Karim's Innovative Food Delivery Idea Transformed into Dhakai, the University of Iowa's Venture School Business of the Year
Thursday, October 19, 2023

Who knows how the entrepreneurial landscape would have changed if Russel Karim found an efficient way to get Italian food delivered while he was a college student.

The native of Bangladesh had 19 offers to attend universities worldwide, but a drive for something out of his comfort zone — and the attractiveness of Iowa Nice — led him to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) in Cedar Falls. On his way to earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science and entrepreneurship, Karim — not unlike other college students — succumbed to late-night food cravings.

“The only option I had was Chinese and pizza, and I decided that there had to be a better way to get Italian delivered,” said Karim, a 2015 graduate.

Thanks to the first of his two stints as a participant in the University of Iowa Venture School, Karim had what he called a “transformational experience” and started the company, Cedar Valley Food Runner, in 2015.

“I was involved in the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at UNI and through that I started my first company,” Karim said. “I did Venture School in 2015 with Food Runner, which was Uber Eats for the Midwest.”

That was just the beginning for Karim, whose next company, Dhakai, Inc., has been named University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC) Venture School Business of the Year. Karim will be recognized at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Honors event Oct. 20.

“A lot of our credit goes to Venture School and the University of Iowa program,” Karim said. “We were able to take our (Food Runner) business idea to the program and create a business that was scalable. We made a lot of economic impact in the (Waterloo-Cedar Falls) community.”

Karim sold Food Runner in 2019 and launched Dhakai in 2021. Dhakai is a factory-direct supply chain solution for promotional and workwear clothing. Current clients include sports teams like the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League, as well as HALO Branded Solutions, and several universities. Dhakai is also a supplier for No Limbits, the adaptive clothing brand founded by Erica Cole, a University of Iowa alumna and recipient of the year’s Young Alumni Entrepreneurial Leadership Award.

Dhakai is one of the first companies to bring Near Field Communication (NFC) to the promotional industry. NFC, which could soon replace QR codes, is a set of short-range wireless technologies that allows data sharing to devices.

“Venture School helped us with Food Runner, so I wanted to go back again with Dhakai,” Karim said. “As an entrepreneur, the next thing I wanted to solve was the problem in the clothing supply chain.”

Working in the clothing industry takes Karim back to his roots in Bangladesh. He essentially grew up in a clothing factory there, the second-largest clothing exporter in the world. His vision was to create a technology platform that connected all intermediates between brands and manufacturers and give them factory-direct production.

“I have a root in Bangladesh, I have a root in Iowa,” Karim said. “Getting recognized is always special and it is validation of solving a problem that has a bigger impact. It takes a village to build during the early stage of startups. This is the validation of the impact we will make with Dhakai.”

2023 Russel Karim Dhakai, Inc.
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