As the executive director of the Kaplan Institute here at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Dr. Maryam Saleh has the major goal of guiding Illinois Tech students to become Chicago’s next leaders and entrepreneurs — which comes with the understated goal of connecting students to tech entrepreneurs and careers in the city to reduce the brain drain of students leaving for Silicon Valley and elsewhere on the coasts. During an interview with TechNews, Saleh talked about her background, what brought her into entrepreneurship, her experience at the Kaplan Institute so far, and diversity at Illinois Tech. As an aside, at the start of the interview, I made the mistake of mentioning my initial misgivings about the Kaplan Institute building, where her office is located — “too bright” and “a little ugly” were the words I used — only for her to inform me that she’s good friends with both the building’s architect John Ronan and namesake Ed Kaplan. Other than that hiccup, it was an incredibly constructive interview, and we thank Saleh for her time.
Saleh was brought on as the executive director of the Kaplan Institute in the fall of 2020. As mentioned previously, one of her major goals is to guide Illinois Tech students on a direct path to becoming Chicago’s next generation of leaders by being innovative and community-minded, in the context of Chicago’s — and the broader — tech community. The Kaplan Institute does great work towards this purpose, giving support to student startups, hosting workshops, networking and connecting students to industry leaders or other startups in Chicago, and importantly giving students a space to innovate, try, and make mistakes safely. She also referenced a mission to make a community of diverse entrepreneurs, not just made up of “high achievers” or the demographics that normally dominate tech. According to Saleh, if we need to solve the problems society is facing right now — be it COVID-19, it’s knock-on effects, income inequality, or otherwise — we need input from everybody and every demographic.
Blatantly, much of the discussions about networking and keeping tech entrepreneurs in Chicago comes down to job placements and student internships. This is not a bad thing, nor is it shallow by any means. Kaplan’s networking and efforts in connecting students to entrepreneurs and tech employers in the city are some of the best ways to keep innovative minds in the Chicago tech sphere after graduation, starting their careers in the Windy City. It’s a win-win, with students and recent graduates getting employment and Chicago not losing any more of its great minds to the coasts.
Seeing students succeed — not limited to job placement — is actually one of Saleh’s favorite parts about heading the Kaplan Institute, as it makes for a great way to see that students are making progress in their careers. Saleh also loves seeing student startups pick up speed and develop. Even if they ultimately don’t go anywhere or the older students leave and pass it off to younger students, it’s more about seeing them work through problems, think critically, develop a business sense that may not have been there before, and catch that “entrepreneurial bug,” as opposed to wanting every startup to become a huge success or go public.
Saleh grew up in Montreal, Quebec in northeastern Canada, where she primarily spoke French growing up; in addition to English, she speaks Spanish and Farsi as well. After high school, she attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island seeking a degree in computer engineering, where her entrepreneurial pursuits began. She was introduced to the startup Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology, who were researching the possibility of using brain-computer interfaces to restore movement to quadriplegics. She began doing research with the startup during her undergraduate degree, and she continued working for them after she graduated from Brown.
Saleh noted that her advisor actually recommended she interview at Pixar Animation Studios, which actually had strong ties to Brown University and its computer science and engineering programs for work on their animation software and servers. Andy from Toy Story is actually named after a computer scientist at Brown, according to Saleh!
After years of working at Cyberkinetics, she began a PhD at the University of Chicago in computational neuroscience underneath one of her Cyberkinetics bosses, where she continued working. However, as she finished her PhD, she realized that benchwork wasn’t for her. “I like when my ideas get out in the world, and research didn’t do that for me. Not immediately,” Saleh added, before continuing, “Most neuroscientists work with monkeys, but I’m more of a people-person.” Pivoting away from lab work, Saleh started a job at Northwestern helping to develop and support health science startups.
Saleh set down roots in the city after getting married during her PhD at the University of Chicago. So, with moving made difficult because of her husband and kids, instead of pursuing the startup sphere in Silicon Valley or the east coast, Saleh has been uniquely dedicated to working in and on the Chicago startup sphere ever since. Chiefly, she was previously a vice president at Matter, Chicago’s first health science startup incubator.
When talking about underrepresented groups in entrepreneurial circles, Saleh said that she has been pleased with what gender and racial diversity looks like at the executive level of Illinois Tech, its Board of Directors, and the Kaplan Institute’s Board of Directors as well. She noted that the previous chair of the Armour College of Engineering was a woman — Dr. Natacha DePaola — as well as the fact that she has made an effort to bring diversity to the Kaplan Board of Directors as well. While it’s a subtle distinction to note, this doesn’t necessarily extend to diversity in the student body, but it’s absolutely encouraging news and a step in the right direction.
Towards the closing of the interview, Saleh took a moment to talk about her love for design and how she loves working in the Kaplan Institute because of the job’s affinity to it. “When you bridge art and science, the best innovations come out,” she said. Saleh also appreciates the creative process and loves watching students and startups work through their creative, design, business, or technological processes as well.
The Kaplan Institute with Saleh at the helm is poised to do great things for entrepreneurship, the Chicago startup environment, and Illinois Tech students as well. Though Saleh wishes she had more time to do everything there is to do as the head of the Kaplan Institute, she is looking forward to working with Illinois Tech students and making them the leaders of the future, and hopefully keep them in Chicago once they’re leaders as well.