Equitable Entrepreneurship: Kaplan Institute Focused on Developing Inclusive Ecosystem

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At the heart of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship lies one focal point: providing equity in entrepreneurship. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially brutal on students, communities of color, and for immigrant populations, issues that have been highlighted by the American Medical Association and the Brookings Institution. The disparities that they face in their day-to-day lives is even more evident. There is a real urgency to ensure that these communities are able to rebuild their lives in a way that truly empowers them. 

The Kaplan Institute believes that entrepreneurship is a medium that allows founders to build resiliency and wealth for their families and communities. The power and privilege that entrepreneurship offers should be accessible and available for anyone who has the talent, grit, and determination to build their own business. 

A movement to support underrepresented founders has been building momentum not just in Chicago with initiatives like P33’s multi-stakeholder TechRise, but also nationally to have a shared vision of what our future could look like. 

The Kaplan Institute recognizes this need to empower entrepreneurs who represent the needs and interests of all our communities and is building programs and networks to support Illinois Institute of Technology students, alumni, and faculty who are poised to help build this future. Be it through the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program or its more recent pilots like the startup immersion program—where Illinois Tech students are given opportunities to work with startups and funds—and a seed fund that it is planning to launch in the coming months, the Kaplan Institute recognizes how important it is to integrate equity in entrepreneurship as a core component of all of its programming.

It involves thinking about “how do we build alliances and leverage best practices of all the colleges and institutes at Illinois Tech,” says Niharika Hanglem, the program director at Kaplan Institute. “To advance equity in a way that it’s an intrinsic part of everything we do.”

Hanglem, who joined Kaplan Institute after working for Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities, is well versed in the importance of advancing equity. Her role with GET Cities, which is focused on making the tech industry more inclusive, was to research and develop partnership initiatives in Chicago, an endeavor that allowed her to connect with more than 100 companies and more than 150 individuals in the city’s tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem. 

That research showed that while Chicago is diverse—its population is nearly evenly divided among those who identify as Black, Latinx, and white—the startup and tech ecosystem is not. According to Desiree Vargas Wrigley, TechRise aims to level the tech startup ecosystem for Black and Latinx founders. Just 1.9 percent of the city’s venture funding goes to Black and Latinx founders. But that is just one part of the problem. 

“The other part of the problem is there’s limited access to networks and knowledge,” says Vargas Wrigley, the executive director of TechRise. “That [startup] network just doesn’t exist in some of our neighborhoods.”

Hanglem says that the Kaplan Institute has found similar issues among students at Illinois Tech, who may find it particularly challenging to connect to the idea of being an entrepreneur. 

“One of the big insights was that when students think of who is an entrepreneur, they are not seeing role models; they are not seeing people that look like them,” Hanglem says. 

The Kaplan Institute is already trying to improve this. Thanks to a grant from VentureWell, the Kaplan Institute has created a three-pronged plan to engage first-generation and minority students by identifying and providing programming that helps them better understand entrepreneurship. The plan also looks to connect them to mentors, advisers, and internship opportunities so that students obtain first-hand experience by working with startups, industry partners, and community partners. 

As part of this process, the Kaplan Institute has revamped the IPRO Program with the introduction of IPRO Labs, a program that features five labs that are each centered on a specific issue that teams of students, community partners, and industry partners collaborate on to address a particular real-world challenge.  

Through these programs, Illinois Tech students are able to find footing within the entrepreneurial ecosystem by gaining access to the social networks and capital they need to succeed as entrepreneurs. 

“Any new program that we have, we have to be very intentional about making sure that balance is struck,” Coleman Foundation Clinical Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship Nik Rokop says of ensuring every student has the same opportunity. “The only way you do that is by doing it intentionally.” 

Rokop, a long-time entrepreneur who has spent nearly 15 years teaching and providing guidance for the next generation of entrepreneurs at Illinois Tech, strongly advises his students to utilize the Kaplan Institute’s resources.

One of Rokop’s student teams, Beyond the Sole, composed of a majority of black founders, participated in the Kaplan Institute’s startup accelerator. They aim to develop a sensor that can be inserted into the soles of shoes to collect biomechanical data to give to therapy facilities to help treat lower-leg and ankle injuries. The idea for the business came to Ahmad Muhammad (BA 3rd Year), Miles Curry (BA 4th Year), Ricardo Whitehead (BA ’20), Wyatt Ronek (BA 3rd Year), and Antonio Jackson (BA 4th Year) through their shared experience as student-athletes on Illinois Tech’s basketball and baseball teams. As athletes they have first-hand knowledge of the problem they are looking to address: a better way to quickly and accurately diagnose and treat these injuries. 

Yet, even with Rokop’s support, self-motivation, and a good idea in hand, the team has faced challenges that come with launching a product in the tech sector.

“We didn’t have a sense of direction,” Muhammad says. “We didn’t have those networks in the physical therapy sectors. We did conduct a few interviews with [Illinois Tech’s] head athletic trainer, Chapin [Wehde], but we really didn’t have an extension of that.”

While they are still an early stage startup, Beyond the Sole is focused on developing a prototype utilizing what they learned at Illinois Tech, as well as by utilizing the Kaplan Institute’s resources. Executive Director Maryam Saleh has worked to connect the team with industry mentors and Akshar Patel, the managing director of the Kaplan Institute, has met with the team regularly to provide guidance.

“It’s been dope,” Whitehead says of the Kaplan Institute’s guidance. “The folks [at Kaplan] seem really excited about what we have planned; they’re honest with us when they tell us something that we’re either missing in our business plan or something that we need to add or take off.”

Still early in its development under the leadership of Saleh and her team, the Kaplan Institute is eager to utilize all of its resources and network—particularly alumni in the startup or entrepreneurial community who want to play a part in advancing equity. 

Mel Flowers (LAW ’03), a member of the Kaplan Institute and Chicago-Kent College of Law Board of Advisors, is a prime example of this collaboration. The Midwest market unit CE legal lead for Accenture, Flowers is also the Chicago lead for the company’s Black Founder’s Entrepreneur Development Program, and the Kaplan Institute is partnering with his team for its seed fund, among other programs.

“At the Kaplan Institute, we understand that a new narrative of entrepreneurship and building wealth for our communities is essential as we rebuild our economy and uplift society,” Hanglem says. “We are committed to building programs that advance equity in entrepreneurship and set up our students, faculty, and all stakeholders for success. As part of this work, we are seeking partners and supporters for this work here in Chicago, and also globally. If you want to drive transformative change in the startup ecosystem to deliver outsized economic and social impact by supporting underrepresented founders, get in touch.”

To join the Kaplan Institute in extending equitable and inclusive opportunities in entrepreneurship to Illinois Tech students, please contact Niharika Hanglem at nhanglem@kaplan.iit.edu.