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My first boss: Kathryn Parsons, Decoded CEO and digital education pioneer

·6-min read
Kathryn Parsons' work ethic has been garnered from her mother. Photo: Decoded
Kathryn Parsons' work ethic has been garnered from her mother. Photo: Decoded

Kathryn Parsons, 40, co-founded Decoded in 2011 and is CEO of the technology education company teaching digital skills to adults. It is famous for promising to teach code in a day.

Hailed as an “economic force”, she successfully campaigned, in 2014, for coding to be mandatory on the UK national curriculum. Parsons has also served as a non-exec on the board of The Department for Business. She received an MBE for services to education in 2014.

Ahead of International Women's Day, Parsons talks about the importance of female role models in business.

My parents are Irish and came over to the UK in the 1960s. They are two of the hardest-working people I know, while my Mum arrived with very little except a great mind-set and work ethic.

She was a nurse for many years in London and, along with my Dad, they set up a nursing home together. The journey was hard for them but she eventually sold the business and opened a hotel in London. What I remember from a very young age was seeing a woman at the top.

Mum is tiny and her way of being a boss was always fascinating to me. She never got angry, people loved her and she cared for them. It’s staggering the amount of Christmas cards she still gets; it’s totally inspiring how she has left such an impact on so many people's lives.

Read more: My first boss: Anne Boden, CEO and founder of Starling Bank

She did it in her own way and she was always calm and kind. She was one of the first women in the UK to get a mortgage herself. Yet I don’t think she would ever use the word entrepreneur.

Being surrounded by her work ethic, I found it entirely normal to later set up a business, having put me and my sister to work. I would be cleaning the floors, rooms, making beds and trained in the basic principles of running a business from a young age. As a family of four we would then sit round the kitchen table on Sundays with our spreadsheets and targets.

Kathryn Parsons, Co-founder, Decoded, speaks during the Institute of Directors annual conference at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
After conquering fear of public speaking, Kathryn Parsons now speaks in front of thousands at events, including here at the Institute of Directors annual conference, Royal Albert Hall. Photo: PA

My parents let us into the business. We learned as much as we wanted to, yet nothing was ever forced upon us. The role model aspect enthused us with the ability that you could build something with very little.

I co-founded Decoded in the same way, with little more than a credit card. I’m so passionate about skills and education — especially with coding, technology and women — that people can be blocked at a very young age from their potential future. I see so many people across all ages who have the potential to upskill into technology careers but their confidence is shattered because, say, their maths teacher once told them they weren’t good enough.

My parents gave us the perception that we should aim for the top and there was never a sense that we couldn’t achieve these things. Not having that kind of support or confidence can have huge ripple effects on people’s lives.

Read more: My first boss: Chloe Macintosh, from Made.com to 'sextech' entrepreneur

Technology is a subject typically taught badly, which is why I wanted to decode it and make it accessible to anyone. I want to throw out the rule book; to say to people ‘what are you capable of?’ If we give the right coaching in a supportive environment it’s incredible to see the transformation people can make in their careers.

We have now taught hundreds of thousands globally and one of the biggest hurdles we face with our learners is surmounting the confidence barrier. When I started Decoded, people were shocked at the prospect that anyone could learn to code so quickly (and I couldn't until I went for it).

Kathryn Parsons and Daniel Scavino arrive through the East Gallery during the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace, London, on day one of the US President's three day state visit to the UK.
Kathryn Parsons, left, with Dan Scavino, the former White House director of social media, during the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace for the US president in 2019. Photo: PA

You are going to hear ‘no’ so much in life and business and someone, somewhere in your life needs to put that grain of confidence in you. One which leaves you going "I will just give it a go and that there is nothing to be afraid of".

More women are founding businesses in the UK than ever, while the statistics on the investment on female-founded businesses has been dire — just 19% of the tech workforce are women, 5% of tech leadership positions are held by women and 78% of students can’t name a famous female working in the industry.

There needs to be more female leaders, but there are a myriad of factors why more women aren’t rising up the ranks of businesses. But the fact that people are taking the problem seriously, for me is a big leap from where we were four years ago.

I saw the steely work ethic and ultimate business success from my own mother. Her caring and empathetic nature with others was the way she went about her business.

Kathryn Parsons co-founded her company in 2011 with a mission to teach code in a day. Photo: Decoded
Kathryn Parsons co-founded her company in 2011 with a mission to teach code in a day. Photo: Decoded

Her advice was always to not seek conflict, with communication you can seek resolution. What my parents also have is a deep belief in the value of education and that a woman could do anything she wanted to in business and life, especially my father.

I am eternally grateful to them for their belief in me. The power of education, the importance of hard work, a belief in women's ability to achieve anything and being good to other people.

Read more: My first boss: Nutritionist Henrietta Norton on being a wellness trailblazer

There weren’t many other inspiring female leaders around the late Eighties. I wanted to see women making it on their own. It was something that struck me when I studied classics — yet I couldn’t find a single representation of a woman written by a woman. One of my professors was Mary Beard, who has gone out of her way to talk about what it was really like to be a woman in history.

I often think about code and classics that way. Our future is being written in lines of code and the future founders of business will have stories written about them. The hope is that girls growing up now and in generations to come will be looking for and will find role models. It’s so important for me that, in 100 years, we don’t end up in the same position of not having any statues of women, or women written about in the history books, in their own words about their own creations.

Decoded hosts technology masterclasses across the globe and you can follow Kathryn on LinkedIn

Watch: Why do we still have a gender pay gap?

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