Working at the intersection of purpose and profit, UNI alum helps entrepreneurs build impactful businesses
As the executive director of JoyCorps in India, 2009 University of Northern Iowa alum Sam Parakkal has devoted his career to helping entrepreneurs succeed. The position, which Parakkal took on in January 2022, marked the completion of his journey from being mentored at the UNI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) to now becoming the mentor.
“I love the intersection of purpose and profit,” said Parakkal. “Our mission at JoyCorps is to work with entrepreneurs to build businesses that are better for the world and better for people. I get to see the power of small businesses and how they can make a positive impact on their communities firsthand.”
Parakkal was born among the Indian diaspora in Kuwait. He never planned on going to college in the United States, but in 11th grade, he and a couple of friends decided to take the test of English as a foreign language (TOEFL), which non-native speakers must take if they want to attend an English-speaking university. Parakkal’s parents encouraged him to continue exploring the idea of attending an American college, which prompted him to apply to a school in Texas. Parakkal was accepted and had plans of attending the school and going into finance like his father.
Things changed when Parakkal’s Dad called him about a college exhibition underway in Kuwait City. Parakkal attended the exhibition and spoke with several schools, but the University of Northern Iowa stood out because of the positive experience he had talking with Kristi Marchesani, the director of international recruitment and admissions.
“Kristi was just so friendly and warm,” said Parakkal. “Of all the schools I talked to, UNI did the best job of making me feel like it wanted me to come.”
Parakkal applied to UNI and was accepted, beginning his studies in 2004.
When he first arrived in the U.S. — which he’d only been to once as a child — he admitted he was nervous but thought the Office of International Admissions did a great job during orientation week and beyond helping him acclimate.
“I felt welcomed from the get-go, and that’s a pretty big deal,” he said.
Although Parakkal didn’t have any entrepreneurial experience, the energy of entrepreneurship excited him. This led him to get involved with the JPEC and the R.J. McElroy Student Business Incubator, which exists to inspire and educate students interested in entrepreneurship and small business. The connections Parakkal made through the center helped him immensely, including the relationship he formed with now JPEC Director Laurie Watje. Watje helped Parakkal get an internship at her husband’s company — Curbtender, then called Wayne Engineering — which designed and manufactured refuse vehicles.
“When I think about the way the Office of International Admissions really came around international students and helped us get our feet under us and get a solid start and then the way the student business incubator and Laurie, in particular, helped me sort of hone my path — that just changed my life,” said Parakkal.
After graduation, Parakkal stayed in Cedar Falls and worked with Wayne Engineering in operations for eight years. During that time, he married his wife, Emily, a 2006 elementary education alum who he met while at UNI.
Wayne Engineering’s CEO, Kevin Watje, was especially influential to Parakkal and influenced the way he now works with young entrepreneurs.
“I think my time in the United States, especially at Wayne Engineering, showed me the power of being mentored by somebody in your youth,” said Parakkal. “Kevin was the CEO. He didn’t have to, but he poured into my life, professionally and personally. For eight and a half years, I was in his office every week, sometimes for two or three hours at a time. That really changed me. When I got into social entrepreneurship and consulting, I knew that was the kind of impact I'd like to have on young entrepreneurs' lives.”
After years of talking about it, Parakkal and his wife decided the time was right to move back to India in 2018. Parakkal became an independent business consultant, which is how he got connected to JoyCorps.
“That opportunity just grew over the last four years,” said Parakkal. “As JoyCorps grew its programs to Thailand and other areas, I got to go along for the ride.”
JoyCorps equips entrepreneurs in under-resourced regions in Asia to help them create businesses that are not only profitable but also ethical. JoyCorps does this by providing coaching, business expertise and community.
In 2021, Parakkal stepped into the role of director of operations for the nonprofit, and in 2022, he took on the role of executive director of JoyCorps.
Since Parakkal’s teammates live in three countries, his days can be long, typically ending with meetings between 8 and 11 p.m. But Parakkal makes sure he also leaves time for his family and time for rest. It’s one of the ways his team hopes they are setting an example for young entrepreneurs.
“As entrepreneurs, it’s so tempting to get into hustle culture where you’re always on all the time,” said Parakkal. “Certainly there are seasons where it’s going to be busy. But we fight against the narrative that says if you’re not busy you’re not good enough. You aren’t just your output. You’re inherently worthy and, as a human being, you need rest.”