Remembering a pillar of business, community: John Pappajohn

On first anniversary of his passing, the community reflects on memories with Pappajohn

One year ago this week, Iowa lost John Pappajohn, a pillar of business, entrepreneurship, education, art and philanthropy. 

His story is well known and revered as his legacy carries on through the people and organizations he supported and influenced during his life. In creating the five John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers (JPEC) with a clear vision for entrepreneurship in Iowa, Pappajohn established a distinctiveness for Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“At the time of John’s initial gift to the five Pappajohn Centers, he was concerned about the Iowa economy given the struggles of the farm economy and stated, ‘I want to make Iowa the most entrepreneurial state in America.’ It was a visionary investment and has led to a strong and connected ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Iowa of which the five centers are integral members,” Lynn Allendorf, interim executive director of the University of Iowa JPEC, said in an emailed statement.

The centers were given the direction from Pappajohn to act as they saw fit to address the needs of entrepreneurs in their region. Today, more than 25 years later, they continue on that path in addition to coming together for joint initiatives like the Venture Mentoring Service, a statewide program first launched in 2022.

To best represent and share Pappajohn’s legacy and influence on Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and beyond, the Business Record asked those who knew him to contribute a memory or experience. Entrepreneurs, friends and leaders from business, education and government replied. Their emailed responses are below and have been edited for clarity.

Jack Chimbetete, founder and president,

My journey with Mr. Pappajohn started in 2018 when I came for the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Drake University, a six-week business networking and training program organized by the U.S. State Department Young African Leaders Initiative. I saw him speak and was inspired. After producing my first documentary of the city of Des Moines that had been sponsored by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a year later he invited me to his office to interview him. In five minutes, he saw my idea of and wrote me a check — my first seed capital for the project after having had people like Laura Kinnard of Curated Growth, Dimy Doresca, Chris Osore, John Mahundi and Andrew Peters seeing that this was a big idea. I told him I would continue telling stories. He set me up with David Hensley at the University of Iowa and we began working on his story, about the impact he was making in higher education in Iowa and the connection with students and entrepreneurs in Africa. He became my mentor and would call me to check up on my family when I would be traveling back to the U.S. and even how the business was doing. I have a lot more to share, but as a way to remember him, here is a documentary I produced of him with the impact at UI and the Fellowship. In his honor, I am working on a part 2 of the Greater Des Moines story, from a diversity lens, and it will also be found on

Debi Durham, director, Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority

John was a self-described workaholic, but he also was very generous 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. 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.

Judi Eyles, director, Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University

I have spent the better part of my career at Iowa State University – all because of John Pappajohn and the vision he shared with Iowans in 1996. What a pleasure it has been to be a part of this entrepreneurship adventure. How could you not love and be inspired by this amazing man? He was the catalyst for changing the startup culture in Iowa. Through their generous gifts and engagement, John and Mary were able to see this incredible vision flourish.

John was a savvy businessman with a heart of gold. His impact extended far beyond financial contributions. He loved meeting students, celebrating successes and emphasized the importance of learning from failures. His voice echoed encouragement: “If I can do it, you can do it.” Behind his trademark round glasses, the twinkle in his eyes revealed unwavering determination and positivity. More than anything, John inspired us to put in the work to pursue an entrepreneurial dream. 

John Pappajohn’s dreams continue to resonate through the lives he touched. His legacy inspires generations of entrepreneurs, reminding us all to pursue our dreams with passion and resilience. We miss you, John, but your vision lives on, and we are immensely grateful.

Chris James, founder, True360

One of my most cherished memories involving John Pappajohn dates back to 2018, during my participation in the John Pappajohn Student Venture Competition. I recall the overwhelming nervousness I felt, compounded by the fact that I had accidentally submitted the incorrect presentation. Despite this mishap, I mustered the courage to improvise as best as I could. In a critical moment, John himself interrupted me. My anxiety reached its peak… until he requested our financials, which, by a stroke of serendipity, were next up in my presentation. The relief and satisfaction that washed over me in that instant were indescribable. As I approached the stage to receive my award, John commended my performance, imparting a piece of wisdom that has since guided my journey: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” I did indeed get lucky that day, and this mantra has been the bedrock of my endeavors as I’ve traversed the country, creating immersive virtual reality experiences that have captivated hundreds of thousands of viewers through my startup True360.

