirit in Iowa? Dollars or jobs or otherwise?

Hensley: A lot of people, when they try to measure the impact of entrepreneurship education will focus primarily on number of new business starts, jobs created from those start-ups. And I think that is a reasonable measure, but I think you have to think more of the larger impact than teaching entrepreneurship has on a economy. Entrepreneurships really can be applied to a start-up company or an existing business, we're talking about teaching innovation, creativity, the ability to recognize and seize upon an opportunity. And that's why we have programs from youth all the way through adult education to try to change the culture. And so if somebody is inclined to start a new business, that's great, but if they're more inclined to be a part of an existing company, we want them to be more innovative and creative and add value to the bottom line of that company. So they can be an entrepreneur inside an existing organization as well.

Mundt: Maureen, that mindset of entrepreneurialism, that fits with the Iowa spirit? That fits with the Iowa farmer, the Iowa business person? It's a good fit?

Collins-Williams: It does indeed. In fact, Iowa was founded on entrepreneurship. If you'll remember, when we were settled, all of the new businesses, all of the activity that we engaged in, in rural and urban parts of the state, were based upon people starting jobs and having that initiative and having that spirit to be entrepreneurial.

Mundt: David, what kind of student do you see coming into the program at the University of Iowa? Is it a business student who's mainly coming in and getting entrepreneurial education?

Hensley: Actually, at the University of Iowa, we have the first campus-wide program in the United States. We just did some data and we have over 60 different majors at the undergraduate level right now studying entrepreneurship. So it's coming from engineering, from the liberal arts and sciences, as well as from business. And I think what you're seeing at the undergraduate level in particular, is that young people are understanding they need to have the entrepreneurial mindset, the skill set to be an entrepreneurial leader, and they can take that knowledge, coupled with their passion for dance or music or engineering, and be able to create an economic opportunity out of that. So it's pretty fascinating to see, you know, having a class of dance major, religion major, biomedical engineering student, and finance major all in one class. It provides some really unique challenges, but I think it bodes well for the state of Iowa to see so many different people with different backgrounds coming and learning about entrepreneurship. I think it's going to make a large impact from the cultural standpoint.

Mundt: You look at those students and say that's the future diverse business community, potentially, of Iowa that I'm seeing right now in front of me.

Hensley: Absolutely. And I think what it allows is these young people to, in essence, position themselves for success, whatever career they want to so choose, as well as it gives them an opportunity to look where they can go back to their home towns or to create opportunities in the state of Iowa, knowing there are the entrepreneurial centers and all of the other support systems in place to really create that culture that's going to keep those young people here and help diversify the Iowa economy.

Mundt: Maureen, you're seeing students and non-students that are coming into the program. Can you talk a little bit about the educational effort for non-students? Who are these young men and maybe not so young men and women who are --

Collins-Williams: That's right. That's right. We're seeing all across the state of Iowa a resurgence and interest in entrepreneurial development. Our center in downtown waterloo is a small business development center and the primary outreach for the university of northern Iowa for adult entrepreneurship education. What we have found is that we're serving between 600 and 700 folks every year who are interested in starting or expanding a small business throughout eastern Iowa and rest of the state.

Mundt: These are people who have experience before or in some cases have had no experience getting started?

Collins-Williams: It runs the gamut. We have some folks that come in that are very young and very talented and very excited. Graduates from college and have just discovered that they really, really would like to pursue something entrepreneurial. We also have folks that are laid off who are at a midpoint in their life when they're ready to consider something different and they've gained a tremendous amount of expertise or experience in a particular field and feel like they can parlay that into an entrepreneurial venture. So it really runs the gamut and that requires us to be very proactive in finding a really customized array of services to meet their needs.

Mundt: It was a really interesting story to tell when you're talking about those kind of numbers. Nearly 3,000 start-ups have been enabled by the five entrepreneurial centers. Some ventures were in development as the students entered college, and they've been boosted by the curriculum. A case in point is a young woman from rural Iowa who is carving a niche in haute culture. David Hensley, of the students who have come through the program, how typical is the story of Megan Wettach?

Hensley: Megan is an amazing young woman, so I wouldn't say that it's necessarily typical. But I think what we're seeing is the energy coming from young Iowans in particular interested in entrepreneurship and developing and having a passion and becoming motivated and having really a desire to pursue their dreams. And so through our programs, our goal is really to help instill the entrepreneurial mindset in those young students and, as a benefit of that, we will want to accelerate entrepreneurship and economic development in the state of Iowa. So it's very exciting to be on our college campuses because there are so many young and talented people that are very creative and energetic. And it's a great time to try to start a business when you're a young person, especially, and with all the resources that are available. It's very exciting to be a part of this and to be able to work with someone as talented as Megan.

