The Venture Educationalist

Why do capitalists create scholarships?

I sat at my alma mater’s annual Scholarship dinner the other night. Hundreds of diners consisting of professors, students, parents, and donors enjoyed performances, listened to speeches, and conversed around their tables. Statements from the keynote triggered a thought and I drafted this post by typing in the title and the lede right at the dinner table.

Pi515 is a non-profit based in Des Moines, Iowa and run passionately by Nancy Mwirotsi. It seeks to deliver computer science education to children whose families sought refuge in our community. A remarkable lift for a vulnerable population in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness through education. The startup community in Des Moines recently connected to this non-profit through the leadership of Brad Dwyer and Ben Milne – technologists, investors, and community leaders who found reason to support Pi515’s mission and put their money and networks behind it. WHY?

Next Level Ventures, is a Des Moines-based venture capital firm that invests solely in Iowa-based companies. Its managing partner, Craig Ibsen is seeking to build a non-profit that would democratize computer-science education across the state while our academic infrastructure moves at its velocity to create the discipline. A state like Iowa increasingly depends on a shrinking workforce as it seeks to retain its role in feeding the nation through ideas and food and cannot wait for the academic deliberation cycle to find and deploy solutions.

Brad Feld, managing partner of globally respected Foundry Group and its many ventures, routinely invests in education through his personal and professional networks, including a personal match he and his wife Amy provided to Pi515 during a conferecne in Des Moines. His leadership in NCWIT (National Center for Women in Technology), Defy Ventures (inmate education), and more are representative of support for education at diverse intersections.

Fred Wilson of and Union Square Ventures routinely speaks about, invests in companies focused on, and invests directly in education focused on the sciences.

Back to Central College, the keynote speaker and outgoing chair of our Board of Trustees, Lanny Little, spoke of being able to attend college, create a remarkable banking and finance career spanning decades, endow his own scholarships for future generations of students. He was able to attend purely due to a scholarship funded by the family behind Rolscreen Corporation (now Pella Corporation of Pella windows). Why did a family focused on growing a global business in a tiny midwestern town choose to invest in a kid from Phoenix, AZ?

Lanny spoke about venture capitalists who invest in a different type of growth outcomes. Their outcomes aren’t as focused on a capital return directly to themselves; rather they focus on the outcomes to society through enabling education and viable careers for those who couldn’t otherwise afford a chance toward upward mobility. This mobility is clearly visible in the city of Pella where family philanthropy from Pella Corporation, Vermeer Manufacturing and other corporate partners has allowed several generations to educate those who often remain within the community thus ensuring its economic stability.

Similar investments are visible in the angel investor communities. Though created for capitalistic intent, many angel investments seek to grow businesses through a form of ‘for-profit philanthropy”, one referred to in this Brad Feld’s post circa 2006.

I am glad there remain altruistic and capitalistic reasons for investment in education, especially for those who are increasingly distant from it due to cost and social friction. I am grateful to the person(s) who chose to endow a scholarship that enabled me to attend college. And I am honored to know this breed of Venture Educationalists – capitalistic investors like Brad Dwyer, Ben Milne, Craig Ibsen, Brad Feld and others enabling K-12, college, vocational and non-traditional education.

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