2024 EO Iowa innovationENTREPRENEUR of the Year: Wendy Wintersteen

Entrepreneurship takes many forms, but there is a growing recognition of an entrepreneurial mindset that students and professionals alike can develop to think more innovatively, whatever their career.

As president of Iowa State University since 2017, Wendy Wintersteen has strived to instill a campuswide entrepreneurial mindset and cultivate a culture where everyone — students, faculty and staff — has the opportunity to think innovatively.

For these efforts, Wintersteen is the
recipient of the 2024 EO Iowa innovationENTREPRENEUR of the Year Award.

America’s Cultivation Corridor, of which Wintersteen is a founding member, wrote in its nomination that the Student Innovation Center on Iowa State’s campus is “perhaps the crown jewel of Wintersteen’s vision.”

“Sitting outside of any one specific college of study, it is a significant and beautiful space that uniquely inspires interdisciplinary innovation in the fields of culinary arts, engineering, manufacturing, textiles, broadcast journalism and more,” the nomination said.

The university’s bevy of programs offered through various entities on campus have reaped “top entrepreneurial talent” for the region, Dan Culhane, president and CEO of the Ames Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Commission, said in his letter of support. 

“Programs such as CyBiz Lab, CyStarters, Startup Factory, and Start Something have flourished in recent years, producing individuals and businesses who are making an extraordinary impact here locally, across the great state of Iowa, and beyond,” Culhane wrote.

Below, Wintersteen shares her insights into fostering innovative and entrepreneurial thinking in higher education.

What does it mean to you to drive the entrepreneurial spirit at Iowa State through your role?

Iowa State University is all about building human capital and helping our students, faculty and staff become the best version of themselves. As president, I feel that encouraging our students’ innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism gives ISU graduates a real advantage in dealing with a world of rapid technological change and all of the opportunities emerging from that change.

Innovate at Iowa State has resulted in creative courses, new ways of teaching and entrepreneurial ideas that invigorate our teaching and research across campus. I have pushed every college and department to lift up innovation and entrepreneurship, and the results have been phenomenal.

A lot of universities talk about innovation and entrepreneurship. At Iowa State, we’re actually doing it. Winning the 2023 Entrepreneurial University of the Year for the Americas was huge. Iowa State also recently bested Wake Forest and McGill University for the 2024 Model University Accelerator/Incubator Award from the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE). These recognitions have, once again, confirmed Iowa State’s leadership in innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. 

How do you define innovation in your career?

Innovation seems to be one expression of Kaizen, or “continuous improvement.” It may be a small step or a great leap, but it’s forward focused. Whether it is your personal career or your business, you need an innovation mindset. 

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

I believe one of the best things leaders can do, especially during times of uncertainty, is to listen more deeply. Oftentimes, leaders stop listening as soon as they perceive a possible solution. By listening deeply, I often learn that there is more to the issue than the initial appearance.

Also in times of uncertainty, it is essential to focus on core values – those foundational principles that your organization emerged from and carries forward. When the world is shaking, return to your core values and find the strength there.

Where does Iowa State see opportunities to bring entrepreneurship further into higher education?

We believe all students — in all majors — can benefit from developing an innovation and entrepreneurial mindset. That’s why we’re infusing innovation and entrepreneurship into our campus culture and in the curriculum of every college.

Iowa State’s Start Something Network continues to grow with new innovation and entrepreneurship offerings in every undergraduate college. Students in any major can take courses to learn about launching their own business, marketing their own product, or helping an existing company innovate new solutions.

We continue to grow and expand the opportunities available in our state-of-the-art Student Innovation Center. This is our 146,000-square-foot, highly flexible, technology-rich campus hub for project-based learning, entrepreneurship and multidisciplinary collaboration. Students can pursue projects from start to finish, including planning, design, production, testing, marketing and distribution. They have access to maker spaces, learning laboratories and specialized equipment — 3D printing, laser cutting, digital modeling and welders — to name a few. Every semester, about 3,000 students take courses at the Student Innovation Center and about 7,500 students participate in programs, events and activities at the center. 

What is one lesson you have learned from supporting entrepreneurship?

Creativity seems infinite. But it needs support and nurturing to become reality. With an innovation and entrepreneurial mindset, you can turn any challenge or setback into an opportunity for a creative or innovative solution.

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