School of Chemical Engineering

Irena Bakic: "Don’t put yourself in a box!"

Irena Bakic first came to university feeling aimless, it wasn’t until discovering the hands-on work in Aalto’s Design Factory that she finally found her place. Now many courses, internships, and jobs later she is launching her passion project, a mobile coding course to empower young women and teens called CodeBus Africa.
Human-sized lamp in the shape of the Aalto logo, capital A followed by an exclamation mark, stands in a dark space / photo by Aalto University, Lasse Lecklin

Sometimes finding your way can be trial and error.  Irena Bakic’s path to her current role as Project Lead of CodeBus Africa wasn’t a straight shot.  She remembers, “When you are young you feel that you have to fit in a certain box. You have to figure everything out and pick a discipline: science, arts, or technology.  It’s a lot of pressure.”

While she didn’t know what she would do for a career she did know she wanted to help people.  Her father is from Serbia and late one night she saw her parents watching news of the Balkan War. She saw children of her own age, cold, displaced, and miserable. “My parents tried to explain what was happening, but I cried the entire evening”, Bakic says. “The next day I emptied my piggybank and, together with my mum, handed the money to the Red Cross.”

Years later, when she was studying at Kallio High School of Performing Arts, Bakic was struggling to decide on a direction. She was a gifted cellist, but felt it wasn’t practical enough. She was interested in medicine, but wasn’t sure if she had the right academic background for that. She was stuck, she thought she had to pick one narrow path or the other.

After flirting with medical school Bakic followed in the footsteps of her sister and she applied to study at Aalto University as an engineer in Forest Product Technology. “I was accepted because I had good grades. But honestly I drifted at the university, I was still trying to find something that felt right. Then one of my friends recommended a Sustainable Technologies course. That was it. It sounds cheesy, but I suddenly realised that you don’t need to be a doctor to help other people. It wasn’t about fitting in a box, but building my own rules and mapping my own future.”

The Sustainable Technologies course eventually led to Aalto’s Design Factory where students get to solve real problems in hands-on projects. After a chance meeting, Bakic joined a collaboration with UNICEF. She initiated numerous prototypes, like The Elephant tap, which is a robust and durable water tap designed for schools in Uganda.  

Her newest endeavour raises a smile on Bakic’s face: “I’m leading this super cool project, called CodeBus Africa. We will ride in a bus through 10 African countries, along the way we will run creative coding workshops for youth, especially girls, with the goal of inspiring them to explore technology’s possibilities for their future — it’s really about empowerment.

Bakic’s work is rooted in something personal and profound, and while she didn’t know it at the time the threads of her childhood empathy have come full circle. Now that she has found her voice, what would she say to her younger self? “Make sure you experiment. Try different things, different courses. Work with different people and be open” She smirks, “Also, be kind to yourself. No matter what anyone says, you know what you’re doing.”

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