Pappajohn Leaves Legacy of Innovation, Philanthropy
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A tribute to John Pappajohn’s legacy of innovation


John Pappajohn

Investor, Innovator, Philanthropist

In this month’s Innovation Profile, we pay tribute to John Pappajohn, entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist who leaves an unmatched legacy of innovation in the state of Iowa. He passed away on April 22, 2023, at the age of 94. We reached out to several leaders in Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem for their memories and perspectives on Mr. Pappajohn’s legacy. 

John Pappajohn immigrated to the United States from Greece with his family when he was just nine months old, settling in Mason City, Iowa. His father passed away when he was 16, leaving John and his two brothers to manage the family business. He graduated from the University of Iowa after six years, as he alternated working and attending school with his brothers. 

He established an insurance agency after graduation from college and subsequently organized and became Chairman of the Board of Guardsman Insurance Investors, a public insurance holding company that owned Guardsman Life. 

In 1969, he became one of the early venture capitalists when he organized Equity Dynamics, Inc., a financial consulting entity, and Pappajohn Capital Resources, a venture capital firm in Des Moines, Iowa. In the proceeding years, Mr. Pappajohn was involved in over 100 start-ups, over 50 IPOs and served as a Director in over 40 public companies. 

Mr. Pappajohn and his wife, Mary, have gifted more than $100 million to various philanthropic causes in the areas of education, medicine, the arts and more. 

Centers foster entrepreneurship in the state 

Mr. Pappajohn also organized and financed the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers at five different universities and colleges in the state of Iowa for more than $30 million. These centers have helped create and launch over 1,000 new companies. 

The five Centers support entrepreneurs through education, workshops, programming, competitions, funding, mentoring, and by connecting entrepreneurs to other resources and partners. 

“The unique, collaborative efforts of the Entrepreneurial Centers have allowed us to pursue John’s vision of creating and supporting more entrepreneurs in the state,” said Judi Eyles, director of the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University. “His original challenge to us was, ‘let’s create 500 new entrepreneurs in Iowa!’ We have accomplished that and more thanks to John’s gifts, enthusiasm and support.” 

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority, said Mr. Pappajohn saw the funding of the Centers and other programming as an opportunity to make Iowa the most entrepreneurial state in the nation, and worked tirelessly to put the idea in to action. 

“John is considered the father of Iowa’s entrepreneurial community. He helped launch countless careers, new companies and an entrepreneurial spirit in Iowa that is getting attention elsewhere.” she said. 

Durham credits Pappajohn with inspiring the dedication of business leaders, passion of entrepreneurs, and collaborative spirit of many stakeholders that has resulted in a growing and thriving entrepreneur ecosystem in Iowa. The fruits of Mr. Pappajohn’s work are evident across the state in businesses of all sizes. 

“I helped cut the ribbon on Pivot Bio’s office at the Iowa State University Research Park,” said Director Durham. “And, what I didn’t know is that the CEO, Karsten Temme, became an entrepreneur years ago as a University of Iowa student, thanks to help from John Pappajohn. Karsten was on a team that won a statewide Pappajohn Business Plan Competition. They launched a startup with the cash prize.” 

A hands-on leader and connector 

Mr. Pappajohn was hands-on and all-in with the business he funded and the programs he was involved in. 

“John was an important, busy and accomplished businessman, but he always made time for our entrepreneurs,” said Eyles. “I especially loved when he engaged with students. He genuinely wanted to help. He was a great listener, challenged entrepreneurs to persevere, and he always had words of advice or a connection for everyone he met. His impact on our state was indeed extraordinary.” 

Dan Cosgrove, global agribusiness executive, worked with Mr. Pappajohn in several roles. 

“In addition to his contributions of capital, he had boundless energy and gave it freely to startups providing advice, judging completions, speaking to business cohorts, and sitting on boards,” he said. “Trust me when I say John was not a passive investor either. He was deeply involved in everything he did.” 

Mr. Pappajohn leaves a legacy of entrepreneurship and innovation across the state and is an example that no matter where you are and what you are doing, you can ascend to great things, said Cosgrove. 

“John was a triple threat: a successful businessman, philanthropist and investor. I think it is impossible to estimate the impact that John has had, and will continue to have, on innovation and entrepreneurship in the state,” said Cosgrove. “When you think of the students who have passed and will pass through the entrepreneurial centers in across the state, Iowa will benefit for decades and perhaps centuries to come for the ideas and businesses that are born in and benefit from the resources provided.” 

Director Durham also noted the personal connections that he made. Despite being a self-described workaholic, she remembers how generous he was with his time and attention. 

“I didn’t know John when I arrived at IEDA, but one day there was a call inviting me to lunch. My first impression was how personally engaging he was. He took an interest in me, not just my position at the state. We had lunch regularly from then on, and John never lost that personal touch. Sure, we talked about the economy, what he was investing in – always fascinating for me – but John always asked about my family and my health,” she said. “When I had cancer a few years ago, John reached out and offered to help. John believed in the power of positive thinking, and his team handed out “Positive Mental Attitude” pins at an event a while back. I carry my pin with me every day as a reminder of John. He may have been a savvy businessman and smart investor, but at his core John was an Iowan with a humble heart and an inspiring personal story.” 

Published May 2023. 

Corridor News