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Casey’s founder gives $2.9 million to Buena Vista University for rural entrepreneurship center

Don Lamberti, founder and CEO of Casey’s General Stores, has donated $2.9 million to Buena Vista University (BVU) to establish a rural center for entrepreneurship at the Storm Lake school.

Gov. Kim Reynolds joined Joshua Merchant, President of Buena Vista University at Gravitate Coworking in downtown Des Moines Wednesday night to announce The Donald F. and Charlene K. Lamberti Center for Rural Entrepreneurship at BVU.

“Putting a visionary entrepreneur like Don Lamberti together with an academic leader like Buena Vista University, both champions of rural Iowa, can’t help but create a world of new opportunities for people of all ages across Iowa,” said Reynolds.

Iowa business and education leaders and BVU alumni gather at Gravitate Coworking in downtown Des Moines.

Programming and real-world business applications within The Lamberti Center curriculum will provide students and professionals opportunities to sharpen their skills.

“Don’s leadership, in concert with a number of dedicated donors, puts us on a track to offer support for business start-ups while providing a creative space for social entrepreneurship, additional collaborative efforts, and even an inclusive entrepreneurship minor aimed at students of all majors who desire to turn their passion into a career,” said Merchant, who was appointed by Gov. Reynolds to serve on the Empower Rural Iowa Initiative Task Force in 2018.

The center will also be a resource for existing businesses across the region, allowing those enterprises to develop and fine-tune marketing campaigns and business plans with the assistance of BVU faculty members and students enrolled in related fields.

“If students want to live and grow in rural areas, or anywhere in Iowa, this center is for them,” said Merchant.

The Lamberti gift, coupled with an anonymous $500,000 donation, allows Buena Vista University to move ahead in offering innovative courses and programs while developing a minor in rural entrepreneurship available to all BVU students.

Casey's founder gives $2.9 million to Buena Vista University for rural entrepreneurship center | 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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