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The Other Side(s) of the Coin: Investing in Iowa’s Startup Scene

September 28, 2023

Investing in Iowa’s Startup Scene

How Tej Dhawan’s entrepreneurial initiative continues to create support.

Tej Dhawan, strategic initiatives officer at Principal Financial Group® , has championed entrepreneurial innovation in Iowa for more than 30 years. After moving from New Delhi, India in the late 1980s to attend Central College in Pella, Tej quickly embraced Iowa’s culture of ingenuity. His efforts were not only instrumental in building Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as we know it today, but cementing the state as a national leader in finance and insurance as well.

Influencing Iowa’s Startup Culture

In his early days as an Iowan, Tej saw an opportunity to build the state’s pipeline of entrepreneurial talent.

People in an office having a meeting

“At the time, Des Moines was toying with entrepreneurship and [IEDA and Iowa Finance Authority Director] Debi Durham opened her doors to several of us who were working to grow Iowa’s entrepreneurial community,” Tej said. “We saw a need for entrepreneurial mentorship and created a home for startups through an incubator called Startup City Des Moines.”

Tej later co-founded Plains Angels, an initiative that brings angel investors together to identify and invest in early-stage companies across the Midwest.

Despite these notable successes, Tej’s proudest accomplishment came as the result of a one-and-a-half-page memo he pitched to the CEO of Principal® prior to his employment with the company. His idea led to the creation of the Global Insurance Accelerator, an organization that connects early-stage startups with the mentorship and resources necessary to push the boundaries of insurtech innovation.

“The Global Insurance Accelerator provides an added layer of capital and guidance for early-stage companies. It’s an avenue for startups to connect with corporate leaders and others who are thinking outside of the box,” said Tej. “The accelerator has become well-known for bringing industry competitors together to mentor startups and brainstorm how we can best to grow the field. I’m proud of the industry expertise it has brought to Iowa.”

In addition to growing Iowa’s reputation as a hub for insurance and finance expertise, the accelerator gives participants a glimpse at the quality of life Tej and other residents experience in the state.

“Many people say one of the benefits of living and working in Iowa is the short commute, but I think it’s really about what the short commute allows you to do,” said Tej. “If you look at how our employees spend their time and where they volunteer, it’s because they have a workday that allows them that opportunity. That’s what makes Iowa different than coastal cities where commutes of an hour or two are common.”

People in an office having a meeting

Growing Iowa's Industry Expertise

In his current role as strategic initiatives officer at Principal, Tej works closely with clients to understand their greatest priorities and consider and develop solutions to seek to meet their needs. This often involves tapping into the very community he helped establish.

“We’re invested in finding solutions for our clients while building Iowa’s reputation as a finance and insurance leader, so we routinely work with startups who can help us achieve both goals. We engage them primarily as mentors and investors but have also introduced these companies to industry leaders in the hopes of facilitating knowledge exchanges that ultimately boost the industry while meeting our clients’ needs.”

What’s Next?

Man working on a computer

After more than three decades in the industry, Tej remains excited about the potential for new innovations stemming from Iowa’s startup community. With this pipeline and learnings gleaned from the Principal Global Financial Inclusion Index – a report on financial inclusivity globally – Tej believes that Iowa’s influence will continue to be felt worldwide.

“A product developed for Singapore is going to be different than a product developed for Chile, the U.S. or Thailand,” said Tej. “My crystal ball says that we will continue to study those cultural nuances and evolve our products as a result of what we learn. Ultimately, we will let our customer’s journey define the journey we take.”