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Kathryn Parsons: 'I wouldn't be pushing for more women in technology if I thought it was toxic'

Kathryn Parsons is the founder of Decoded and supporter of the Telegraph's Women Mean Business campaign - © 2014 Bloomberg Finance
Kathryn Parsons is the founder of Decoded and supporter of the Telegraph's Women Mean Business campaign - © 2014 Bloomberg Finance
Women Mean Business banner
Women Mean Business banner

On a quiet afternoon at a private members club in Mayfair, the exuberant Kathryn Parsons leans in from a well-cushioned high-back armchair and talks at length about what really matters to her. At the top of the list is getting more women into technology.

“Technology is driving the future economy and it is not good enough to accept that a lot of women opt out at a really early age,” she says assertively.

“If you start looking at salary brackets, high growth industries are those which have technology at their core - you cannot come in to a decent role in any of those businesses if you say that you’re not interested in technology. If you say that you’re opting out of a high-growth industry.”

Having co-founded Decoded, a tech educator company in 2011 along with Alasdair Blackwell, Steve Henry and Richard Peters, the 36-year-old knows what she is talking about. The company is now a global brand hosting technology masterclasses in 85 cities across the world reaching 250,000 people face-to-face, as well as hundreds of thousands more online.

We are, Parsons says, living in a technological renaissance, but despite being an industry of the future, girls are seemingly opting out of jobs which could not only guarantee a secure future, but also some big money, too.

So why is this? Frustrated, not by the question, but by the situation, Parsons says: “Number one, its not to do with proficiency or ability. Number two, it is absolutely to do with branding and how it’s taught and presented to women. And it’s just unacceptable. There is nothing factual, no hard reason why women should not be a part of it.”

Look at what has been dubbed ‘brogrammer’ culture and you’ll also notice almost all of the top tech CEOs are white and male. A 2017 report by the Chartered Institute for IT showed that Just 17 per cent of those working in Technology in the UK are female. The number of female founders is even fewer, with Bauhurst’s Scaleup Index of 2017 showing that just four per cent of UK scale up companies have a female founder.

But Parsons insists that shouldn’t put women off: “I wouldn’t be such a champion for women getting into technology if I thought it was a toxic environment. The benefit of being a female tech founder is you can establish a different culture and can change problems you want to change.

“If you put this powerful tool set in the hands of more women, more diverse problems would get solved and more businesses would get created to make the world a better place.”

It is one reason Parsons has become a high profile supported of the Telegraph’s Women Mean Business campaign which is seeking to help close the funding gap between male and female founders, and boost female entrepreneurship and start-ups in the UK. Parsons says: “What you’re doing is amazing. I think I would have benefitted from it.”

Leading from the front, Decoded has just started accredited data science courses. “I really want 50 per cent mandatory attendance for women,” says Parsons. “The starting salary for a data scientist who is fully qualified is something like £150,000 and I am certain that every employer can find at least 15 women to go through these apprenticeship levy funded courses and programmes.”

Open Letter | Women Mean Business
Open Letter | Women Mean Business

To get to the top, Parsons knows it is imperative that education and hard work starts young, but recognises that family has an important role to play, too. The youngest of two daughters she says her dad was key in pushing her to make her own luck.

“My dad, I think was a little unusual,” she says, smiling. “He was thrusting these books called ‘how to start a business’ into my hands when I was seven years old. He was an accountant and was just very ambitious for me, and I love him for that.

“It meant that when I was young I didn’t think it was weird that I wanted to start a business. Both my parents are Irish and when they came to the UK there was an element of ‘make it yourself because no-one is going to give you a job’ and that that rubbed off.”

After attending the independent Channing school and Cambridge University where she studied Ancient Greek and Latin, Parsons joined Ogilvy & Mather’s graduate scheme. She focused on tech, and worked with MTV to create ‘Cherry Girl’ - a character designed to promote environmental awareness among a younger audience.

It was around this time, aged 26, that Parsons really caught the tech bug. Going it alone with a digital creative agency and without a workplace Parsons said: “One of the first places to do free Wifi was Wetherspoons so at 7am I would get in there and get working. It was quite lonely.”

Women Mean Business: A call to action
Women Mean Business: A call to action

Eventually, the gravitational shift towards east London started and Parsons became immersed in the tech area she calls “the Silicon drinkabout.” She soon met her Decoded co-founders and in 2013, Parsons won the Veuve Clicquot New Generation award for her work at their annual business woman of the year ceremony. It, she says, opened doors across the world.

“It took code from being the preserve of guys hacking into laptops in their pants with a half finished pizza in a basement, into the glamorous world of Veuve which was all about these game changing women with really big ambitions,” she said.

Tonight, she will be making a keynote speech at the ceremony, which will see either Matches Fashion founder Ruth Chapman or Severn Trent CEO Liv Garfield taking the overall prize. Parsons still meets up regularly with previous winners and nominees, dining with ITV’s Carolyn McCall, IBM’s Harriet Green and banker Katherine Garrett-Cox only last week. “I think the women’s network is a force to be reckoned with,” she says.

“The best way to change the culture of business is for more businesses to be founded by women. For that to happen, women need a few things. Environments like incubators which allow you to learn, and I think it’s great doing things in teams, so I think you need to do a bit of “dating” to find a CEO or COO.”

In 2014, the UK became the second country in the world to make coding mandatory on the national curriculum, something Parsons calls “a massive success and something we should be proud of.”

Women Mean Business | Read about our campaign
Women Mean Business | Read about our campaign

What it has also done is normalise coding in gender terms, because girls and boys are both exposed to the technology, in the same way as they would be for history or science.

“There are something like four million seven-year-olds every year now getting exposed to potentially one of the most powerful and relevant skills and tools of the future,” she adds.

Looking forward, Parsons says the future lies in Quantum computing. “There are less than 30 quantum computers in the world and this will be a space race for computing, because the person who manages to crack it will have exponential computing power.

“All the promise of AI is almost a little bit moot because the computing power you need to power an AI driven society doesn’t really exist yet.”

And quantum computing is what exactly again? “We have always computed in binary - so something is always 1 or 0. I believe that you’re sitting there because you happen in my imagination to be in front of me, but this idea that you could both be there and not be there at the same time is more to do with quantum reality and quantum physics and that’s how quantum computing works. It is making the state of entanglement and quantum a reality.”

I’m slightly perplexed, but wide-eyed and talking with genuine excitement, she adds without a beat: “It’s absolutely fascinating.”

Find out more about the Telegraph’s Women Mean Business campaign here.