General News

John Pappajohn: “I Always Dreamed of Helping People”

October 9, 2021
By Matina Demelis

IOWA – "Since I was a child I dreamed of things I wanted to do. I wanted to make money and give it to others. I dreamed of helping people."

With these words, the Greek American multi-millionaire John Pappajohn began his speech at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers. He spoke about how his idea for the economic development of Iowa started.

Iowa was a state that was dying financially and its children were slowly drifting away as their future was largely limited to agricultural jobs.

His idea was that five universities collaborate in order to better educate their students and enable them to start their own businesses. Pappajohn then invested in them, helping the young people to get started. Since then, more than 4,000 students have created more than 8,000 companies creating 17,000 jobs in the State of Iowa.

"Tonight, one of my dreams came true because 25 years ago I told my wife we have to do something to help our city. Things were bad – we had a depression. The economy was sinking. Nothing was happening here.

At that time, I earned a lot of money from a large investment. And I had an idea that my wife supported. I told her ‘we have to spend some money to help’ and she replied: ‘Okay. You know what to do.’ After that, the Governor and I visited the five universities and told them

‘we will give you money and you will train the students about how to start their own companies, in the fields of technology, medicine etc.’ Today, the results are very good. Well beyond our expectations. No one else in America has ever done that. We are the first and I am proud. It is something very important."

Pappajohn started something similar in Greece, in his homeland Evia, and later throughout Greece. "I gave $500,000 to start 50 companies in Greece in collaboration with The Hellenic Initiative (THI), where I was also an organizer. I was also on the Board of Directors of Anatolia College for 25 years, so we opened new companies in Thessaloniki. Every year a business plan is supported with 25,000 dollars and many companies have been created this way in Greece.”

The event marking the 25th anniversary of John Pappajohn's idea was held in Des Moines and was attended by 375 people, including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and representatives of the five universities supporting the program.

There is also the competition that takes place every year among students from the five universities with awards for the best ideas for the creation of companies.

Among the competitors was a young woman who had lost one of her legs in a car accident. Today, she owns a clothing company, making clothes for people with disabilities. She entered the competition, reaching the final three. She took the third place and won $15,000 to expand her business. "Actually, I gave her $100,000. This made me feel good,” Pappajohn said. “I know she will succeed in what she does. I am very proud of the children who succeeded and this is not due to me but to all those who worked hard and helped them reach their goals. I was asked by a TV channel ‘what do you think about every morning when you wake up’? I told them ‘I think about my companies. I want to be sure that they are doing well, that they are profitable so that I can make more money and give that away as well," Pappajohn said.

That night he announced that he would offer another $10 million to continue the programs.

"I look to the future but my name is not Methuselah," he joked.

“We turned the State from rural activities to business – but it's also fun to give money to others."

At all the tables, the guests found badges that said ‘PMA’.

"’Positive Mental Attitude’ is my mantra. Courage, this is also needed. I say this to all young people. Out of 200, 20-30 get it – the rest forget it. Words are easy, acts are difficult. With this thinking, however, we can go further."

He also spoke with great pride about one of the programs implemented by Drake University, the Mandela Scholarships.

“Every year 50 people come here from Africa. One or two from each country. They stay for a month to learn how to set up their own business. I spend one day with them and I challenge them by saying: “If I can do it, you can do it.” And they like that. When they succeed, they write back to me."

In the video played on the night of the event, Pappajohn talked about his experience, sharing his story as an immigrant with a woman and telling her, "you will do it in your own country, since I left mine and made it in a foreign country."

He continued, saying, “if you are not happy yet, it is good, because you are learning to work harder to succeed. That's why I like immigrants. They work hard. This is what I see with young people coming from Africa. They want to know what you do. That's how we also learned. We are not all smart when we are born, we have to learn.”

In John Pappajohn's office – among the many documents, papers, and magazines – are works of art. There are paintings on the walls and there are sculptures too – and there are more in containers that have not yet been opened. "I love art and I like to invest in it," he says, as he shows some most expensive works of art he owns. One is  worth a million dollars. He had bought years ago from the artist – a boat made of coal.

The city of Des Moines has a park named after John Pappajohn populated with works of art from his private collection. "These are sculptures that I had in the yard of my house. People were passing by, looking at them and taking pictures. At some point the State of Iowa wanted to build a park, so, I thought to give them away for the park. I talked to the mayor and donated everything. One of them, the spider, I bought for $400,000 25 years ago. One was recently sold for 22 million dollars."


John Pappajohn was born in 1928 and immigrated to America from the island of Evia with his parents when he was nine months old. They went to live the American dream and build a new life.

His actual name was not Pappayiannis, but Pappadimitriou. "My grandfather was a priest. When my father came to Ellis Island he said, ‘I am the son of Pappayiannis.’ And so, we got this last name. But the name is not the important thing. The important thing is what you do and what you get. That's my philosophy."

Pappajohn grew up in a neighborhood filled with immigrants in Mason City. It was the Astoria of Iowa.

"My father had a grocery store. When I was young, four years old, my father used to take me to the store together with my brother Aristotle. We were selling halva, lakerda, chickpeas. I grew up like a real Greek.

I remember people coming to the store, stealing potatoes and onions. They were hungry. And my father used to say to me: ‘Let them take them, they have to eat.’ We owned a field behind the store and they went there every night to take tomatoes, zucchini, black-eyed beans."

From a young age, Pappajohn was looking for ways to make money. Every morning he went to junkyards to find scrap metal.

“I was selling it to the Jews. In time of war, all of it was valuable. I remember one of them – he had two sons. One went to Stanford and the other to Harvard. They wanted to be like me."

As the child of immigrants, he learned to be independent from a very young age. “When I was 16 I lost my father. My mother did not speak English at all. All her children went to university. We were three brothers, Aristotle, Socrates, and I, who took my grandfather's name. When we finished college, we sold the store. I started working finding companies that I believed had a future and I invested in them. If all goes well, it is a nice job. I started with a hundred companies and I made a lot of money. One of them, Caremark, is now worth $50 billion."

When his family immigrated to Mason City there were 3,000 Greeks in town. “They opened shops, their children went to the Greek school, and they helped each other,” he said. “My mother had the reputation of being the best cook in town. My father – we did not have telephones then – sent her messages saying, ‘today we are expecting three people home to come eat with us.’ The word ‘charity’ is Greek. Our house was always open. My mother used to make cheese bread with feta cheese and butter. I told her ‘if we ever get poor we can open a bakery and sell it.’”

Pappajohn’s wife Mary was born in Minneapolis, MN, and her roots are in Thebes.

"In my wife's family, there were nine children. It was one of the richest families in Thebes – they had wines, corn, olive oil. Only one left Greece and came to America and that was my wife's father. She supported me in everything I’ve done and still do, all I have achieved these sixty years. We have always had a wonderful relationship.”

Pappajohn closed the discussion with this thought: “remember that a successful life must include contributions to society. That is how we will be judged. By making a difference in the world."


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