Creating international partnerships has long been a goal for the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. Back in the summer of 2017, JPEC partnered with UNI’s International Recruitment and Admissions office to create a Panther Cage Challenge — a Shark Tank-style business pitch competition — for international students touring Midwest universities as a part of EdTour.

Fast forward to 2020, and the pandemic shifted everything online, including the EdTour. Lindi Roelofse, program manager at the JPEC, fittingly developed a virtual Panther Cage Challenge experience for 28 Pakistani high school students. The program, which was held over video chat, was so popular a second cohort of 37 high school students from Pakistan and Qatar participated in July.

“Due to the time difference, it was amazing that the students were so excited and willing to meet with the JPEC team at 9 p.m.,” said Laurie Watje, director of the JPEC. “Their creativity and innovation never cease to amaze us. They truly look at opportunities from a more global perspective.”

Students were sorted into teams based upon an assigned item, such as an example of the healthiest fresh produce in their homes or an important beauty product, which served as an inspiration for their business ideas. Staff and faculty from the Center of Business Growth and Innovation (CBGI), JPEC and UNIBusiness served as judges to determine which team presented the most engaging pitch, most persuasive pitch or displayed the best team dynamics.

Student entrepreneurs active in the RJ McElroy Student Business Incubator also helped mentor the international student teams, creating another layer of mentorship.

“It is always so interested to hear how the students pursued the various business ideas and built a model consistent with their country and future,” said Randy Pilkington, director of Business and Community Services, which oversees CBGI. “Their perspectives and nuances were much difference than we would hear from Iowa students.”

This perspective is welcomed at UNIBusiness, which is passionate about bringing together a diverse group of students. And as a result of efforts like the Panther Cage Competition, a number of students from all over the globe have made the choice to attend UNI after they graduate high school.

"It fills me with hope, the idea that these high school students are the young and dedicated problem-solvers and decision-makers of tomorrow," Roelofse said.