CHICAGO — Anirudh Paidipally, 19, likes to code.

The Schaumburg resident is on the autism spectrum and likes HTML so much he spent his summer working on code with Chicago-based career networking platform and software company, YolBe (Your Life Only Better) via its website and app.

Paidipally’s father, Bhaskar, said his son is always on the computer at home, so when one of his teachers from Higgins Education Center recommended him for the program, he thought it would be a good fit for Anirudh.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“If he sits in one place — his couch, his table — he’s comfortable. But if he goes out somewhere, school or someplace, he gets anxiety,” Bhaskar Paidipally said. But the internship helps with that, Bhaskar Paidipally said. “It’s long way … when he sees new people, he freezes. New situations, he freezes. But we’re working on that.”

Paidipally was one of seven interns who worked on YolBe’s platform as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s TECH-Prep program — a program where youth of color with intellectual and developmental disabilities are introduced to STEM careers with real-life experiences working in the STEM field.

Young learners, ages 16 to 24, participate in eight-week online soft skills training (where modules on communication, networking, teamwork and professionalism are taught and practiced with peers and coaches who are Ph.D. candidates with the university). Then they participate in a four-week paid internship with YolBe.

David Douglas, YolBe CEO, said the Equal Access internships were designed specifically for those with disabilities. “Equal Access is a disability focused marketplace on our platform for those organizations serving that population, and employers that want to hire individuals with some form of disability. We’re expanding that,” he said.

This summer marked the second year YolBe — likened as a youth-focused LinkedIn with an Instagram look — offered online internships to increase accessibility and flexibility.

“As we started working with Chicago students, we noticed access to opportunity is severely limited,” Douglas said about STEM jobs. “It’s not that they’re not available; the opportunities are just not known. And in certain areas it’s very difficult to access.

“We’ve been trying to build software that caters to organizations, employers that work with those populations,” he said. “Through that work, we were connected with University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their intention: How do we influence young adults, in particular those with disabilities and minorities, to pursue careers in STEM?”

The YolBe team, comprised of about a dozen employees, is focused on driving more STEM opportunities to those in marginalized communities. From jobs to training, YolBe is working to bridge the information and skills gap by providing hands-on, project-based, real-life work experience. Internship coordinator Sydney Gear said the youths this summer worked on the basics of coding and programming through various projects, including technical and usability testing as administrators on the YolBe site. Douglas is hoping the program recruits more students next summer, scaling up to double digit participants from across the country.

“They do presentations at the end of every week,” Douglas said. “The way that our developers, our marketing people say: This is what we built, here’s the value that we provided. Sydney had them run projects that are valuable to us, go out and talk to people that are using our software, get their feedback, deliver that back to our engineering team so they can realize what’s working, what’s not. Do testing on the software to find out where it’s breaking, those types of things, build out our social media.”

Xander Vizcarra, 16, of Albany Park, helped with the networking aspect of things, looking to bring in more users for the different groups on the YolBe platform and finding, posting job opportunities.

Vizcarra’s mother, Betty, said her son was born with a missing chromosome that hinders his learning capabilities.

“For him to learn, he has to repeat the same thing over and over and over,” she said. “He said my mind is like a blackboard — you write on it, and then every morning it’s erased and he has to start from scratch. But if you write the same thing over, in the same way, eventually no matter how many times you erase, it stays in there. And that’s how he learns. For him it’s repetitive. You have to say the same thing over and over and he has to practice it over and over, but he’ll eventually get it.”

Xander Vizcarra liked doing the internship virtually since he’s comfortable staying at home. A self-taught artist, he hopes to use his new coding skills to help with his pencil drawings.

“I want to be a drawer in the future, make my stuff into cartoons, comics and stuff like that, so I thought coding would also help in the future if I had to do it myself,” he said.

Vizcarra plans to do another internship next year and keep the momentum going. According to Douglas, the success of the participants will be tracked by the university over the next several years.

“The success of the program is the extent to which a large proportion of individuals follow a career in STEM to become a software engineer, a designer, a tester, quality assurance type of person,” Douglas said.

YolBe staff is looking forward to doing the internship program in person next summer. Samantha Skjodt, YolBe’s vice president of product and marketing, said YolBe is inviting more nonprofits, states (they hope to expand to Pennsylvania and Georgia very soon) and more public schools in Chicago to be a part of YolBe’s networks.

“That’s our vision, really making sure people get the right connections, whether it’s a job or job center or workforce agency,” she said. “They’re connected with all those career specialists now on the platform; it’s like a social capital network for people with disabilities in Chicago.”

© 2021 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.