Before entrepreneurs turn their focus to building a business with economic impact, many start with an idea sparked by a passion for a cause or industry. It’s often a driving factor for the innovation and growth their companies can achieve.

With so many different influences inspiring entrepreneurs, it’s important to understand what drives people and how that motivation shows up in their business. 

Below, meet four founders from across Iowa who are driven by a passion for their idea and learn what being an entrepreneur means to them. Their Q&A responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Martell Bell, founder and CEO, Ignite Consulting

Founded: 2022; based in Iowa City.

A transplant from Chicago, Martell Bell started Ignite Consulting to address the lack of time teachers and other educators have to develop new programs or innovative projects for students. Like educators, empowering the next generation is what drives Bell.

As an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at the University of Iowa, he saw there were more possibilities in the field than just working with cars or machinery. To show that to other students, he hosted the Engineering Success Conference for students in Upward Bound, a federally funded education program serving high school students who are from low-income families or are first-generation college students. Bell participated in Upward Bound in high school, and the conference is now an annual event.

“I wanted people coming after me to see those opportunities, but to also see that you don’t necessarily have to be an engineer to work on some of these same problems,” Bell said.

Two years into the business, Bell’s work ranges from workshops with students and training teachers on new technologies to developing interdisciplinary STEM projects. He is currently working with the Upward Bound program in Cedar Rapids, Grow: Johnson County and middle and high schools in Cedar Rapids through a partnership with the Leaders Believers Achievers Foundation. 

What’s a challenge you have experienced since starting your business and how do you navigate it?

Boundaries would be a challenge, especially for work that I do. It’s something I’m passionate about. I really care about the kids everywhere that I go, but you have to learn how to say no, which can be hard. You have to learn how to define expectations between the two parties and stick to it. My natural inclination is I want to say yes to everything because it’s usually something that’s going to benefit the community, the kids or something that’s going to make the impact that I want to make. If I spread myself too thin, then I’m not performing to the highest level that I can, which looks bad on the company and does not help people that I want to help. Saying no sometimes can hurt and be difficult, but it’s necessary to do quality work.

How do you think companies like Ignite Consulting can address broader needs in the education field?

There’s a few problems but they’re all connected. One is the amount of people with advanced degrees in education, and that’s because of the biggest problem — money. We know education is severely underfunded. Programs for at-risk youths are underfunded, understaffed, and that leads to the third problem, which is a lot of times, structure. Because we don’t have the money, we don’t have the personnel, we can’t really create the structures to support these people who need it. Those three things are all intertwined to create the problem that we see today in the education system. If we could provide the financial incentive for folks to pursue higher-level degrees, and who have good industry experience and who are passionate about what they do, that would fix a lot of the problems that we see in those systems. There is a lot being done about it. I think the problems that we see can be addressed pretty simply just by instilling that entrepreneurial mindset because there’s so many problems that you can apply to that framework. It doesn’t have to be expensive, you don’t have to be an expert, but the problem I’m addressing is teachers don’t even have the time to do this.

James Bierly, founder and cybersecurity consultant, Secure Point Solutions

Founded: 2019; based in Des Moines. 

Secure Point Solutions is a small business providing other small businesses with the higher level of cybersecurity services available to larger enterprises. An IT professional since 2007, James Bierly’s cybersecurity work in a previous role helped him understand a gap in services that he thought he could help bridge. 

“The big issues that are out there for security is that a lot of the tools are grossly expensive or [service providers] have minimums that a business of five people just simply can’t afford,” Bierly said. 

Bierly, his wife and a team of remote employees from across the country have grown Secure Point’s clients in Iowa, as well as coast to coast, since the company started. Bierly aims to build the business to a point where he can step away from the day-to-day operations to speak about security and use his platform to advocate for foster care, as a father of three children adopted from foster care.

How did you know entrepreneurship was something you wanted to do or that it was a good fit for you?

I didn’t necessarily see myself as an entrepreneur at first because I felt like, OK, I’m going to try to do something security related to keep the lights on, to keep our family taken care of. And it didn’t really hit me until probably a year into it when I realized, OK, now I’m making money, I am signing deals into this and some other areas that helped me to realize that yeah, I guess I’m a business owner, an entrepreneur. Entrepreneur always kind of implies to me that you’re doing something that maybe not many people have done. I don’t know if people have followed this path before, but I thought, “OK, well, if this is a path that other people have gone on, great. If this is a new path, a new way of doing things, I guess so be it.”

How do you think yours and other small businesses can help address challenges in the cybersecurity field?

Getting out there and trying to help your fellow small businesses with security. We need more companies like Secure Point. About 90% of all businesses in the United States have nine or fewer employees — that’s 13 million. And if you extend that out to a 20-person company, I think that’s about 17 million businesses. As much as I’d love to help all of them, my team doesn’t have the time. We need more small businesses looking to provide similar services because the bigger companies are pricing their clients out, and that happens a lot. I think the security and compliance practitioners shouldn’t just be isolated to really big companies.

