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From Drake to the “Silicon Prairie”

Across the nation, experts and policy makers are lauding small business and entrepreneurial ventures as one of the keys to bringing the United States out of the economic downturn. In Des Moines, the startup community is thriving and growing, and Drake University students are well positioned to become part of the movement.

Several Drake students recently attended Silicon Prairie’s Startup Job Crawl; more than 20 local startups participated in the networking event and students left with new connections, advice and even some job leads.

“The experience was really helpful and eye-opening,” says Skylar Bergl, a senior magazines major who attended the Job Crawl. “It’s really awesome to see the sort of companies that are popping up. The people are passionate about what they do and want to get people involved.”

Tom Swartwood, visiting professor of entrepreneurial leadership and assistant director of the Buchanan Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, is actively involved in the startup community and strives to bring his experience and connections into the classroom. He often invites guest speakers from local businesses — like Dwolla, Smarty Pig, Styx and Locusic — to share their first-hand experiences with his classes.

“The entrepreneurs in town are really hungry to interact with students,” Swartwood says. “They are very interested in nurturing others and growing that spirit.”

While the Buchanan Entrepreneurial Center is more focused on the academic side of entrepreneurship, the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurial Outreach focuses on the integration of Drake with the community. That outreach is something that Swartwood and Deb Bishop, associate professor of practice in management and international business and director of the Buchanan and Pappajohn entrepreneurial centers, hope to enhance in the coming years.

Plans are in place to create a program similar to Drake Law School’s Neal & Bea Smith Legal Clinic; students would be able to work directly with community entrepreneurs and provide support.

The school already does some outreach. For example, Swartwood helped lead the workshop, “Think. Do. Next. Start-up Boot Camp for Women,” over two weekends in March and April. About 12 women participated. Swartwood hopes to make the boot camp a regular occurrence.

The student connection

While most students will find themselves in the corporate world at first — where an entrepreneurial mindset can also be an invaluable asset — some students have gone on to be part of the startup community right out of school. Meg Fisher, BN’09, is the owner and founder of Lincoln&Lexi, a children’s apparel company she developed at Drake. Nabeel Meghji, AS’04, is the founder and managing partner of Heartland 2 Africa, a firm that helps United States companies connect with new business opportunities in Africa.

Riane Menardi, JO’11, found a job with a local startup at the first annual Silicon Prairie Startup Job Crawl. She is quick to recommend working in a startup to current Drake students.  She says the opportunities and responsibilities most people are given in a startup are greater than those in a typical corporate setting.

“The problems they solve are new, innovative and probably haven’t been tackled before,” Menardi says. “They’ll need your specific skill set to help them achieve their goals.”

She credits her liberal arts education at Drake with helping to prepare her for the unique setting of a startup.

“In a startup, there are not job duties so much as problems to be solved,” Menardi says. “So to have an education deeply rooted in critical thinking and quick problem solving has prepared me for startup life more than, I think, any other education could.”