A program at the UNI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) provides students with mentorship and collaboration opportunities while growing their businesses — all during academic breaks. It’s called the Early Founders Program, and students can apply for two different cohorts designed to teach the concepts and skills necessary for business ownership.

The summer cohort is eight weeks, during which participants learn and attend Iowa EntreFest, the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute, and start-up tours in various Iowa cities. There is also the potential for a $4,000 scholarship to help cover costs. The winter cohort is a four-week virtual period designed to engage students in weekly meetings, mentorship meetings and more.

Anna Gilbreath, who operates a ceramics business called Anna Grace Creates, went through three different cohorts and found each experience valuable in their own ways. During the 2020-21 winter break, Gilbreath was encouraged to buy her own pottery wheel so she could create on her own. She made a mental note, started an Etsy store and saved up enough to buy a wheel the following spring.

Business has continued to boom — she’s currently fulfilling an order to create custom ceramics for UNI’s “Our Tomorrow” campaign. She said the biggest benefit of the Early Founders Program was the time away from school and a sole focus on the business.

“During those break times, we really get to invest in the things we want to do in the business without the extra work going on,” Gilbreath said. “I think we get challenged as well, so there’s so much learning that happens.”

Jacob Kurt participated in both the winter and summer Early Founders Program cohorts with his business Kurt Lawn Care, which he started before college. While he doesn’t operate the business anymore — he recently began a new business called Viva Solutions that provides first aid training and works as an EMT — he said the program gave him the skills necessary in entrepreneurship and beyond.

“I know how to talk to people and have those strong communication skills,” Kurt said. “Although I’m not into entrepreneurship as much as I was, I still use the skills I learned through the program. You can use them in any other setting.”

The Early Founders Program also sparks creativity. Emma Slagle co-operates a business called Honor and Respect with her father Ron, a Marion police officer and Air Force veteran. The store sells American flag-themed athletic shoes and apparel and donates all its profits to organizations that provide mental health support to first responders. At first, the business only had one shoe product. But after one of the program cohorts, Slagle got the bug to design more. The business now offers more than 25 products.

Whether it’s getting involved with the JPEC or Early Founders Program, Slagle said it’s worth it to get out there.

“I think it's huge to step out of your comfort zone,” she said. “I came from a small high school, so I wanted to find that community. For me, that was the JPEC and Early Founders Program. It was a home away from home atmosphere.”