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Principal: Going from a startup to corporate

A familiar face in the Des Moines startup community, Tej Dhawan was looking for his next challenge.

What he found qualifies.

Dhawan is the Chief Data Officer at Principal, the Des Moines-based financial services company with 19 million customers and over 14,000 employees worldwide.

“I’m one who likes the big problem, and not even so much as a problem, but a big change you can help impact,” Dhawan says. “And I’ve always had a lot of respect for Principal, they were the first one to take the chance on innovation and help support the GIA (Global Insurance Accelerator) in a meaningful way.”

Dhawan is the third of a three-part series on Iowa professionals who went from a corporate position to a role with a startup. Only in this case, it’s the opposite. He started at Principal in November.

“There is a misnomer within the startup community that corporate employees are not risk takers and not as technically forward thinking as the startup community,” Dhawan says. “And in the last three and a half months that entire idea has been debunked for me.”

Leading a global team

The team that Dhawan leads a team that works on eight or nine initiatives that are considered “enterprise-wide” meaning it touches all aspects of the company, including offices in India, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

“And I say team but there are 3,000 technology people in the company globally so obviously my exposure to the group has been limited to maybe a couple hundred people so far,” Dhawan said.

He said a reporting structure was not a new concept to him but Principal is more formal.

A culture of innovation was attractive

Dhawan started his career at Principal as a programmer and network tech at Principal Commerical Real Estate from 1992-1994. But after a 26-years, places change.

He said what attracted him to come back to Principal was how committed the company has been towards innovation. Innovation at Principal is not just an “innovation lab.”

“If you talk to anybody on the executive team, they are looking for a continuous cycle of innovation,” Dhawan says. “And they are putting their own time and leadership behind it.”

With the title of Chief Data Officer, Dhawan says it’s a shift large companies are making because business is getting more inner-connected.

“Even a decade ago, a company may have had their information, data and technology all encompassed in a person under a CIO role,” Dhawan explained. “Now what’s happening is the CIO has partners in data, analytics, marketing, things that were a single role are becoming larger enterprise-wide. You will see that more and more in corporate landscapes.”

Happy with the switch?

Without hesitation…

“I’m loving it,” Dhawan says. “Ultimately, what gives a tech guy a push is being surrounded by other smart tech people. That’s been the best part for me, I have an incredible team I get to work with.”

Previous coverage

Dhawan: As the community evolves, challenges persist – April, 2, 2018

Hired: Tej Dhawan named Chief Data Officer at Principal – Dec. 18, 2017

Dhawan: Segregation isn’t the solution to lack of diversity – May 31, 2017

Principal: Going from a startup to corporate | 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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