Maryam Saleh speaks with “Chicago Tonight” via Zoom on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (WTTW News)Maryam Saleh speaks with “Chicago Tonight” via Zoom on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (WTTW News)

Over the past decade, city, state and business leaders have worked to grow Chicago’s profile as a go-to destination for tech entrepreneurs.

Maryam Saleh, the new leader of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, says now she wants to ensure that people from all of Chicago’s diverse communities have an opportunity to learn how to grow their own businesses.

“I want to make entrepreneurship accessible to everyone,” Saleh said. “We believe that the entrepreneurial mindset — whether you are a startup founder or working in any larger company — is a skill set that is instrumental today. You have to innovate constantly in this market. Think about the advent of the pandemic. It has turned businesses around and everyone has to find a new way to survive. The skill set that comes with an entrepreneurial mindset are relevant for everyone.”

Saleh, who says she was drawn to the Kaplan Institute because of its cross-discipline approach, comes from a family of entrepreneurs and says the entrepreneurial mindset is in her blood. She was featured in Crain’s Chicago Business’ Tech 50 and in Crain’s 40 Under 40 list of influential Chicagoans in 2016. She has a Ph.D. in computational science from the University of Chicago and a B.Sc. in computer engineering from Brown University.

It was at Brown that she became involved with her first startup.

“I went to Brown as a computer engineer and my adviser pointed me to some neuroscientists who were working to take a brain implant that had been used in animal research for years and years to understand movement and use it in a clinical setting. So I joined this startup as one of the founding engineers and we commercialized a brain implant that was used to restore movement in paralyzed people,” Saleh said. “That’s how I kind of got into it. I loved the experience. I loved wearing many hats. I loved figuring things out, solving problems … And I’ve been working with startups ever since.”

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Saleh says the goal at Kaplan is to teach people how to be entrepreneurs through “experiential learning opportunities.”

“We plan to connect with the community and to build programs to really help inject that entrepreneurial mindset into our student body,” she said. “The end result will be that we fuel the entrepreneurial community with diversity. If you look at our student body today, they represent a very diverse population compared to some of the other universities in town.”

Saleh has also been working to bring more women into positions of leadership in the biotech startup community through the Chicago Women in Bio 3.8 Initiative which she co-founded. She plans to continue that effort at Kaplan.

While she says she doesn’t have a good answer as to why women are underrepresented in the tech sector, she says: “I think I have some ideas, and a number of my colleagues have some ideas, on how we can change the situation. If we bring more women in leadership positions to the startup community … we have a chance to have those women create a more equitable distribution of startup founders. We believe that a support network will be created and we will start seeing some exponential effects.”

Note: This story will be updated with video.



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