Resource Partner – Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute

Resource Partner – Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute

By Amy Kuhlers, Iowa Economic Development Authority

This summer, 32 aspiring entrepreneurs will gather together for a week of learning, mentoring, exploring and pitching – and come away with three college credits for their efforts.  For the 12th year in a row, the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute (OEI) will offer undergraduate students the opportunity to growth their own entrepreneurial roots and have fun at the same time.  We caught up with David Hensley, Executive Director of the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, to learn more about what makes the Institute a success.

Q:  For those who may not be familiar can you share a bit about the OEI and how it started?

DH:  The creation of the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute was spearheaded by Tom Bedell and a group of outstanding business and community leaders in the Okoboji area.  I was asked to attend a meeting in early spring of 2006 to discuss how to better engage the Regents’ institutions with the Iowa Lakes Corridor region to support entrepreneurship and economic development.  What came from that meeting was the commitment from the community to host a one-week summer immersion experience for 24 students from the University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, and Iowa State University.  We went from a concept to holding the first Institute in a matter of months.  They agreed to raise the money, find home stays for the students, attend events, serve as guest speakers, connect students and faculty to local, statewide and national leaders and support the program in any way they could.  This incredible commitment hasn’t wavered since OEI I.

During the week, students participate in an advanced entrepreneurial computer simulation, where they work in teams to create and launch a company.  As part of the simulation, they are required to raise “venture capital” to support the growth of their ventures.  Community members serve as the VC’s and provide a great educational and challenging experience for the students.  Beyond the simulation, students hear from successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, meet with the Iowa Governor, and network with regional business and community members.  Those students seeking to launch companies have several opportunities to pitch their ideas to local entrepreneurs and investors and receive very valuable feedback on their venture concepts.  Students also get a chance to enjoy the wonderful recreational opportunities in the region.

Keys to the successful launch were the strong support of the local OEI steering committee and local business and community members, program leadership provided by the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation, and the willingness of the region to open their homes and hearts to our students and faculty. 

Each of the initial participating universities had Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers, so we all agreed to take the lead on selecting students and delivering the content throughout the week.  The majority of the Institute takes place at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory; their team has been incredible to work with—providing the necessary facilities, technology and outstanding meals throughout the week.

The following year, we expanded to 32 students, our current level, with the inclusion of students from Iowa Lakes Community College and Buena Vista University.  Each of the five institutions plays an important role in OEI and fully supports the students and program on an annual basis.

Q:  How are students selected and what are some of the benefits that can be attained by attending OEI?

DH:  Each individual educational institution has their own selection criteria.  In general, we seek students who have a solid academic background, are actively involved on their campuses–including participation and/or leadership in student organizations or entrepreneurs starting and/or operating their own businesses, and who are motivated to excel.  Students submit application materials and are interviewed by faculty and staff.  It is a very competitive process; OEI attendees have traditionally been leaders and innovators on their respective campuses.  I have always been impressed with the quality of students attending OEI.

Students have indicated that OEI has been a transformational experience for them—often cited as one of the best experiences of their college careers. 

Some of the benefits students receive include:

  • Professional network—students make incredible connections with local, regional, state and national entrepreneurs and business leaders.
  • Mentoring—students have opportunities to spend quality time with professionals to receive coaching and guidance on their entrepreneurial ideas and/or professional career plans. 
  • Education – students are pushed to apply their education in a very advanced and high pressure simulation—all in the pursuit of better understanding how to launch and build a company—as well as winning a cash prize and the coveted OEI championship hats!
  • Opportunity—students learn about the professional opportunities available to them not only in the Iowa Lakes Corridor but across the entire state of Iowa.
  • Individual Growth—students leave OEI with a renewed sense of passion, focus, confidence and motivation to pursue their dreams and make a difference in the world.
  • Sense of Community—students see firsthand what it means to be a member of a community—they take those lessons back to their campuses and to the communities they will locate in after graduation.

Q:  OEI has been inspiring college students for over 10 years now, can you share some ‘Where are they now?’ success stories about past OEI students?

DH:  Here are just a few examples.

  • John Slump (OEI 2007) and Jared Garfield (OEI 2008) co-founders of Corvida Medical, Iowa City
    Corvida Medical® innovates intelligent technologies that are designed to represent smarter solutions for the safe handling of hazardous drugs and excellence in design.  Their first technology, a novel Closed System Transfer Device (CSTD) – Halo® — is now commercially available.
  • Libby Glaser (OEI 2013)
    Upon graduation from the University of Iowa, Libby joined the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation as their Events, Communications and Marketing Coordinator.  She currently works at Bank Midwest in Spirit Lake.
  • Matthew Rooda and Abraham Espinoza, co-founders of SwineTech, Iowa City (OEI 2016)
    The company has developed an innovative wearable device for the hog industry.  They recently won the Cupid’s Cup and Carnegie Melon business competitions, received a 2017 Lemelson-MIT undergraduate student prize, and will be representing the United States in the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards competition.  In 2016, they won the International Business Model Competition.
  • Lana Miller Fox, CEO, ClinicNote, Des Moines (OEI 2014)
    ClinicNote is a Practice Management and Electronic Medical Record software for Speech-Language Pathologists that streamlines their therapy and insurance documentation.
  • Brendon Geils, CEO, Sodima Solutions, Ames (OEI 2015)
    Custom software solutions with a focus in web development, mobile deployment, artificial intelligence and custom web applications. Markets include real estate, agriculture, athletics, media marketing. Current projects: 1. A farmland mapping solution allowing agriculture specialists to find and discover land properties intelligently. 2. Chat bot technology for residential real estate implementing neural networks, machine learning, custom APIs and proprietary NLP algorithms.
  • Keevin O’Rourke is Program Manager at NMotion Accelerator in Lincoln Nebraska and attended 2014.
  • Nick Cash is Lead Software Engineer for Jam City based out of San Francisco, has a Midwest office location in Cedar Falls, attended 2010.


Q: Any other thoughts about OEI you’d like to add?

DH:  I have had the privilege to be part of OEI from the start.  The connections and friendships I have made over the years have been incredible and changed my life.  I continue to be amazed how the community embraces the students and faculty every year—it is like coming home for a week.  I have often been asked why we hold this in northwest Iowa every year.  My response is always the same—I can’t think of a better place to demonstrate to our students what Iowa is all about—entrepreneurship, innovation, passion, community, hard work, friendships, and success.  Also, where else would you want to be in August in Iowa—but the Iowa Great Lakes Region.

The OEI experience has also demonstrated how five unique educational institutions can successfully work together to create a distinctive educational experience for our respective students.  We have developed strong relationships among the OEI faculty partners and have leveraged those relationships well beyond OEI. 

During OEI week, it is not one institution against another like on the gridiron—it is 32 students working together and growing professionally.

It is amazing to witness the friendships and collaborations developed by the students.  By the end of the first day, they come together to be the OEI Class of 20XX.  Their relationships last a lifetime.

On behalf of the OEI participating institutions, I want to sincerely thank all of the individuals and organizations that have provided financial support and participated directly in the program.  You have made an incredible impact on the lives of OEI students and faculty.  You are the best!

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