Mahrinah von Schlegel, co-founder of Cibola — a minority-focused small business incubator located in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, says she doesn’t care to be cast in the glare of a spotlight. But, one thing unique about von Schlegel is that she is currently the only Latina running her own tech incubator in the United States.
“It shouldn’t be happening,” von Schlegel says. What she means is that she, a Latina running an incubator, shouldn’t be the anomaly. Von Schlegel would like to see more people of color, and more women, lead pools of entrepreneurial diversity. Von Schlegel, who has traveled far and wide, has a deep appreciation of cultures, after spending time on several continents.
Although born and raised in the South Pacific, von Schlegel’s family heritage originates from Spain. As a child, she attended school in Japan and did not learn to speak English until she was six years old. Her adult years were spent working in the United States. Her experiences have allowed her to build a strong “global network,” members of whom have helped her throughout her career. Now, living in Chicago, von Schlegel says she feels right at home and is drawn by the city’s blend of tech savviness and Midwestern work ethic. She calls Chicago “the most American city.”
Von Schlegel co-founded Cibola in September 2012. She had the idea of a space and mentoring hub which would assist minority-owned businesses to get off the ground. The incubator prides itself on being “diversity-inclusive,” and routinely hosts hack-a-thons and community get-togethers. Many of the companies in the space include those in the industrial and technology sectors. Recently, Cibola partnered with the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation ESDC (18th Street Development Center) in an effort to grow. Expansion plans include a move into an old 1890s Czech social club. Von Schlegel hopes to attract more entrepreneurs of different backgrounds.
“People of color need an icon to inspire themselves to get into the startup scene,” says von Schlegel.
While Chicago’s entrepreneur scene is thriving, Von Schlegel sees the ecosystem as imbued with the “Mark Zuckerberg archetype.” She is no stranger to the fits and starts experienced by most entrepreneurs. In 2001, Von Schlegel helped to found a punk music message board, and has invested heavily in punk and hardcore music — an interest has impacted her personal and professional life. She says that hacker culture is similar to hardcore culture, referring the innate ability of both groups to build on each other’s work.
Von Schlegel says there is more for business owners-of-color to achieve — both personally and professionally. She’s looking forward to more mountains to climb. ❒ [Photo of Marinah von Schlegel by Tracy Martin]