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Q&A: A welcoming face for Ames startups

Diana Wright

As a leader in the Ames startup community, Diana Wright crosses paths with a lot of entrepreneurs.

After studying advertising, marketing and entrepreneurship at Iowa State University, Wright now works as the Marketing & Programs Coordinator at the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University.

It’s all come full circle,” Wright explains. “During my time as a student at Iowa State University, I engaged in every opportunity related to entrepreneurship.  The center of these events & programs were offered by the Iowa StateUniversity Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship.”

Wright will be a reoccurring contributor to Clay & Milk, focusing on the Ames startup community.

But before she got started, we wanted to formally introduce the native of Clear Lake.

Our Q&A is below:

Talk about your career path after graduating from Iowa State?

DW: My senior year, I participated in a startup job crawl hosted by the Silicon Prairie News (led by Geoff Wood) and had the opportunity to meet the young company, Dwolla.  Dwolla was a great match for my desire to experience first-hand entrepreneurship within a startup company. I enjoyed working and learning at Dwolla after I graduated.

Three years ago, I got a call from Judi (Eyles, director of the Pappajohn Center) to come back and help develop new entrepreneurial programming. It was a time when the leaders at Iowa State University where focusing on the need to do more for entrepreneurs on campus and across the state of Iowa.

Through the Pappajohn Center, I have had the chance to create & now lead the first-ever summer accelerator at Iowa State University, called CYstarters.   In addition, I help lead, market, and facilitate the ladder of programs we have year-round for the E-minded individual through the Center.

I could go on with other hats I wear…all very rewarding.

But why work with entrepreneurs and startup companies?

DW:  For me it’s all about connection and creativity.  

I’m a natural connector and I would say 80 percent of my job is bridging connections and resources for entrepreneurs, followed by community builders, investors and leaders who understand the importance of collaboration and co-creating.  

I believe we all have an innate call to create, and I’ve happened to pick entrepreneurs to focus on. Not a coincidence—both my parents are entrepreneurs. I grew up working inside each of their businesses.  

So you’ve always been part of a startup community in some way?

DW: It’s been about eight years. Professionally helping entrepreneurs, it has been over the past three years.  

However, I was actively involved in the entrepreneurship community all throughout my time at Iowa State, including, President of the Iowa State University Entrepreneur Club (student organization), member of Okoboji Entrepreneur Institute, Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Scholar, Reiman Entrepreneurial Scholar and attended regular Startup Ames meetups.  

How has Iowa State University impacted the Ames startup ecosystem?

DW: Entrepreneurs in Ames have the advantage of proximity to Iowa State University with the ability to access knowledge and human talent, research, makerspaces and labs, combined with the emphasis and commitment on campus entrepreneurship and innovation.

I think this reason alone has led to startup enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and global companies being attracted to Ames and our programs.

What’s worked?

DW: Speaking from the Pappajohn Center perspective, I would point to two programs offering high-impact experiential learning: CyBIZ Lab student consulting and CYstarters student accelerator (don’t let the ‘Cy’ confuse you)!  

CyBIZ Lab student consultants gain practical experience through projects for existing businesses, from large corporations to start-ups.  The projects may be market & industry research to new product/business feasibility studies.

CYstarters is a ten-week summer accelerator for Iowa State University students or recent graduates to actively pursue their business/idea. The startups that are selected receive funding, mentorship, educational workshops, accountability and collaborative workspace—all to help speed up success (or sometimes tweak, test, or fail fast to move on to the next business idea). 

A new initiative I’m excited to share is our Women Who Create series.  We will be hosting the Women Who Create Conference in April and tickets sold out (if interested, join our Early Bird List here).  No matter how you look at the data in our state, there is no denying that women solve problems and improve the quality of life.  We are working to be the catalyst for women who aspire to start, grow, scale, and sell a business.

Any advice for other communities in Iowa that are starting their own ecosystem?

DW: Get in your car and take a road trip to see first hand and connect with the other entrepreneurial ecosystems, in and outside of Iowa.  Play to the advantage of the state—we are Iowa nice and want to help others. I’ve seen this collaborative sharing among other community builders in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Dubuque and other locations across the state.     

What do you hope to accomplish with your role here with Clay & Milk?

DW: My focus will be on all things entrepreneurship in the Ames area and Iowa State University.

To use my knack for storytelling and connection to invite others to join or to plug-in to all that is happening. I am focused on a single purpose: To grow and help businesses in Iowa.


  • Ted Bair
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 5:58 am

    Diana is very talented and a great asset to not only Iowa State University, John Pappajohn Entreprenuerial Center, but to all entrepreneurs starting and growing businesses. Her passion and experience will have a tremendous impact for the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Ames and the entire state of Iowa.

  • Ben Milne
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    This is really fantastic. Great to see this!!!

Comments are closed.

Q&A: A welcoming face for Ames startups | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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