Q&A with Judi Eyles of the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship

This article was originally featured in Clay & Milk.

For more than two decades, Judi Eyles has been supporting student entrepreneurs at Iowa State University by providing them with the assistance, resources, and tools to launch their own ventures.

As the Director of ISU JPEC and of CyBIZ Lab, Eyles has been an instrumental part of creating a culture at Iowa State that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation.

Our Q&A is below:

Have you always had an interest in entrepreneurship and community building?

Without realizing it, I suppose I have always had an interest in entrepreneurship. As a child, I had a door-to-door selling business, numerous lemonade and cookie stands, even decorated and sold pet rocks!

But my interest in helping others through entrepreneurship came through my connection with the Small Business Development Center. I learned about the SBDC while working on my own business, but it was while I was back in graduate school at Iowa State that I was hired to do market research and write business plans for community entrepreneurs and fledgling ISU Research Park startups. Back then, the ISU Research Park was just working on constructing its second building, and there were less than a dozen companies at the Park. The SBDC had just recently located there to support these companies, including greats like Engineering Animation, the early version of Proplanner, and what became Harris Vaccines. It was hard not to get caught up in the process of watching companies launch and grow!

You’ve been with ISU JPEC for 24 years now. That’s a long time to spend at an organization. What are some of your proudest accomplishments from your time at ISU?

It has been a true pleasure working together with the other JPECs and all the great people at Iowa State and in Iowa to develop the support networks that foster entrepreneurial growth.

John Pappajohn was such an important catalyst for everything we see today in our entrepreneurship ecosystem, so I have to say helping plan and host the gala to celebrate John and Mary on the 20th anniversary of the Pappajohn Centers was a definite highlight and an incredibly memorable event. I am inspired by John Pappajohn every day in the work we do to support entrepreneurs in Iowa.

More recently, showcasing Iowa State entrepreneurs at the Iowa State Fair last year was a monumental effort that put a significant stamp of endorsement on what we have built here over the last two decades. To be able to pull together 137 Iowa Staters giving 56 business pitches over the course of 11 days of the fair was so much fun! It was a wonderful showcase of Iowa State entrepreneurship.

How has ISU’s commitment toward supporting entrepreneurship changed over the years?

Truly 180 degrees from where we started, when faculty entrepreneurs felt they had to look at company formation under the radar, and when there were only a handful of students who chose to pursue entrepreneurship as a career.

Today, with President Wintersteen’s leadership, Dean Spalding’s commitment to offering academic entrepreneurship for undergraduates through PhD students, all of our colleges on board creating innovation and entrepreneurship experiences for students, and a thriving Research Park for technology startups, Iowa State’s original vision of creating a truly integrated cross-campus entrepreneurial environment has come to fruition, and it’s so cool to be a part of it all!

ISU’s Core Facility brings our entrepreneurship resource organizations together to support startups, and now we have opened the Student Innovation Center on campus, where collaborating together across disciplines will be so much easier for students. Have things changed since I started advocating for entrepreneurship in the mid-1990s? Absolutely yes, and all of us at the Iowa State Pappajohn Center are so grateful for Iowa State’s leadership, collaboration, and support.

What are the biggest challenges universities like ISU face when it comes to supporting entrepreneurship?

The university is a big place, so helping entrepreneurs (especially those who don’t know yet that they will become an entrepreneur) navigate all of the resources presents a challenge. Supporting entrepreneurs starts with raising awareness of opportunities in entrepreneurship and works its way to providing direct support for those with an idea that has some traction.  It’s important to help entrepreneurs find the right resources at the right time in their development; that includes helping them identify and tap resources both in and outside the university. It truly takes a village working together to support entrepreneurs at our institution.

In addition to being Director of ISU JPEC, you are also Director of CyBIZ Lab. Can you talk a little about what CyBIZ Lab is and what that role consists of?

CyBIZ Lab is our amazing student consulting program that we started in 2013 with just four MBA students but which has grown to a staff of 20-30 students per semester with well over 200 projects completed. With two of our best former student consultants now on staff helping to lead the program, we have become a desired go-to resource for startups, non-profits, communities, companies of all sizes, and even our own university departments and centers.

We have worked incredibly hard to develop a program that recruits and trains outstanding students from a wide variety of disciplines that are available to serve companies with project needs. For a company, it’s like having a dedicated team of interns working on solutions to your company’s challenges, but we manage the team, provide resources and support, and offer an objective deliverable that usually exceeds client expectations. At the same time, we are providing students with, in my opinion, one of the most valuable learning opportunities in their collegiate experience, and one which undoubtedly sets them apart from other candidates once they graduate and enter the workforce. Our interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students are very adept at market and industry research, survey design and implementation, data analytics, economic impact analysis, and marketing development.

What advice would you give to a student who is interested in entrepreneurship but isn’t sure what they want to do?

Students need to simply give entrepreneurship a try!  It’s a bit addicting once you get involved. Entrepreneurship is relevant across all disciplines, so there are many roles for students to play – founder, co-founder, team member, or supporter. There are many ways to get involved and learn.  Enter a pitch competition – or just watch one. Take a class in entrepreneurship – or attend a workshop.  Join a team innovation challenge – or join an entrepreneurship club. Intern in a startup – or contact us to vet out your own ideas.

You never know when you will come across your own big idea, but learning about entrepreneurship by watching others, networking, reading, and acquiring skill sets and knowledge will help you develop an entrepreneurial mindset and prepare you better for whatever entrepreneurship opportunities come before you – or whatever opportunities you choose to make happen!

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Oh gosh, 18 years was so long ago! But here goes. Have confidence in yourself. Get out of your comfort zone, and try new things. Challenge yourself, and always be willing to learn from others. Be kind. Be gracious.  Work hard. Give of your time and resources to help others. Stay positive.  Be a good role model for your children. Life will throw you curveballs, lots and lots of curveballs, so get ready, and be strong.

Are there any additional thoughts/comments you have on Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem that you’d like share?

It’s an exciting time for entrepreneurship in Iowa. Thinking back to the start of the Pappajohn Centers, I could never have imagined the large number of resources available to entrepreneurs in our state today — university resources, state resources, a growing number of investors and funds, community programs, accelerators, media resources, meetups, and alumni entrepreneurs giving back. The best part is the “Iowa Nice” culture that is at the core of this ecosystem — so much positive collaboration, which benefits the entrepreneurs.

John Pappajohn challenged us a quarter of a century ago to “Change the culture and create more entrepreneurs in Iowa!” With everyone willing to work together to make John’s charge a reality, there couldn’t be a better time to be an entrepreneur in Iowa. Our world has been hit with so many challenges this year, but that presents opportunities for people to be entrepreneurial to solve these challenges. We need to continue to work together to build communities that support entrepreneurs, and let the world know that Iowa is a great place for startups.