John Pappajohn raising a toast

On Saturday, April 22, the world lost John Pappajohn — an entrepreneur, visionary, philanthropist and so much more. In his 94 years, Pappajohn and his wife Mary left a legacy that will remain unmatched in the entrepreneurial community for years to come. The University of Northern Iowa is fortunate to be a benefactor of his lifelong philanthropic efforts, particularly with the UNI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, and remembers the legacy he leaves on UNI faculty, staff, students and community members.

“When I started my career at UNI in 2007, I did not realize the lasting impact that John Pappajohn would have on the lives of the students that I served at the JPEC,” said Laurie Watje, director of the JPEC. “His vision of entrepreneurship and how it could change the economy of Iowa was truly visionary. He generously donated millions of dollars to support UNI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and allowed our center the flexibility and freedom to create programs and services that were relevant to our students. The creation of the network of five Pappajohn Centers throughout the State of Iowa who worked together on state-wide competitions and programs became a model that other states envied. Without John’s foresight, numerous businesses in the Cedar Valley and the State of Iowa would not be in existence today.”

John Pappjajohn with JPEC team

At the University of Northern Iowa, one of the main impacts on students is the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in entrepreneurship. For years, Pappajohn’s philanthropy has fueled a variety of programs that allow students to develop and launch their own businesses. These programs, such as the R. J. McElroy Student Business Incubator and Early Founders Program can be invaluable for students who are just starting out and may not have the expertise or resources needed to navigate the complexities of entrepreneurship.

“My time at JPEC has been life-changing,” said Nathan Crooker [Finance, ‘26]. “So many opportunities have become available for me because of my involvement with the center. One of these includes competing in the 2023 Pappajohn Student Entrepreneurial Venture Competition, which provides an opportunity to pitch for up to $5,000 of capital funds. I am honored and grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a meaningful and impactful competition created by John Pappajohn. This is just one example of the many ways he has enabled student entrepreneurs to succeed with their ventures.”  

Students like Nathan have relied on seed capital funds to turn his dream of owning The Brain Freezer, a shaved ice truck, into a reality. Overall, John Pappajohn's funding has played a significant role in promoting student entrepreneurship. His contributions have helped to create a supportive environment for student entrepreneurs and have provided them with the resources, mentorship, and funding needed to succeed.

"I was able to achieve my entrepreneurial goals because of the foundation I received from JPEC,” said Russel Karim [Computer Science and Entrepreneurship, ‘15], the founder and chief executive officer of Dhakai, a Des Moines-based technology company and marketplace that helps connect small- to mid-sized clothing brands in the U.S. with ethical and sustainable South Asian manufacturers. “I started, failed and succeeded in multiple ventures during my time at JPEC. We were challenged and supported with valuable resources every day to build our strong entrepreneurial muscles. I am extremely grateful to the JPEC and to John Pappajohn for his generosity to change the trajectory of the Iowa entrepreneurial community."

John Pappajohn with two student entrepeneurs

With mentoring programs and individualized support services, the UNI JPEC is able to reach outside of UNI to support entrepreneurs and small business owners in the greater Cedar Valley community, and helped launch 98 businesses in fiscal year 2022.

“John Pappajohn left a remarkable legacy to the citizens of Iowa,” said UNI President Mark Nook. “The University of Northern Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center stands as a lasting testament to not only John’s generosity, but also his entrepreneurial spirit that positively impacted the lives of so many in our state. Of course, UNI was one of several campuses across Iowa whose students continue to benefit from John and Mary’s commitment to entrepreneurship.”

“I never in my dreams thought I would someday be the director of the JPEC, have the privilege of working with hundreds of student entrepreneurs and teach hundreds more in the classroom, and it is because of John’s belief in the power of individuals creating positive change in the world,” said Watje. “I am grateful for John’s positive mental attitude and mantra of ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ His legacy and contributions to entrepreneurship, education and philanthropy will be remembered for many years to come.”