Mundt: It's exciting, Maureen, too, for that student who comes out and has an idea, even if that idea fails. I was reading Alan Greenspan's book, and he talks about creative destruction and that being the force of the capitalistic economy. I mean this is a hard-knock school sometimes, but that doesn't necessarily quench the fire.

Collins-Williams: No. In fact, we really need to work in Iowa on changing that -- the cultural norms that would say that if you fail, if you don't succeed with an entrepreneurial venture that somehow you're bad or that you are not successful. Actually failure is a learning experience. And our entrepreneurs, we stress with them it's all about learning, growing, going back and doing it again. And you'll find, as Dave pointed out earlier, that most entrepreneurs have failed at one point or another during their career.

Mundt: David, how early does that education start?

Hensley: Through the University of Iowa, we've been working with high school teachers in the high schools, as well as running programs for youth. This past year we announced the creation of the Jacobson institute for entrepreneurial education. The idea behind the Jacobson Institute is to try to work with high school teachers and students and start incorporating entrepreneurship education into the k-12 curriculum, not just in business classes but in science and math and reading to try to get young people excited about developing those skills, as well as learning about entrepreneurship. And then our goals through that institute are to grow this program and do it nationally. It's very important to get our young Iowans, in particular, to learn about entrepreneurship, consider it as a career path, and learn about the opportunities that are in the state of Iowa at a young age, so when they come to the universities and the colleges, we can really have some fun with them in taking them to that next step.

Mundt: I want to talk a little bit about the opportunities that are here. I think, you know, at least I fall into the trap perhaps of thinking when I'm thinking about entrepreneurial activity in the state, I think about what's in the big cities, what's happening in Des Moines, what's happening in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City. There's a lot of rural Iowa out there, and we've seen it with ethanol. There are a lot of opportunities there. What else is going on in rural Iowa?

Collins-Williams: Well, I think we all know that the last decade or so has not been very kind to rural Iowa. We have had this continued lag in the agricultural industry, followed more recently by the massive out-migration of our rural manufacturers. This has led to increased poverty in rural parts of the state. We have downtown districts that have become what we call hollowed out. And we have folks that, by and large, who might stay in rural Iowa who are migrating more toward our urban centers. We believe that entrepreneurial development can provide us with an opportunity to turn that around.

Mundt: It's not going to be manufacturing though, probably.

Collins-Williams: It is not. It is not. Entrepreneurs who are being successful right now in rural parts of the state are engaged in a whole slew of the different industries. In fact, that's what we want. For us to have a rural recovery, we have got to create an economy that is highly diversified. That tends to be a real plus for us because it insulates our rural communities from economic flux. For instance, ten small companies, each employing 10 to 15 people will be much less impacted than one company that employs a hundred people in one industry when we have an economic downturn. Those kinds of issues make entrepreneurial development a logical and very proactive method for us to do a rural revitalization throughout the state.

Mundt: In the late '90s, I know there was a lot of talk about the fact that technology would make it possible for you to work from anywhere and there was a movement to move out of the cities and go to rural areas. Is that really true? Does that happen? Is the potential there that it doesn't have to be necessarily an agribusiness based business that can grow up in rural Iowa and be a success?

Collins-Williams: Absolutely. We have an initiative at UNI that is statewide. It's called myEntrenet. And it's a rural entrepreneurship development system that works to foster all kinds of different businesses in rural parts of the state. We are finding technology companies. We are finding advanced manufacturing companies. We are finding a whole slew of folks who live in rural Iowa, who are passionate, who have expertise, who simply lack access to education and resources in order to fulfill their dreams. And it's incumbent upon us, the Pappajohn Centers and the Regents Universities, the small business development centers in the state of Iowa, to find ways to be proactive in finding services that meet and exceed the expectations of those folks.

Mundt: David, we have just about 45 seconds left. What are the obstacles that an entrepreneur faces in Iowa in getting started.

Hensley: I think there's two. One is access to early stage capital. Now, the state of Iowa has done a great job in creating new sources of capital and there's more angel groups than ever before in the state. But still that early siege capital is a challenge. And I think the another part is a mentor network, someone to help them understand some of the blocking and tackling, if you will, of starting a business and giving them some expertise in marketing and thinking more globally as well. So we're working to try to create those mechanisms and partnering with other organizations across Iowa to make Iowa the most entrepreneurial state in the nation.


Tags: education entrepreneurs Iowa