Monday, April 24, 2023

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in Iowa JPEC's 2022 Annual Report. To see the report in its entirety, click HERE.

In 1996, John and Mary Pappajohn had a vision to create entrepreneurial centers across Iowa to help train young people about entrepreneurship and transform the state of Iowa's economy in the process. Since their inception, the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers at the University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University, Drake University, and North Iowa Area Community College have helped launch thousands of new ventures and educated hundreds of thousands of students and community members. The Pappajohn's have provided approximately $35 million to the five Pappajohn Centers over the past 25 years.

Born in Greece on July 31, 1928, Pappajohn immigrated to the United States with his mother at the age of nine months, and grew up in the Greek community in Mason City, Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1952, earning a bachelor of science degree from the then-College of Business Administration, taking six years to do so because he alternated going to college with his two brothers —two would work while the other attended classes.

He soon decided to follow his dream and start his own insurance company. After traveling the state to recruit board members and investors, Pappajohn founded the Guardsman Life Insurance Company in Des Moines, and he served as its chairman for several years.

He sold the company in 1969 and used the proceeds to start his own venture capital firm, Equity Dynamics, Inc. Focusing on health care and advanced technology ventures, he has been involved in over 100 start-ups and 50 IPO's and has served as a Director in over 40 public companies. He is one of the state's most prominent business leaders and venture capitalists.

As his profile grew, Pappajohn decided one of his life’s priorities was to give away much of his fortune to benefit the greater good and, ultimately, became one of Iowa’s largest philanthropists.

In 1993, the John Pappajohn Business Building, home of the Tippie College of Business, opened its doors; two years later, the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC) was created. His goal was to revive the entrepreneurial spirit in Iowa, where the economy had been battered by the farm crisis. “I want to make Iowa the most entrepreneurial state in America,” Pappajohn said at the time.

“As one of the state’s leading business builders, John serves as a daily inspiration to Iowans who want to become entrepreneurs,” said Amy Kristof-Brown, dean of the Tippie College of Business. “I see firsthand the passion he feels when he meets with our students, inspiring and guiding those who seek to follow his path.”

It was a visionary investment that paid off. In the 25 years since, Iowa JPEC has been recognized as a leader in supporting student, faculty, and community entrepreneurs. Alumni, students, and other Iowans have used Iowa JPEC resources to start businesses and create jobs in Iowa and around the country. Iowa JPEC alumni have made breakthroughs in the health sciences, education technology, agricultural technology, and green manufacturing, as well as selling clothes, consulting services, coffee, and ice cream.

“John Pappajohn’s unparalleled commitment to entrepreneurship education and support has transformed countless lives and sparked innovation and economic development across Iowa and the world,” said David Hensley, executive director of Iowa JPEC. “He is an outstanding role model and lives his life with passion, empathy, and a positive mental attitude.”

The Pappajohns understand the need to provide early-stage capital to Iowa entrepreneurs, so they sponsor two statewide new venture competitions. The Pappajohn Student Entrepreneurial Competition was launched in 2000 and has awarded $455,000 to more than 300 student teams. The Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition started in 2006 and has awarded $850,000 from the Pappajohns and $250,000 from the Iowa Economic Development Authority to more than 50 Iowa companies. Of the top three placewinners in the annual Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition, there is almost a 90% success rate of the businesses receiving funding.

Pappajohn has always encouraged Iowa JPEC to seek ways to train and support entrepreneurs beyond the University of Iowa campus. Iowa JPEC led a statewide entrepreneurial training consortium in the late 1990s and early 2000s; then in 2014, it launched a new entrepreneurial training program, Venture School, delivered in multiple locations across Iowa. This past year, Iowa JPEC and the other four Pappajohn Centers launched a statewide Venture Mentoring Service to support the creation and growth of Iowa-based companies.

In addition, since 2016 Iowa JPEC has partnered with the Institute for International Business in the Tippie College of Business to provide entrepreneurial education and training through the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program. One of the highlights of the annual program is when the Mandela Fellows trek to Des Moines to hear from Pappajohn. Iowa JPEC has delivered entrepreneurial training to entrepreneurs from over 40 countries.

Pappajohn has provided more than $100 million in support to other University of Iowa charitable causes, including the Pappajohn Pavilion in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, the John and Mary Pappajohn Clinical Cancer Center, and the John and Mary Pappajohn Biomedical Research Building. He also supports the John and Mary Pappajohn Educational Center in downtown Des Moines. The center is adjacent to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a 4.4-acre park that has quickly become a landmark and destination in Des Moines, Iowa.

Pappajohn is an honorary lifetime director of the University of Iowa Center for Advancement Board of Directors and is an emeritus member of the Tippie Advisory Board. A 1995 recipient of the Horatio Alger Award, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Iowa in 2010. He received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1991 and the Hancher-Finkbine Alumni Medallion in 2004.

Through it all, Pappajohn found his greatest joy investing in the future of young Iowans. Even at the age of 94, Pappajohn continues to add to his lasting legacy of good will.


“There are no words to express our gratitude for what John and Mary Pappajohn have done for making the world a better place for all of us. Their investment in science through the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Institute, and the creation of new enterprises through the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center have transformed the lives of so many people and stimulated all of us to achieve levels of excellence that none of us could have imagined before. We are so deeply appreciative for their tremendous leadership, vision, and unmatched generosity.”

Jean Robillard
Former Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Iowa and former Dean of the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine

“John Pappajohn’s contributions to the development of entrepreneurship in Iowa are incalculable. Without his financial support and strategic inspiration, the current structure of the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers of excellence at Iowa and across the state could not have happened. The force of John’s personality, his focus on business creation, and his sustained personal support are the defining factors of the Centers’ excellence.”

Gary Fethke
Former Interim President at the University of Iowa

Former Dean, Henry B. Tippie College of Business

“John Pappajohn, the father of Iowa’s entrepreneurial community, has helped launch countless careers, new companies, and an entrepreneurial spirit in Iowa that is getting national attention. John is a savvy businessman and a smart investor, but at his core, he is an Iowan with a humble heart and an inspiring personal story.”

Debi Durham
Executive Director, Iowa Economic
Development Authority

“I was proud to be with John Pappajohn when he created the centers. Now we can see what an outstanding difference they have made for young entrepreneurs and the Iowa economy.”

Terry Branstad
Governor of Iowa (1983-99, 2011-17) and United States Ambassador to China (2017-2020)