Lynn Allendorf, interim executive director, University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center

The biggest examples of John’s legacy are the entrepreneurs who have been assisted over the 25-plus years. They have a positive impact on the economy and will be our next generation of philanthropists: Steven Davis of Bio::Neos in Coralville was a student of the UI Pappajohn Center in 2003 and was recently named the Prometheus Awards 2023 CEO of the Year. He regularly gives back by volunteering to help other entrepreneurs in the Pappajohn Center. Erica Cole of No Limbits had no intention to be an entrepreneur until she had a life-changing accident and then stumbled upon a startup competition on campus. Surgeon Dr. Maria Iliakova saw an opportunity with surgical processes and accelerated her idea via the UI Venture School training program, which is offered across the state of Iowa.

John Mickelson, co-founder and managing partner, Midwest Growth Partners

It would be hard for me to overstate the impact John Pappajohn had on my life and the direct correlation between his generosity and the creation and success of Midwest Growth Partners. 

1. I was the recipient of several scholarships funded by the Pappajohns in both undergrad and grad school, which enabled me to mitigate the cost of my education and later have the financial flexibility to quit a secure, well-paying job, to start MGP (not secure and not well-paying for the first few years). 

2. I spent nearly every day in the Pappajohn Business Building for eight years and would frequently stop and read about his bio in wall displays and realize that someone in Iowa can become a successful [venture capitalist]/[private equity] investor. 

3. My first “office” — an 8-by-4-foot windowless room that I shared with the other Intro to Law teaching assistants, Michael Dayton; Lou Ebinger; Dr. Andrew Hosmanek; and Daniel Slade, JD MBA — was in the Pappajohn Business Building, which gave me a sense of professionalism I had never had. 

4. I placed in and received funding from Mr. Pappajohn in two business plan competitions for businesses that never went anywhere. While the businesses were total failures, the experience of preparing for the competitions, pitching the businesses to Mr. Pappajohn, receiving feedback, etc., was an invaluable experience for fundraising for MGP later in life. And the funding was nice too! Read Mickelson’s full LinkedIn post.

Nancy Mwirotsi, founder and executive director, Pi515

John’s immigrant roots and the rich tapestry of his cultural heritage were not just facets of his identity but foundational elements that shaped his worldview and interactions. His stories, brimming with themes of family, community and relentless hard work, resonated deeply to me, creating a bond between us over shared values and experiences. This connection was further strengthened by the parallel paths of entrepreneurship and community building that both John and my father navigated. Their journeys, marked by humble beginnings, sacrifice and an unwavering commitment to lifting others as they climbed, continue to serve as an inspiration and powerful testament to their character and vision. I was fortunate to call him a friend and a mentor and will forever cherish his wisdom and support. 

My decision to build an artificial intelligence curriculum in 2020 and John’s immediate, unequivocal support highlights his intrinsic belief in the potential of individuals and innovative ideas. John’s interest in the Pi515 community went beyond mere curiosity; it was an expression of his genuine care and desire to see others succeed. He was always curious about what I was working on and also how the Pi515 kids were doing. His questions about my progress weren’t just polite inquiries but a part of his broader commitment to nurturing a supportive, inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem.

John’s eyes would light up when talking about the potential he saw in others, especially young entrepreneurs. He believed fervently in giving back, in planting seeds for the future — a principle he lived by. This was evident when he enthusiastically supported community projects and innovative ideas, including his steadfast backing of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers, aimed at empowering the youth. His belief wasn’t rooted in what he saw on the surface but in the potential he envisioned these projects could unlock for communities and the broader society.

