Most Interesting Person: Ali Karbassi
Over the past 15 years I’ve worked in many different industries; Professional photographer, senior web developer at web firms and advertising agencies, product developer at an Internet of Things startup, Technology Director at a product-based company, and CEO of a non-profit to name a few. Each has revolved around my love of technology and how humans interact with it.
My latest jump has been starting, and running, a non-profit called CoderDojoChi . Our mission is to empower youth from Chicago’s vibrant communities in their exploration of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and promote collaborative learning and play with experienced mentors.
Recently I’ve put some of my energy into bringing Ignite to Chicago. IgniteChi is a high-energy evening of 5-minute talks by people who have a passion—and the guts to get onstage and share it with their hometown crowd. Each month we bring 10 speakers to a sold-out audience to share their ideas.
When was the last time you were on roller skates, either figuratively or metaphorically?
When I was nine, I discovered BMX bikes and doing bike tricks. Growing up in a very small town, there wasn’t much to do for kids, so I spent most of my time riding around with friends, making ramps, and doing tricks. After a bike/car incident, my mother asked if I could give up my bike for a little while. With my main mode of transportation gone, I discovered the massive fun of roller skating–or what the cool kids did… roller blading. I enjoyed the rush of going down large hills knowing that my brakes wouldn’t stop me unless I dove into the grass.
I would push myself up a hill, regretting each push. At the top, I would shake with fear of what might happen during the ride down. Without fail, I would fly down the hill at break-neck speeds, enjoying every single second of the ride.
As I got older, taking risks became part of my life. I’d find what was interesting and focus all my energy towards it. This caused me to change careers a few times and ultimately take the leap of becoming a social entrepreneur.
What was the last picture you took with your phone?
Our dog, Mabel. I didn’t get a chance to grow up with pets. She’s been a true friend (yup, dog-lover here) and a major point of stress relief for me. Walks three times a day allow me to get out of my work mode, disconnect from technology, and enjoy some quiet time–well, as quiet as Chicago can get.
Describe the color orange to somebody who’s blind.
It’s been a cold Chicago winter and spring has been short. The weather has started to change for the better. You get a chance to go out to the beach on a beautiful early Summer Saturday afternoon. While listening to all the people on the beach, you notice how wonderful the warmth of the sun feels on your skin after so long without it. Orange.
What phrase continuously inspires you?
My grandfather was a huge influence in my life. I enjoyed listening to his stories and asking life advice whenever he was around. Living over 95 years, this man had stories to share! He always told me that “anything is possible with the mind,” whenever I’d come to him with a life struggle. The translation from Persian to English isn’t the best, but it’s something that will always stay with me. Really, it’s on a piece of paper in my wallet.
What brings you joy and what stresses you out?
CoderDojoChi. The non-profit I run. It brings me endless joy seeing the lightbulbs go on for all the students we teach. We are bringing STEM education to countless kids in the Chicago area who haven’t had the chance to interact with technology like this. Technology is not meant to be only consumed; we are meant to interact with it, remix it, make it our own. We want kids to be able to create whatever they want without limitations.
Creating a non-profit company from the ground up brings its stresses though. What makes us different is the age range we teach and the number of teachers we have per class. Being able to teach kids as young as 5 and as old as 17 to code has been amazing. With our 2 to 1 student to mentor ratio, our students get to focus on learning what they want to learn, at their speed. Our mentors are there to help each student push their limits.
I wake up happy each morning. Stress is part of the job, but I wouldn’t want to do anything different.
What are you most proud of?
I know I’m not a doctor saving a life, but I love learning that I’ve made a difference in someone’s life. Our goal is to open a whole new world up for boys and girls in Chicago. Sometimes, we make a bigger difference than we thought. Let me share with you an email I received:
“I wanted to start by saying thank you so much for what you have given my kids. I’m a single mom and I would not be able to give this to my kids if it was not for you. Anthony and D’ Angelo enjoyed the days that they attend your class. Brian, my older son, accompanied his brother to the class and he is 20 years old. Two and half years ago he was run over by a car that lost control and went over the sidewalk where Brian was walking. That accident broke Brian’s 4 and 5 vertebrates and he was left quadriplegic. He spends most of his days at home. But now he looks forward to your classes and he has been doing things on his own about coding. Also it has giving him a guide on what to study in school because he did not know what to do. There are no words to express how grateful I am for everything that you have giving us.”