Written By: Eugene Chow
“People like me aren’t usually in tech,” said Jaellys Bales, 28, one of the creators of Mozi, a low-cost robotics kit designed to teach kids how to program.
“I remember my younger brother, mom, and I had to scrounge for money, just so our dad could go out and buy bread.”
Jaelly’s life has been marked with cruel twists of fate, heartbreaking almosts — and her unyielding resolve.
Born in the Bronx to a struggling family, she moved more times than she can remember, but she never forgot the time she spent in a shelter.
“It was really tough. I tried to hide the fact that I lived in a shelter from the other kids at school, but they found out,” she recalled.
Eventually her family found a stable home in a rural South Florida suburb, however, the high school she attended was riddled by violence. Fearing for her safety, Jaellys’ mother withdrew her.
Undeterred, Jaellys earned her GED and began taking the bus to study design at her local community college an hour and a half away. She earned her Associate’s Degree and was accepted to Parsons School of Design with a scholarship.
Everything was proceeding according to plan until the final semester of her senior year — her father had a stroke and her grandmother became severely ill. Jaellys rushed back to South Florida to help care for them and remained at their side for months.
By the time she returned to New York and was ready to resume her studies, it was too late. Debt and other complicating factors had made it too difficult to finish her degree.
For the next several years, she took on odd jobs to make ends meet. Her future plans and dreams were on hold, until she heard about Access Code, a Robin Hood funded job training program that teaches men and women of color tech skills.
“My boyfriend was listening to the radio and heard an ad for free programming classes,” Jaellys said. “I immediately applied and got in.”
Access Code was just the opportunity Jaellys had been seeking. It opened a door that had previously been shut.
Long interested in coding, Jaellys taught herself web design in middle school, took C++ programming classes in community college, and in recent years, tried to teach herself front-end development. However, with no guidance, her progress was limited and she had difficulty mastering the more complex elements of coding.
At Access Code, Jaellys found helpful teachers and the like-minded students she had longed for. She immersed herself in the 9-month intensive course, learning not only how to develop smartphone apps, but also what she calls, “the intangible skills needed to succeed in tech or business,” like how to present yourself and communicate.
“The class really helped me to come out of my shell, come out of my introversion,” she explained. Due to her family’s frequent moves as a child, Jaellys was never able to form any lasting friendships and became shy and introverted.
When asked what inspires her about technology, she readily replies, “I want to use technology to empower people like me. We’re not less smart, we just don’t have the means.”
The driving idea behind her app Mozi was to create a low-cost robotics kit within reach of kids living in poverty.
“When you are disadvantaged or impoverished, you are tiptoeing around land mines every day and it’s very easy to succumb to one misstep or change in circumstance,” Jaellys said, reflecting back on her life.
“I’m grateful for organizations like Robin Hood and Access Code — they make things easier for those in need. Less land mines.”
As of publication, Jaellys is interviewing for jobs in New York City’s tech sector and is hopeful for the future.
Access Code is a job training program launched by Coalition for Queens and supported by Robin Hood. The program empowers men and women of color, recent immigrants, and those without college degrees by providing them with the programming skills and entrepreneurial training needed to succeed in New York City’s booming tech sector. On average, the graduates of Access Code’s first cohort increased their annual income from $26,000 to $73,000. In December, the members of Access Code’s second cohort graduated, including Anthony Fermin, who quickly found a job and more than doubled his income.
Photography: Alberto Reyes