University of Northern Iowa alum wins first place and $40,000 at entrepreneurial venture competition

University of Northern Iowa alum wins first place and $40,000 at entrepreneurial venture competition

College of Business /

Russel Karim, with co-founder and member of the UNI JPEC

AMES, Iowa – Russel Karim, a 2015 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), won first place and a $40,000 prize at the 18th annual John Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition. Karim’s business, Dhakai, enables eCommerce and promotional apparel brands to move from idea to final delivered products ethically, sustainably and cost-effectively through a single technology platform.

The competition, which is hosted by the five Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers, received over 50 submissions this year. Thirteen teams advanced to the final presentation round, which was held on Friday, August 25 at Iowa State University. A panel of judges consisting of representatives from the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers, the Small Business Development Center, VentureNet Iowa, and the Entrepreneurial Development Center selected Karim’s Dhakai as the winner.

“This competition allowed us to showcase our progress, growth and to really polish our business,” said Karim. “This check for $40,000 will allow us to extend our runway. We will be able to build newer products, and this funding will propel us forward into the next phase of business.”

Originally from Bangladesh, Karim chose to attend UNI as an international student and first got involved in entrepreneurship during his sophomore year when he joined the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). The JPEC provides numerous services for student entrepreneurs and community business owners, and Karim credits the center with giving him a strong foundation in business knowledge.

Karim was a 2015 recipient of the university’s Lux Service Award, the most prestigious award given to graduating senior students each academic year. Recipients consistently go above and beyond, leaving a lasting legacy upon graduation. In 2022, Karim saw himself and Dhakai featured on the Times Square jumbotron in New York City last year. 

“I'm very thankful and grateful for the opportunity and all the resources that UNI has provided me,” he said. “Without the support of Kristi Marchesani, Laurie Watje, Patrick Luensmann, Bart Schmitz, Randy Pilkington, the JPEC, Mike Holmes, Kevan Forest and UNI IT, I wouldn't be where I am today. I'm thankful for their support and UNI’s support and the experience that I had.”

“We’re so proud of what Russel has accomplished,” said Laurie Watje, director of the UNI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. “There were so many great businesses represented at the competition, and we’re honored to have a UNI alum take top honors.”  

The John Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition, along with support from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, has invested $1.2 million into participating businesses since 2006. The event is a collaborative effort executed by the Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers located at Iowa State University, Drake University, North Iowa Area Community College, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa.

The next John Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition will be announced in February 2024. For more information about the competition, visit