Jennifer Canelos, director of marketing, South Story Bank

Several years ago, with all the audacity of an unemployed, recent college graduate, I contacted John Pappajohn’s office and asked to meet with him to learn about venture capital. His assistant made the appointment. When I arrived, I met with John’s “right hand.” I was somewhat disappointed not to meet John but grateful for the opportunity and the “education.” A few days later, I received a letter from John Pappajohn that he actually typed. He was called into another meeting and apologized for not being able to attend the meeting. He encouraged me and wished me well on my future endeavors. I was amazed that someone of his stature would care enough and take the time to type me a letter. Just one example of his kindness and generosity toward young people and his desire to help educate them.

Matt Kinley, founding partner, ManchesterStory

I worked very closely with John for 22 years during my tenure at Equity Dynamics Inc. I was extremely lucky to have met John when I was about 27 years old, and I had the opportunity to learn the venture business from him. As you likely know, Equity Dynamics was John’s family office that primarily invested his capital in venture opportunities around the country.  I had a unique perspective of his impact across many parts of his life. Many people know of John and Mary through their gifts at the University of Iowa Hospitals or University of Iowa Business Building. These were early significant gifts by John and Mary but also early in John’s vision. In my opinion, he had two projects that had the greatest impact and were the closest to his heart. 

First, the Pappajohn gifts to form the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers at Iowa, ISU, UNI, Drake and NIACC in 1996 were a kick-start to the entrepreneurial community in Iowa. He gave almost no direction to the team that initially formed these entrepreneurial centers. He said it was “a blank sheet of paper and they should decide what direction best fit the needs of the community they served.” Each university developed a unique focus and culture. ISU and Iowa both focused on tech transfer and supporting university entrepreneurs, and UNI and Drake focused on providing more services to their local community. NIACC led the rollout of programs to the network of Iowa community colleges. John provided financial support to the entrepreneurial centers during the rest of his life and also provided other interesting engagement opportunities such as the Pappajohn Business plan competitions (held by JPECs) and also, later, a statewide competition open to entrepreneurial teams all across the state, regardless of university or JPEC affiliation. John was a true entrepreneur at heart, and nothing gave him more joy than to see other entrepreneurs work hard and become successful.   

Second, John and Mary’s gift of sculpture to help create the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. I recall the weekend when I saw John at the office and he discussed the idea of clearing a couple of blocks in the Western Gateway and creating a sculpture garden unique for a city the size of Des Moines. I remember the two or three blocks of old garages and rough buildings that then occupied the space between 13th and 15th streets. John told me about the light bulb moment when he and Mary had driven by the location on a weekend drive and he visualized the sculpture park. I also recall the excitement in John’s voice when he called me while at Art Basel in Miami after he and Mary had purchased the Plensa, which he felt was perfect for the sculpture garden. Des Moines was “home” for John and Mary, and he was very proud to have an impact on such a key section of the city.         

In addition to these two projects, both of which continue to have an impact today, John made a difference in many lives. I saw his impact firsthand with the advice and counsel for many entrepreneurs and others we worked with. We shared many meetings, many lunches and dinners and many stories created as part of the venture business working with entrepreneurs crazy enough to want to change the world. I also saw his impact on many immigrants that he helped with college tuition or other college expenses. Many of these recipients wrote him letters requesting help, and he never met them in person. He believed education and hard work were the great equalizers for immigrants and entrepreneurs. 

He helped many, he inspired many. He preached, and believed, the power of a positive mental attitude (PMA). He practiced it every day and inspired those around him that anything was possible. I will always be thankful for the opportunity to work closely with John, and he is missed by many. With that, I will practice a personal lesson I learned from John – look forward, not back and keep up the PMA!

Geert Boelen and Annie Zeimis, owners, One Hop Shop and Iowa State alumni

My wife, Annie, and I first met John during his birthday celebration at the Iowa State University Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship. We sat next to him and had great conversations about entrepreneurship and life. The next time we saw John was at his 25-year anniversary celebration of the JPEC centers located around the state of Iowa. It was an evening filled with great friends, great food, topped off by a great speech by John. John spoke about his background, coming from a poor family from Greece, living in Mason City working for a low wage when he started out as a young man. He talked about struggling through tough times with his family, and one of the things that stuck with me the most was the idea of having a positive mental attitude. PMA! “If you can do it, I can do it.”

