Accountability sessions give ISU student startups time to set benchmarks, course-correct

AMES, Iowa – It was a lecture his freshman year at Iowa State University that sparked Ryan True’s idea for a business to help older adults stay healthy.

Now, heading into his senior year in kinesiology and health, True is spending the summer in CYstarters, a 10-week accelerator program that gives students and recent alumni the funding and resources – and the accountability – they need to grow their startups. True and 19 others are working full-time on their 15 startups at the ISU Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship. 

Ryan True

Ryan True. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Haars.

True’s business idea, Full Circle Wellness, is to provide health services for older adults focusing on eight dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, occupational, intellectual, financial and environmental.

“I was inspired to start my business because I’ve always had such deep respect for older adults,” True said. “When I was a freshman, (Professor) Warren Franke gave a lecture saying that by 2030, there will be a significantly larger population of older adults, and there has not been a huge focus on them being physically active.

“I thought, what if there was a place they could go to be active, live healthy lives and be social with other older adults?”

This week, he and his CYstarters peers are halfway to the finish line.

Accountable to themselves, peers, mentors

A key component of CYstarters is its accountability sessions. The students may be scattered throughout the week, but on Monday mornings they gather around a large conference table at the Pappajohn Center.

On a recent Monday, participants described what they worked on the past week, their plans for the upcoming week and their “pains and gains.” But it’s not just a checklist. The startups receive valuable input from CYstarters director Diana Wright and Pappajohn director Judi Eyles, as well as from their CYstarters peers and mentor Ted Bair, retired regional director of the ISU Small Business Development Center and an entrepreneur himself.

“With anyone, it’s easy to get sidetracked,” Bair said. “These accountability sessions keep them on the rails and working on areas that are meaningful and important.”

True ran through a laundry list of accomplishments and work left to do for his business. He got advice from two CYstarters peers on his logo. A mentor helped him start designing his website. Bair gave him advice on motivational interviewing. Anthony House, senior in software engineering, advised True on a customer management tool (House and Jacob McClarnon, senior in entrepreneurship, are working on their business, Home Painter).

“It’s a very self-determined environment,” True said. “Some can find that intimidating and others find it inspiring. I’m the latter; I value my autonomy.”

Nevertheless, the accountability sessions have proven valuable for True. His startup began as an abstract idea; he now has a plan that splits it into phases, from health coaching and building a client base to one day opening a physical center that houses Full Circle Wellness.

“It’s so much more than structure,” he said of the accountability sessions. “Hearing what everyone else is working on and where they are in their process makes me consider what I need to do, and things I may not have thought of yet.”

Bair, who will follow the cohort through the accountability sessions, says his role is not only to encourage, but more importantly to provide reality checks and ask questions.

Accountability sessions set CYstarters apart from other student entrepreneurial programs, he says, and are part of a focus on entrepreneurship at Iowa State he calls “a paradigm shift.”

“I think we’re on the leading edge,” Bair said. “How many universities really promote entrepreneurship as a path for students with business ideas? So many don’t give students the value of experiential learning. To be immersed in developing something, that’s when learning happens.

“The energy these students have is amazing. You give them a to-do list in the morning and by 5 o’clock they’re back, finished and hungry for the next step.”