Venture Capitalist, EntrepreneurNorth Iowa Area Community College
By Evelyn L. Kent
John Pappajohn believes that adversity has the seed of greater benefit, and he’s devoted a healthy portion of his life to helping people realize the potential he believes is inherent in challenge.
Developing that potential requires a willingness to work, however. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everyone wants to get rich, but no one wants to work,” he said.
Pappajohn, a graduate of North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City, is a venture capitalist well known throughout the state for his philanthropy. Education is a frequent recipient of his largess and has received millions in contributions. Among other gifts to NIACC was $1.1 million in 2000 to build a business center.
His support of education has a cascading effect and bolsters the entire state, said State Representative Linda Upmeyer. “His vision and philanthropy are taking root in Iowa and will undoubtedly have long lasting and far reaching effects,” she wrote in a letter of support. It also helps people be better at being themselves, Pappajohn believes. "Education is the foundation, your platform that lets you go to the next level."
Pappajohn's foundation has a good dash of adversity and education. His immigrant parents owned a grocery in Mason City until his father died when Pappajohn was 16. He and his brother took over running the store and eventually shared the responsibility while attending college. They alternated years – one worked for a year while the other went to school. "Community college is what allowed me to do that because it was in my home town."
He went on to earn a bachelor's from the University of Iowa and to achieve success in the life insurance business. He became a full-time venture capitalist in 1969.
Today he picks the companies he backs using solid industry knowledge, company research and a good deal of instinct, he said. Given his investment in people, perhaps it is not surprising that Pappajohn feels that the key to a successful business is employees. Having happy ones with good skills led by competent management means that a company has solid credentials that works in its favor.
His investment doesn’t begin or end with money. He often actively works to turn a company around. "We're company doctors,” he said. “We fix companies all the time."
That expertise is being carried forward with five entrepreneurial centers that he funds throughout the state. “They may be one of my greatest successes,” he said. The centers teach students how to start and successfully manage a business.
Pappajohn said that as of April 2005 the centers have:
-- have helped start 1,872 businesses
-- trained 42,834 people in entrepreneurial courses and
-- created more than 4,518 jobs in the state.
"This is economic activity and I'm very proud of that," he said.
He and his wife, Mary, also funded a higher education center that allows working adults to earn college degrees and take training courses from seven Iowa colleges and universities at one downtown Des Moines location.
Despite being an avowed workaholic, he occasionally stops for recreation. “Art and wines are two hobbies of mine," he said.