As a Young Woman in Tech, Bella Palumbi ’16 Is Pushing for New Spaces for Students

In recognition of Women’s History Month, we caught up with Calvert alumna Christabella “Bella” Palumbi ’16, a software engineer and hackathon organizer whose work has been featured in Baltimore Magazine and Technical.ly Baltimore. As a notable young woman in tech, Bella advocates for young people in a traditionally older, male-dominated field.
Now an engineering intern at Stream Captain, Bella got her start at just 11 years old, when she attended a summer program with Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Foundation. She learned the basics of circuits and mobile game programming and began her first app, a game called Monkey Mayhem.
It hit the app store in 2014 – and by then, Bella was captivated.
“This was the first ‘real’ programming I had done. I was 11 or 12 then, and I just really liked it,” she said.
Eight years later, Bella has helped to change the tech industry by advocating for women and young people in the field. She started with a hackathon.
“Hackathons” are short team-based competitions where programmers create new projects under a time crunch. After continuing with the Digital Harbor Foundation throughout middle school, Bella entered her first hackathon in 2015.
While she was nervous to compete against adults, Bella said that the experience had a major effect on her. She and her partner won $2,000 for their app createAchimera, and Bella fell in love with hackathons’ creative, fast-paced environment.
“My 13-year-old self thought, ‘This is so great. I get to learn all this cool stuff and make all these cool things,’” Bella said.
Over the past six years, Bella has participated in multiple hackathons and repeatedly earned recognition for her work. In 2016, Technical.ly Baltimore featured her accomplishments in a news story where Bella shared her hope to see more young people – especially young women – engage with technology.
Shortly after, she took action, thinking up a student-focused hackathon that would create new opportunities for young programmers.
“I felt like it would be easy to have a great experience in a hackathon, but it would also be possible, especially as a young woman in tech, to not have such a great experience and to be dissuaded from hackathons or tech in general,” Bella said. “I wanted to create a youth hackathon that has the same great qualities but minimizes the potential for having a bad experience.”
The result was Harbor Hacks, a three-day youth hackathon specifically designed for middle and high school students. In early 2017, Bella pitched the idea to the Digital Harbor Foundation’s Youth Steering Committee. After they accepted, she and her team began brainstorming ways to attract students and minimize stress.
They arranged workshops and raffles, designed custom T-shirts, and made cold calls to parents to encourage attendance. Everyone who attended received a “swag bag” filled with assorted tech gadgets. These efforts, Bella said, helped ensure that students of all skill levels and backgrounds had an incredible experience.
“Even if you came and found that you didn’t really have the tech skills to put a project together in two days, you could still have a great time and have this as a launch pad to meet a mentor, get a cool gadget, or have a fun experience and make friends,” she said.
After organizing Harbor Hacks, Bella was featured on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls blog, and Technical.ly Baltimore nominated her for 2017 Technologist of the Year, a category where she made headlines as the only female and non-adult nominee.
In 2018, Baltimore Magazine recognized Bella as one of 30 Baltimore visionaries who “make the city extraordinary,” and she began an internship with Big Huge Games. Today, Bella is honing her skills at Stream Captain and continues to advocate for young creators.
At Stream Captain, she contributes to new features on the multiplatform Stream Raiders game and other projects while working with the game engine Unity and writing code in C#, HTML, CSS, and Javascript. She hopes that more schools invest in central maker spaces and encourages students to check out the Digital Harbor Foundation, which was “really formative” in her experience.
This fall, Bella plans to pursue computer science at the University of Michigan.
 “Tech is a really wide field. It powers almost everything we do throughout our days – the Internet, our cars, our infrastructure – and programming runs that in so many different ways,” Bella said. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t like it or aren’t good at tech or coding right away. Your first experience is not indicative of everything you can do.”
Thank you to Bella Palumbi ’16 for sharing her story with the Calvert community! To read more about Bella and her projects, click here.
Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.