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Founders Helping Founders: Lending a Hand Up to the Youngest Among Us

Guest post by Andrew Zalasky.

In central Iowa, there are dozens of young founders – defined loosely as those college-age(ish) with a product or service either prepared to launch or already in the market. 

When you expand the scope to include emerging tech hubs in the state like Cedar Falls, Mason City, Davenport and Iowa City, the number of young founders climbs into the hundreds. 

And when you zoom out even further and view the region as a whole, wrapping in cities like Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, Omaha, Kansas City and St. Louis, the number of young founders is in the thousands.

There is no shortage of innovation happening in the upper Midwest. Much of that innovation is being driven by those born at the turn of the century. When all is said and done, this generation of founders will make contributions impossible to envision today. 

Yes, there are big things on the horizon. 

And they are quietly being built in university labs and anonymous office parks all around us. 

But the building doesn’t happen in a vacuum. 

That is why seasoned founders, who have built something from the ground up, need to be asking themselves a few questions. 

  1. Is the next billion—or even trillion—dollar company spinning its wheels because its young founders don’t know what they don’t know? 
  1. Will this organization, which definitely exists somewhere out there, fail to scale because they had no one to turn to for practical advice when it came to a make-or-break decision? 
  1. Will these young founders, during a desperate hour, ditch their idea and trash all progress because no one showed them there was another way to stretch resources on hand, attract more capital, or build in a different way?

We all know the answers: Yes, yes and yes.

While our universities are providing guidance and assistance to young founders at a greater level than ever before, they can’t do it all (and shouldn’t!). While the curriculum can provide important theory and inform young founders on the most likely path for success, nothing compares to a sounding board in the form of someone who has been there and done that.

For young founders, the hard things will always be hard. But with someone to turn to, it is more likely that they will see many of those hard things can be overcome.

Think back to your founder journey. Who did you turn to at decision points? If you had a mentor, how did she help you take the next step? Did your mentor provide you that all-important sounding board out of the altruistic aim of paying forward the help she received?

If you run a successful business today, or have had a profitable exit, it is a near certainty you were aided by someone who had “been there, done that.”

As successful founders, we all have a gift to give. The opportunity exists locally, across Iowa and in the region as a whole to build like we have never built.


If our young founders have no one to turn to, ideas are going to be left on the table. 

Visions for the “next big thing” are going to be sacrificed because the process was too hard to navigate alone. 

As successful founders, we need to engage with the next generation more. 

We need to make it a point to attend entrepreneurial events like 1 Million Cups, ENTREfest, and Young Entrepreneur Convention (or any number of others hosted in the region) to make connections that have the potential to keep our young founders moving forward. 

When a young founder gathers up the nerve to call or email or coral us at an event, we need to take the time to answer their questions. Whether formal or informal, we need to commit to mentoring the next generation.

You have the gift of your journey. Even informal and infrequent engagement may mean the difference between the next Apple, Google, John Deere or IBM being brought to fruition right here in our backyard, and another young, talented team dissolving in the face of decisions they don’t know how to make.

The innovations are out there. Now it is time to ensure founders are helping founders bring them to fruition.

Andrew Zalasky is the owner of Hazel Creative Services and the co-founder of Young Entrepreneur Convention.

Founders Helping Founders: Lending a Hand Up to the Youngest Among Us | 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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