innovationENTREPRENEUR of the Year: Nancy Mwirotsi

The Business Record’s 2022 innovationENTREPRENEUR Award recipient is Pursuit of Innovation 515 founder and Executive Director Nancy Mwirotsi. 

Mwirotsi started an after-school dance group for local girls and in 2014 transitioned it to the early version of Pi515. The education nonprofit teaches underserved youths technology skills and empowers them to explore and pursue science, technology, math and engineering fields. 

Mwirotsi has made Pi515 students and their success the central focus of the organization since the first classes in a church basement.  

Serving the Greater Des Moines area, Pi515 offers a middle school program to introduce hands-on learning opportunities and two high school programs. One focuses on digital skills of the future like web design, coding languages and robotics. Another teaches on-the-job skills through pre-apprenticeships and internships with a community business partner. American Equity and Principal Financial Group have been partners for the program so far.

Pi515’s Girls Entrepreneurship Summit was held for the second time in 2022, where high school and college-age participants learn the first steps to developing a business idea.

Pi515 reaches more than 150 students annually through its programming, and more than 130 students have graduated from high school and gone on to postsecondary education.

Beyond technology and career skills, closing the gaps in access to technology and digital literacy are efforts of Pi515. During the pandemic, Mwirotsi partnered with AT&T to get hot spots to students and families in need and had Pi515 students offer digital literacy training. 

Recently, Mwirotsi has been elevating the conversation around the need to prepare for a new class of careers that are expected to emerge by 2030 and will require a new and evolving set of digital skills. Below, she shares about her entrepreneurial journey and her lessons along the way.

What drives you as an entrepreneur?

My entrepreneurship stems from a place of believing in helping others and making a difference in the world. By changing the lives of individuals for the better, the Greater Des Moines community is being positively impacted.

How do you define innovation in your career?

In my career, I have come to welcome the challenges of risk and failure as part of solving problems. I work to constantly generate ideas and find solutions to problems. I have found that being comfortable thinking outside the box can lead to great and unexpected results. As the executive director of a nonprofit organization that’s been in operation for nearly a decade, I have worked to stay at the forefront of changes in the field of tech and work. 

How do leaders effectively guide a team through times of uncertainty?

The most critical skill for an effective leader is listening to those around them. People may put forward unexpected ideas and solutions, and a good leader creates space for this to occur. An effective leader also manages to balance empathy with their responsibilities. 

Where are the opportunities for growth in your industry?

Right now is an important time for innovation in the field of primary education. School districts and administrators must recognize that the future of work will look radically different than it currently does. In order to prepare students for this future, they must embrace the importance of STEM, specifically tech, in the education of youth.

What is one lesson from your career that you would share with new entrepreneurs?

The main lesson that I have learned from my career as an entrepreneur and executive director is the importance of constantly learning, asking questions and allowing yourself to grow. Part of this is saying yes to taking risks and recognizing that failing is a part of learning. Finally, it is important to surround yourself with people who truly support your vision, which may include people that you do not even know.

A guest opinion piece from Nancy Mwirotsi on the future of technological innovation is featured in the STEM Chapter. 

About the awards: The recipients of the innovationIOWA awards are nominated by members of the community and selected by Business Record leadership.