Network Upgrade

When Mahrinah von Schlegel moved to Chicago to start a business, she felt a little lonely. “When I would go to networking events,” she recalls, “I would be the only Latino in the room.” She could see that minority and female entrepreneurship was not reflected in the growing energy around the Chicago startup scene that could be observed at incubators such as 1871 and Excelerate. But that didn’t mean it didn’t exist.

Incubators like Cibola, Excelerate, and 1871 offer fledgling entrepreneurs everything from access to investor capital to mentorship to cheap Internet. Chicago’s start-up scene can best be described as nascent, while the tech start-up sector in Silicon Valley and Boston are more established. That being said, Chicago boasts the second largest dollar amount of angel investments nationwide, and start-up pitch events like Technori are consistently sold out. Successful start-ups that have pitched at Technori include Boomerang, Resultly, and Mobcart.

Cibola was born to fulfill the void von Schlegal and her business partner, Emile Cambry, perceived. “I dove into it head first,” von Schlegel says of the new technology incubator in Pilsen that opened in October. A ten-thousand-square- foot facility with ten private offices and a vast shared work area, Cibola provides a community-focused space that is already home to a diverse array of startups and projects, such as web developers, a bio-tech company, two film festivals, and more.

The shared work area consists of a modular arrangement that can be configured in different ways to accommodate conferences, film screenings, and social events. High-ceilinged and cavernous, it can be a little overwhelming. Her focus, however, is bringing women and minorities into the fold.

The biggest challenge for entrepreneurs in Chicago, von Schlegel notes, is “Knowing what your options are in terms of resources, and knowing where to access those resources.”  Even some of Chicago’s long-time serial entrepreneurs don’t know about tech incubators like Cibola or 1871, the startup incubator that opened up in the Merchandise Mart last year.

“Unless you find the right groups, you’ll just sit there and do it on your own. If you’re surrounded by a community working on similar projects, or on things that are complementary to what you’re doing, you’re going to be able to do that faster, better, cheaper, and find the resources you need to finish what you’re doing,” she explains.

To that end, Cibola offers entrepreneurship classes and workshops, and services for their entrepreneurs including 24 hour access to the offices, private phone service, high speed internet, and access to vetted vendors for graphic design, marketing, social media, legal services, banking, and accounting. Von Schlegel notes that Cibola’s fees are half that of other tech incubators.

Cibola has hosted events relating to innovations in the tech market, as well as community-focused events. Von Schlegel talks enthusiastically about Cibola’s efforts in the new and growing hardware movement, which provide product makers with the tools to make everything from circuit boards to organic soaps. Cibola also hosts the Chicago International Social Change Film Festival, which connects viewers of films that highlight social issues with organizations working on those issues, so people who watch the films can make a direct impact. In addition, Cibola has hosted gaming nights, hackathons, conferences, and a record fair.

“We see ourselves as a model of community economic development,” von Schlegel says. “Something like Cibola could exist in any community.”

As for location, Pilsen was a natural choice. Other than the fact that there are no startup incubators on the South Side, von Schlegel was attracted to the wide variety of backgrounds and languages that interact in interesting ways in the area. “The 25th Ward is the most diverse in the city. We have Chinatown, UIC, Little Italy, down to Little Village,” she explains.

Despite the challenges of helping traditionally underrepresented groups tap into the energy of tech entrepreneurship, von Schlegel and Cambry are confident Cibola is up to the task.  “Everyone here is building, growing and, doing amazing things,” von Schlegel says.

Von Schlegel and her business partner cite Pilsen’s burgeoning art scene as an inspiration. The relationship between art and creativity in entrepreneurship was something von Schlegel noticed during the time she spent in the startup communities on the East and West coast before moving to Chicago. “We wanted Cibola to be visually cohesive with the rest of Pilsen,” she says, a concept evidenced by the large graffiti mural on one wall that was painted by a Chicago artist.

In its short existence, Cibola has made strides in achieving one of its main goals. Von Schlegel and Cambry are currently working with organizations such as the Women’s Innovation Network, the Women’s Health Conference, and the Women in Business Conference to promote women entrepreneurs. Cibola is also working on launching a business pitch event aimed at attracting Latino entrepreneurs.

Cibola’s future plans include the launch of an international seed stage accelerator, which works with international venture funds to match Chicago tech entrepreneurs with opportunities in Latin America and Europe. Cibola hopes to try a new incubation model that takes entrepreneurs into international markets to gain new experiences and to identify opportunities to adapt successful American ventures for foreign markets.

With Chicago’s most high-profile startup Groupon facing post-IPO troubles as its stock price plummets and founder Andrew Mason fights to keep his job, the future of Chicago’s tech startup scene may be even more uncertain. But Cibola is betting that Chicago has only scratched the surface of its startup potential, and tapping the entrepreneurial spirit of minorities and women will help to fulfill it. “We’re starting to see much more focus on women in technology, and that wasn’t there even just a year ago.”