Suku Radia

John never forgot his humble beginnings. He was an entrepreneur at heart. He was so passionate about developing college students that he not only funded “Entrepreneur Centers” at several Iowa universities but he took the time to interact with students to discuss the fundamentals of business. 

One can never underestimate the impact he had on higher education. John was not one to back off as he pushed faculty to continually improve the quality of the centers. He pushed each college to have a club that invested monies into the stock market. The premise behind the stock portfolio was clearly aimed at having the students not invest based on hunches but to apply the basic tenets of finance. He wanted them to invest based on an understanding of the fundamentals of free cash flows, price-to-earnings ratios, discounted cash flows and analysts’ expectations.

John and Mary gave us the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden in Des Moines. This has become a venue that defines Des Moines. I still remember when I was part of a group that had purchased a private tour of the garden on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. 

As we began the tour, two things come to mind:

  1. Right at the onset, John proudly said, “Mary is really the expert and each piece of art has a great story. Mary can do it much more justice than me and let’s listen to her.”
  2. At the end of the tour, Mary said: “I really want John to live to 125 so that he can continue to buy and sell great companies. That will mean we can buy many more pieces of art for this garden.”

John and Mary will always be remembered as our greatest philanthropists. I was privileged and honored to know them. 

Jeff Rose, president and CEO, American Bank & Trust

I was one of John Pappajohn’s bankers in the early 2000s. He would frequently provide financial support for Iowa-based startup companies. His backing would allow banks to lend to early-stage companies that would normally not qualify for traditional bank loans. However, Mr. Pappajohn would only meet with the bankers after the business day ended, since we were vendors and not accretive to the profitability of his investments. Occasionally, after we finished our business discussion, he would treat us by opening a bottle of his favorite wine, Chateau Petrus. This was my introduction to world-class Bordeaux wines. A great memory.

David Spalding, Raisbeck Endowed Dean and professor of finance, Debbie and Jerry Ivy College of Business

John Pappajohn’s investment starting in 1996 in the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University launched thousands of students on their entrepreneurial journeys. Many of them continued that journey in Iowa, which is what John hoped would happen. Small businesses are job creation engines, and these businesses have improved the economic climate here. I was proud to call John mentor and friend, and I miss him very much.

On behalf of the Des Moines Art Center:

In March of 2007, John Pappajohn said, “Mary and I have an idea.”

These six words were the beginning of what would become a transformational project for our community and an important part of Des Moines’ cultural identity just two years later – the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

John Pappajohn understood the vital role art plays within a community – how it fosters creativity, drives innovation, serves as a catalyst for economic development and elevates its reputation. A vibrant arts scene contributes to attracting new talent and employers to Des Moines, and to retaining those who already live and work here. With that in mind, John knew the significance of his investment and that success would require a strong partnership with the city of Des Moines, the downtown business community and donors of the Des Moines Art Center.

Through his visionary leadership, John helped develop what has become one of the leading sculpture parks in the nation, filled with works by acclaimed artists from around the world and attracting more than 200,000 visitors each year. From individuals taking a moment out of their day to experience the grandeur of the park to serving as a central gathering spot for community events, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park has become an integral part of the fabric of the community.

Des Moines Art Center trustee Craig A. Shadur, MD, summarized Mr. Pappajohn’s inspiration and impact in this way: “John was a man who came from very humble beginnings and worked diligently to achieve amazing success. This gave him the vision to give back generously to his community and the world through the arts, the sciences and education. John wanted others to have the same opportunity and tools to succeed and innovate, much as he had done. He is personally missed and will always be of blessed memory.”

As we celebrate the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park’s 15th anniversary, we are just beginning to realize the magnitude of how John’s innovative idea has transformed our city, an impact that will only continue to grow in the years ahead, just as he dreamed it would.