Bierly’s advice to entrepreneurs: “Never rest on the last deal you signed and never count deals that haven’t been signed yet. There’s been times where I’ve taken my foot off the gas and they’ve been detrimental, to be quite honest.”

Skyler Ramsey, co-founder and CEO, Teal Phoenix

Founded: 2022; based in Cedar Falls.

The foundation for a business that makes real estate more accessible was laid over the years that Skyler Ramsey saw their cousin grow up navigating the challenges of living with multiple sclerosis. 

“Growing up seeing her lose her independence, and then face the challenges of the inequalities that are built into real estate had a profound impact on how I view the world and how I interact with real estate in particular,” Ramsey said.

They also learned about barriers in real estate through volunteer work training six service dogs for veterans and children with autism.

While a student at the University of Northern Iowa studying finance, real estate and entrepreneurship, Ramsey tested and developed the idea for Teal Phoenix with the staff and resources at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. 

To remove accessibility barriers for those with mobility differences, Ramsey built the business to offer assessments of commercial or residential real estate and identify features to upgrade, ranging from low-cost updates to structural changes.

Ramsey and their co-founder and husband, Kyle, are primarily working with clients in northeast Iowa and will look to expand as Teal Phoenix grows. 

What is the broader change you hope Teal Phoenix’s work can help bring to the real estate industry?

I would like to see real estate completely redesigned. A not-so-fun fact about real estate is that in terms of accessible design, wheelchair accessibility was not put into the Americans with Disabilities Act until 2016. So when you think about all of the real estate that existed prior to 2016, that’s all of the real estate that we’re primarily focusing on updating to be more inclusive, which is the majority of the entire industry. New construction, especially in commercial spaces, has to comply with the ADA, but I think just the acknowledgment that there’s been systematic barriers to access, particularly for those of socioeconomic minorities and those with limited mobility. 

As you build Teal Phoenix, what will drive you to move it forward?

For me, the part that gives me strength in the hardest of times is knowing that I’m not alone, there are people that I can lean on and find that support, while also recognizing that in building a business, especially when it’s just you and a co-founder in our case, no one’s going to do it unless you do it. And if not me doing it, then who’s going to be doing it?

Dustin Rhoades, founder, Ability Tech

Founded: 2019; based in Sioux City.

He didn’t plan to, but five years ago, Dustin Rhoades found himself starting a business to help make adaptive technology more inclusive.

His oldest son has hydranencephaly, a rare condition where cerebrospinal fluid replaces the brain’s cerebral hemispheres. Rhoades built a switch-hitter that allowed his son to swing a bat at his Miracle League baseball games. When they shared it on social media, requests for other adaptive devices started to flow in.

He made the switch-hitter himself because devices serving people with rare conditions often aren’t produced by larger adaptive technology companies because the market opportunity is too small. And the ones that are available are usually too expensive, he said. 

Ability Tech prioritizes the individual first, Rhoades said, making the product they need and then seeing if it fills a need for a wider group of people. Having personal experience with the financial challenges of getting these devices, Rhoades created the nonprofit Ability Tech Foundation to help families cover the costs of the products he makes when needed. 

What opportunities do you see for yours and other small businesses to make a difference in the adaptive technology field?

The biggest thing for us and any other new business coming in doing what we’re trying to do with the adaptive technology world is you’re going to have to understand that you’re going to have to work a lot harder and differently than the other businesses. Your resources are going to be more valuable because you can’t just sit there and waste them. You don’t want to pour thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars of your own personal money into it, and then in a couple of years have it not work out, so you have to become very resourceful. I’ve talked to others that are trying to or are starting what we’re doing because it is going to be a network of businesses, helping each other to get through this. But if you can do it right, there are enough individuals out there looking for the help that we are providing. There’s a need for it. The demand is a little different, so it’s going to be a little bit more of a struggle at first, but it should hopefully work out. 

As you continue to build Ability Tech, what is a takeaway from your experience so far that you’ll carry with you?

When people think of starting businesses, it’s different for each individual because they’re all going to have their own idea of a business, but when I first got into it, I was like, “Well, I can work at this for 10 years, it’d be hopefully a million dollar company and then I can sell it and retire.” That’s what a lot of people think that you have to do with business. My biggest thing is I’m driven by the mission; it’s personal because our family is affected by it as well. The slow growth is just fine for us, so the biggest thing is just stick to what you believe is right for you and your business. In the end, yes, to a lot of bigger businesses or bigger investors, what we’re doing does not look or seem like it’s going to be successful. But to us, the small steps that we have taken, the people that we’ve helped have been our biggest success. 

Rhoades’ advice to entrepreneurs: “The biggest thing that I tell people now is if you are thinking of starting a business, you should have started yesterday. Don’t wait one more day because once you get started, it just rolls itself into something.”