Shaping Iowa's Leaders of Tomorrow

August 13, 2021 | Shaping Iowa's Leaders of Tomorrow Gigi Wood,

The Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI) Foundation has offered educational, workforce and leadership training to students and adults for more than three decades. Through its programs – Business Horizons, Leadership Iowa University, Leadership Iowa and Elevate Advanced Manufacturing, also known as Elevate Iowa – the ABI Foundation has provided statewide education programs to fill Iowa’s career gap, provide solutions for workforce challenges and create the next generation of leaders.

“Our Business Horizons students learn what it takes to be an entrepreneur while exposing them to different career opportunities in our state,” said Jason Gross, who has been active with the ABI Foundation for more than 25 years and is vice president and head of platform at ManchesterStory, a Des Moines based venture capital firm. “Our Leadership Iowa University students become more future ready by learning professional skills including resume building, interviewing and networking, while deepening their understanding of the role leaders play in our society.”


Business Horizons is designed for Iowa high school students in grades 9-12. It’s a weeklong summer program at Central College in Pella that provides college and career experience, fosters personal growth and promotes leadership development. There are team-based activities, entrepreneurial competitions, speakers and more.

Students create products, create a business and marketing strategy and pitch their idea to a panel of investors at the end of the week. The goal is to foster positive experiences for participants, to help them develop their personal strengths and interests. They are introduced to new career possibilities as they learn new skills critical to workplace success.

“Awareness connects them to opportunities for engagement and being part of a solution,” said Kim Butler Hegedus, chair of the ABI Foundation Board of Directors, who also serves as executive vice president and chief lending officer at Community State Bank. “Students are offered an engaging way for them to understand and apply theories of economics to the real world, consider their strengths and skills in the context of business and industry and explore a variety of careers available in our state.”

Business Horizons was the first ABI Foundation program Cami Schaefer participated in and she initially was not the most enthusiastic participant.

“I was not thrilled to go at first, seeing as my parents were ‘forcing’ me to go, but when it was time to leave, I did not want to go home,” she said. “When I attended Business Horizons, I was a sophomore in high school who was often timid. After the program, I felt my confidence had grown significantly. I was not afraid to share my ideas or be myself and the amazing people at Business Horizons helped me achieve that.”

Participants don’t need a strong interest in business to attend ABI Foundation programs, she said.

“Even if you are someone who has no passion for business or has no idea what you want to do later in life, I still highly recommend attending these programs because, who knows? You might end up falling in love with a path you would have never thought to explore before,” Schaefer said. “Either way, I know you will come out of these programs knowing more than you did before and having fun doing so.”

Cami’s mother, Lori Schaefer, encouraged her to attend the program after serving as an ABI officer and board chair. Lori also helped create another ABI Foundation program, Elevate Iowa.

“I had already seen first-hand the value of these programs through my association with ABI and by sponsoring other students,” Lori said. “I also knew that Cami was the perfect candidate; a great student, actively engaged with programs like FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America), and ready to be challenged with a new experience, something that would put her a bit outside her comfort zone.”


Cami Schaefer went on to participate in Leadership Iowa University, when she was a junior in college. Similar to Business Horizons, Leadership Iowa University is a weeklong summer program, but for Iowa college students. The program connects students to opportunities and mentors in several industries and encourages them to get involved on a local and statewide level.

“The biggest thing I learned from Leadership Iowa University was that I want to eventually be a part of a company that is less profit-driven, and more focused on helping others,” she said. “The program made me realize that there are endless opportunities out there and I just need to discover which one of those opportunities I am right for.”

The 2021 program takes place Aug. 8-12 in Des Moines. In the program, 20-30 participants gain knowledge, tools and inspiration to be successful in Iowa while learning about what makes Iowa a great place to work and live.

Participants are undergraduate college students who have completed their freshman year to those entering their senior year. Often times, company supporters use the program as a summer internship capstone, a perfect opportunity to showcase their investment in their future employees. The program helps participants build their brand, grow their network and take their next step into the professional world.

After completing the program, participants have the option to be paired with a mentor to connect with throughout the rest of the school year. Mentors are Iowa professionals who work in the student’s career field of interest and have qualities or experiences that match well with each students’ personality and goals. They donate their time to meet with students and assist by providing guidance, direction and awareness of opportunities to students as they prepare for life after college.

Cami Schaefer said the program helped her expand her professional network.

“The connections I have made at these ABI programs led me to intern with ABI for the summer of 2021,” she said. “Another way the ABI programs have benefited my career is the effect they have had on my professional development skills. Attending these programs has made me want to continue to learn and grow to become the best person and worker I can be. ABI has also provided me with countless networking opportunities with other students, program advisors, staff and ABI members. I already know these are connections I will continue to build and hold onto as I start the next chapter in my life.”

“Business Horizons and Leadership Iowa University taught me a great deal about Iowa and the opportunities that this state has,” she said. “It opened my mind about living in Iowa based on the quality of life and the  great prospects in our state. The ABI Foundation does an amazing job of making you proud to be a part of the state of Iowa.”


In Leadership Iowa, 40 adult professionals from diverse backgrounds gather for monthly sessions to learn about the important topics affecting the state. Topics range from economic development and education to government and agriculture. The goal is to educate and inform Iowa’s current and future leaders about important Iowa issues.

Professionals are provided an “issues awareness” curriculum to learn of challenges and opportunities specific to Iowa.

“Iowa is a great place to live and work thanks to our strong economy and communities,” Gross said. “This didn’t happen overnight or by accident.

