A closer look: Candi Karsjens

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For Candi Karsjens, running lemonade stands and selling Girl Scout cookies while growing up in Mason City were not only fun childhood activities, but also her earliest memories of being an entrepreneur.

Little did she know then that it would lead to starting and selling two businesses and now serves as the director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at North Iowa Area Community College, where Karsjens first went to college. She succeeded Tim Putnam after his departure in December 2021.

NIACC JPEC is one of five entrepreneurial education and resource centers first envisioned and funded by John Pappajohn, founder of Equity Dynamics and venture capital firm Pappajohn Capital Resources. The NIACC center serves nine northern Iowa counties, providing mentorship, programs, and financial resources to Main Street businesses and startups in the region.

After selling her second business, a line of soy candles called Uncorked that gained national and international wholesale customers, Karsjens returned in 2017 to pharmaceutical sales, the field where she began her career. She was familiar with the job, but worked from home and felt “disconnected” from the community after her first stint traveling for pharmaceutical sales and consulting in business with clients outside of Iowa.

“I really wanted to be able to give back to people in my area the skills, abilities and knowledge that I had,” she said.

She took on the role of Director of Innovation and Acceleration at JPEC in 2019 and led the center’s mentorship program, including the NIACC cohort of the University of Iowa Venture School program and as director of the Pappajohn program. Center Venture Mentoring Service, which is based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Venture Mentoring Service.

The Business Record recently caught up with Karsjens to discuss his new role.

Apart from lemonade stands, how did you become an entrepreneur?

I think even before owning our own business, one of the things that was so unique about working in pharmaceutical sales is that we had to develop our own courses of action and manage our territory as if was our own business. It was kind of my first exposure within the confines of what they let you do [and] what you are allowed to do. Take your action plan and work on it quarterly, and I had a team, so you know, it was really entrepreneurial.


How does NIACC JPEC work with the Northern Iowa Area Small Business Development Center?

We are integrated with the SBDC, where other Pappajohn centers work with the SBDCs but are not necessarily integrated. It was really great to be able to combine the resources of the SBDC, the resources of the Pappajohn center. We have a bench with a lot of depth, so we can help a lot of people. Pappajohn centers stay very connected across the state and we’re working very hard whether it’s a retail business or the next agricultural technology because we have that and everything else. By doing so, we have much more depth in the resources available to us. We use a lot of mentors in different capacities. That’s one of the first things I did when I got here was create our mentorship program. We really think it’s this lean start-up approach, plus adding mentorship and our integrated office with the SBDC, is what really helps lift us. We are the smallest of all centers. We’re the only one out of community college, so we do a lot more economic development than working with the students because we only have them for two years, so that limits our time.


Can you explain how the lean startup model used in the University of Iowa Venture School cohorts works?

It’s really a combination of Steve Blank (an American entrepreneur), his lean startup model, and Alexander Osterwalder (a Swiss business theorist) and the business model canvas. It takes these two elements and put them together for you to build your basic business model. You’ll write down your assumptions – what you think customers want, need, and will pay for. And then you’re going to make a lot of discoveries in a seven week time frame by going out and talking to people about what they want [and] need and what they have paid for in the past. It’s not always a solution [to a problem], often it’s a problem like Airbnb. There wasn’t really a problem that there weren’t enough hotels, but that wasn’t necessarily what people wanted. So they figured out what people wanted, and you end up designing your business model based on the feedback you get from those early interviews.


How do NIACC JPEC and SBDC apply their combined resources to the variety of businesses in northern Iowa?

All of us who work with clients are actually trained SBDC advisors, so we can all work with anyone and use their reporting system and resources as well. But for the most part, our SBDC manager works with retail and high street businesses, has office hours in several of the rural areas. New innovation and acceleration is not a physical space like an incubator or accelerator as much as it is about finding mentors, finding real acceleration programs and finding capital. Because in rural areas, even in Iowa in general, to find venture capital, especially for the most innovative, high-risk business ideas, we’re really short of venture capital in the entire Midwest. … It’s our job to help entrepreneurs connect with all the resources we have in Iowa. Between the Pappajohn Centers, some of the other resources we have are Iowa Startup Accelerator. There are a lot of accelerators in Des Moines, so our job on the Pappajohn side is to network with all of these people so that we understand the resources available and know who to send where.


What is NIACC JPEC’s approach to assisting entrepreneurs with financing and venture capital needs?

We just lack that big injection of venture capital, so sometimes we can get creative. We do a lot of competition preparation. We work very hard to prepare business owners because $5,000 and $10,000 for a start-up business can mean a lot and it can give them the visibility they need to reach $25,000 or $50,000. We are grassroots and try to take them to the next level, meet the right people and get the right training. We’ve worked closely with Iowa Startup Accelerator and ISA Ventures, and we’re working to become a satellite office for them and their accelerator program and help them find more contributors, more investors. The other way is to work with people. We connect people with mentors to work on this initial phase funding from friends and family. Most people use their credit card or receive money from friends and family, so if they want to do that, we just want to set the expectations and the paperwork for friends and family early on. We try to make it easy to get started so they can get to where a venture capitalist will actually notice or they’re ready to pitch.


What is your overall vision of NIACC JPEC as Director?

I am the fifth director. Some programs have changed and the people have changed, but the goal of building successful businesses in northern Iowa has not changed. For me, it’s not about recreating the wheel, it’s about being able to extend the foundations already created. So in expanding our corporate mentoring services program, we’re in a pilot project there. We have a pilot project with an innovation workspace, which is similar to a digital fabrication lab, and several entrepreneurs have used this space to prototype their ideas, and thus they get a working model. The goal is to take these two programs out of pilot projects and transform them into fully functional and sustainable programs. During COVID we have had to learn how to use virtual tools and we have found that with our vast geography we can attract more people to our programs from all over our geography because they don’t have to drive. We are working with new partners, especially in the area of ​​diversity, equity and inclusiveness. We have partners in different counties where they have more Spanish speaking populations. We have a very good base; it just keeps expanding and reaching. I like to say sharpen and align.


How have perceptions of entrepreneurship in rural areas changed, in your experience?

In general, the attitude for a long time, just the general attitude [but] not from a specific group is that we are not big enough. We cannot create that here. Technology, the internet, e-commerce and all of those things have given people the ability to start a business from anywhere. It really gives entrepreneurs in rural areas a more level playing field. That was before I came here, but a gentleman selling kaleidoscopes in this little town of Manly, Iowa, that’s about 5,000 people, there were so few people selling what he had that with a good e-commerce platform and a good website, it is one of the most well-known kaleidoscope companies in the country. People think they can only be small because we are in a small area, but now we are connected to the world through technology. So it’s kind of overcoming this thought process that we can’t grow that big because of where we live, because you can grow anything by living here. We have labor and capital. It’s really getting people to overcome that attitude that they have to live in a big city to create something.


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