Iowa founder Nancy Mwirotsi and philanthropist John Pappajohn. Pappajohn committed $100,000 and support from staff at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center network to help Mwirotsi expand the 6-year-old tech education nonprofit Pi515 in Iowa.Contributed photo
Early this fall, Des Moines founder Nancy Mwirotsi was surprised to take a call from noted philanthropist and Iowa entrepreneur John Pappajohn’s office. After meeting Pappajohn, Mwirotsi, founder of the STEM education nonprofit Pi515, said, “Anything is possible.”
Pappajohn committed $100,000 to the 6-year-old Pi515 after that meeting. With the support of staff at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) network, Mwirotsi, the only full-time employee at the STEM education nonprofit she founded, is evaluating how to best invest the money to help Pi515 increase its services for refugee, immigrant and low-income students in the Des Moines Public School District and surrounding area.
“I felt validated and seen,” Mwirotsi said of meeting Pappajohn. “We both started building from nothing, and we have this belief in empowering other people, in empowering other entrepreneurs.”
Mwirotsi and Pappajohn are also hammering out a partnership model between Pi515 and the JPECs located at Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, Drake University and the North Iowa Area Community College.
The ideal model will give Pi515 students avenues to engage with JPEC students and staff in mentoring, business creation or startup support — whether that is assisting JPEC startups with their business planning or helping Pi515 students develop their own innovative ventures and professional development. Planning between Pi515 and representatives of the five JPEC centers is underway, with hopes to debut a program model by the new year, said David Hensley, executive director at the University of Iowa JPEC.
“We’re expecting big things over the next several months, and ultimately our goal is to help educate and inspire these young people that participate in her program,” Hensley said. “We have students on our campuses and startups across the state that are always looking for programmers and people to help them on the development of their ideas, and so we saw this as another way to help our constituents by engaging Nancy’s students with our startups, and giving them opportunities to work together.”
The JPEC network regularly partners with economic development organizations across the state, but working with a nonprofit program like Pi515 is a new opportunity, Hensley added.
“We believe strongly that entrepreneurship and innovation is empowering to individuals, whether they plan to start their own business, go to work for a large organization or run a nonprofit organization,” he said.
Despite a global pandemic throwing classroom schedules into uncertainty, Pi515 is actively engaging students in tech curriculum. When schools first closed in March, Mwirotsi used Pi515’s network to raise donations of laptops and connect families to home internet services to support learning during the COVID-19 shutdown.
This semester through a partnership with Facebook, Pi515 is recruiting 10-15 high school and college students who will lead other high school students in virtual skills challenges, including the “Chatbots for Change” challenge hosted by Facebook’s Engineer for the Week initiative. Those students are learning how to deliver the class curriculum and lesson-plan for other high school students.
Until this week Pi515 has been meeting once a week in virtual classes, but Mwirotsi hopes to add two in-person class sessions to the coming schedule for students.
“The best way we can deliver classes is making sure that every single kid has accessibility to technology. That is a challenge,” Mwirotsi said. “This is just going to get harder, and we don’t know how this winter’s going to go for a lot of students.”
In October, Mwirotsi received a $10,000 Nation of Neighbors grant from the Royal Neighbors of America to develop the yet-unscheduled Girls Entrepreneurial Summit Program, expanding her STEM and entrepreneurship mission to young women in Central Iowa. The summit will host sessions educating girls in business planning, financials, marketing and digital promotion.
To Mwirotsi, the timing is prime to expand her education initiatives for students. Even grocery stores have automated traditional low-skill, part-time jobs held by students, she added.
“That means your typical child might possibly not even work at a grocery store. So where are kids going to work?” she said.
There was one more thing about meeting Pappajohn that stuck with Mwirotsi: a reminder of the entrepreneurship journey of her own father, who left school at age 12 and built a succession of businesses over time.
“His story reminded me of my father, because these are two men who built from absolutely nothing … and for me it was very personal and emotional,” Mwirotsi said. “My setup story has not been easy either, and I’ve been building just like them.”