They were built over the generations thanks to local and state leaders who worked, often as volunteers, to create the amenities, business climate and organizations that we all benefit from today. It is now up to the current and next generation of leaders to continue to grow and build on this strong foundation.”

Not only is Gross a longtime ABI Foundation volunteer and board member, but he is also a graduate of the 2012-13 class of Leadership Iowa.

“The ABI education programs are tremendous assets that have and will help develop those leaders. For example, this coming program year (2021- 22) will be Leadership Iowa’s 40th year, convening a group of such leaders on a nine-month journey to learn more about what it takes to be a community leader by exploring bedrock areas such as economic development, manufacturing, state government, education, health care and more,” he said. “Our LI graduates take this learning back to their communities and are better equipped to be leaders in their areas.”


Meanwhile, Elevate Iowa promotes educational tracks and careers in advanced manufacturing. Officials with Elevate Iowa work in partnership with private businesses and the Iowa-Advanced Manufacturing (I-AM) Consortium, which consists of the state’s 15 community colleges, to build the training capacity necessary to meet industry demand for workforce skills in the state. Elevate Iowa also has strong support from the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the governor’s office to work on parallel initiatives, such as Future Ready Iowa, said Lori Schaefer, Cami’s mom and president of Agri-Industrial Plastics.

“Manufacturing is the heart of Iowa’s economy,” she said. “It represents the biggest contributor to our GDP and offers exciting and rewarding career opportunities in so many fields: engineering, mechanics, automation, robotics, accounting, sales, and many more. Elevate helps all our key stakeholders across the state of Iowa speak with one voice about these opportunities.” Agri-Industrial Plastics has long been an ABI member and sponsor of Elevate Iowa.

“It really just takes a moment to talk to one participant about their experience to understand the value of these programs,” Schaefer said. “And the  background for these programs is not a stuffy classroom environment, instead it is traveling across the state meeting people, touring companies, making lifelong connections, and having fun along the way. Being a sponsor is really about making Iowa stronger, but selfishly we gain access to the best of the best, at every stage along the way from high school, to college, to the career stage.”

She said participating in ABI Foundation programs is worth the time.

“Consider nominating someone for a foundation program or ‘strongly encouraging’ your own kids to attend Business Horizons and Leadership Iowa University while they are still in Iowa,” she said. “So often, we think our kids are too busy because of sports or other activities. I promise you that these are experiences that will impact them positively for their entire lives. It’s worth the scheduling headaches. And it’s not just about what they learn, but it’s about the networking and the relationships they will build along the way.”


The ABI Foundation partners with several education organizations to support its mission. For example, the ABI Foundation works with the Iowa Department of Education to strengthen its programs and strengthen the bridge between education and business, said Jessi McQuerrey, director of programs at the ABI Foundation.

“Our work and our programs foster relationships between business and education and allows students to apply their classroom knowledge to real-world scenarios in order to better prepare them for their next steps,” she said. “Our high school and college programs exist to serve the needs of Iowa’s educators, business/industry and our participants, working to support their growth and success in Iowa by connecting them to talent and opportunities.”

The ABI Foundation’s partnership with the Department of Education is essential, she said.

“It allows us to be a voice for business/industry where we can within education, and also ensures that our programs are supplementing the strong work they’re doing with students in the classrooms,” McQuerrey said.

In 2020, when the Business Horizons program was suspended due to the pandemic, the ABI Foundation reached out to the Department of Education to support the department’s efforts.

“We were fortunate to collaborate with the Iowa Intermediary Network throughout the 2020-21 school year on statewide virtual events that were offered to all Iowa students and educators,” she said. “We were able to leverage our network of outstanding business/industry leaders to share their expertise on a variety of topics tied to Iowa’s education standards.” The collaboration provided programming for in-person and virtual classrooms, she added.

“The impact of the virtual events that the ABI Foundation was able to assist with was tremendous, reaching more than 3,300 students and 200-plus educators and counting,” McQuerrey said. “While our strategies might be slightly different, we all understand that we are working toward the same goals – helping to prepare our young Iowans for a successful future – so it only makes sense to work together to achieve the best possible outcome.”


ABI Foundation programs exist because of contributions from statewide businesses.

“ABI programs offer a continuum of leadership development opportunities beginning in high school, continuing in college, young professional connection and finally issues awareness to further engage our workforce,” Hegedus said. “We believe showcasing opportunities in business and connecting people to issues is a key to retaining and growing a talented workforce for Iowa based businesses.”

Fees for ABI Foundation programs are reasonable, but sponsors provide most of the funding, Gross said.

“So at the macro-level, their support is an investment in the future of our state, something we should all care about,” he said. “But even at the micro-level, there are some great benefits of sponsoring one or more of the ABI education programs, including exposure to these current and future employees. I have personally hired or referred several program graduates to roles with some great Iowa companies.”

ABI Foundation programs change lives and contribute to society in many ways, Gross said.

“To help illustrate that point, I’ll share a story from one of our Leadership Iowa University students a couple years ago,” he said. “After only the half-way point in the program she told me, ‘If you asked me two days ago what I was planning to do after I graduate, I wouldn’t have hesitated to say I was leaving Iowa. But after learning about so many awesome opportunities here and some really cool companies, I am re-thinking all of that. I can really see myself staying here in Iowa and helping to make it even better for the future.’”

Those who want to participate in an ABI Foundation program don’t need to be ABI members to join, and anyone can fill out a nomination form.

“While I encourage all of our companies to consider joining ABI, anyone can nominate a leader or student and anyone can participate,” Gross said.