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A Life Less Ordinary – Kathryn Parsons

“When you see someone as passionate about your vision as you are, it’s inspiring.”

Kathryn Parsons is the co-founder and co-CEO of Decoded, the world-leading tech education company that grew rapidly on the success of its ‘Code in a Day’ course. (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Accenture and McKinsey employees have attended). Parsons is a champion of the UK tech sector and in 2016 became a non-executive board member of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Where do you go to think?
When you run a business, you’re constantly thinking of many things, but to actually sit and focus on thinking? I do that over Christmas, the one time when emails stop, and I’ll go away by myself somewhere. A beach, ideally, or the countryside. I went to Tulum last year. I’ll take lots of books and really big bits of paper, and spend four days, by myself, in silence, thinking about things.

What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
Flowers. I don’t know if it’s good for the environment, but I do like that you can get a decent bunch of flowers in supermarkets now. It’s about having living things and greenery in the space where I live. Pot plants on the windowsills and the roof terrace. I also have candles that have a peat-like smell. My family are Irish and it reminds me of Ireland.

To whom do you look for advice most often?
I’ve worked with my business partner and Decoded co-founder Richard Peters for over 11 years, and we’re stronger together than ever. Even if we disagree on something we can come to a place of agreement. I’m also really grateful for the contacts I’ve built up in the UK tech sector and Tech City. It’s true what’s said about us: we do help one another, and I’ve had brilliant advice from so many people who have built technology businesses.

I can frame pretty much everything on my to-do list as being creative. Addressing those things requires creativity in thinking

What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
I could never take personal credit for what Decoded has done for other people, because it genuinely is a team effort. We’re very non-hierarchical. The mission was to demystify and decode technology so that anyone could get to grips with it hands-on. Our claim of ‘code in a day’ was a grand one, but we delivered against it: 5,000 businesses came through the door in the first year. The most emotionally compelling stories might not be, ‘business X transformed into business Y’ but that’s what we enabled. And on a human level, we help people who never thought they could get a job in technology find new skillsets and passions. On a personal level, though, I’m taking my dad away for his 70th birthday later this year. I won the Veuve Clicquot New Generation award a couple of years back. You get to hang out with incredible women in business, and now I’m on the judging panel, but part of the prize is being able to go to the chateau in France and they toast you. I never took them up on it, but now I’m taking my dad.

What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
There have been so many, small and large. People who come to work for me and wow me all the time. Others who invested money and time in the business. When you see someone as passionate about your vision as you are, it’s inspiring. One thing that became clear when we started the business is that if you put something out there, people want to help and see you be successful. In turn, it’s my duty and that of others, to do the same.

Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
Being at the beating heart of technology in Silicon Valley in San Francisco makes sense for someone who runs a tech company. Sydney is a fascinating place and the lifestyle is incredible; people there totally get the work-life balance thing. In Morocco, I hiked up Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. That was incredible.

What’s the best thing you can cook?
I’m not big on cooking. Open my fridge now and you’d see a facemask made from snail goo and some old kale. That said, I make a good lentil dhal; I leave it cooking for 24 hours. There are about 50 spices in my cupboard, and I can use them. Thing is, I live in central London and there are so many great places to eat.

How do you make yourself happy?
I’m happy almost all the time, but if I get in a funk, I go and talk to the team. You can’t be miserable around people with ideas, energy and creativity.

Name the art and/or culture that most inspires you.
When I was younger, I found it hard to get into reading, until my dad gave my loads of poetry books. The Beat Poets and the Mersey Sound. I know those poems off by heart because I they were the first things I learned to read. That has given me a lifelong love of poetry and of language [Parsons studied Classics at Cambridge, and speaks Mandarin, Japanese, French and Italian]. I came to technology seeing it as just another language. Write my own poetry? I’m not nearly brave enough, and I’ve got friends who are poets or part-time poets, and they are too good.

Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
A drum kit. My dad bought it, actually. I remember it was the first time he saw I was really passionate about something, and that meant so much to him and to me. At the time I thought it might be a fad but I found a teacher, took lessons and played for 10 years.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
This was more like elation than pleasant surprise, but it was the Christmas lights last year in London. The first time in ages they weren’t sponsored by a big brand. The guy who designed them should get a civic award. The world felt a bit weird at the end of 2016, so just walking around London and looking up and it being genuinely lovely, was just brilliant.

When was the last time you made or created something?
I’m very lucky in that I think my whole life is about creating stuff. I can get frustrated if I think that I’ve wasted a week or whatever and I haven’t created something. Whether that is improving something so it becomes something new, or an entirely new idea and the intention to create it. I can frame pretty much everything on my to-do list as being creative: addressing those things requires creativity in thinking. There aren’t solutions to many things, so you have to be able to imagine them.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m not there yet. Ask me in five years’ time.

What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?
I’ve been pondering a lot about what the world might be like in 20 years’ time, and looking at people to try and work out the core human traits – what we’re all good at. I think there are three: we’re great communicators, with great ability to share complex information between each other; we’re really good at learning how to use new tools; and there’s our inventiveness, when creativity and adaptability collide. And love, of course. There’s that.

Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
It moves me when I read stories of women standing up, as individuals or together, in the face of adversity. My friend Nimco Ali campaigns against FGM. She has had death threats and absolutely stands up for what she believes in. She is very motivating, in that sense. Laura Bates, who does the Everyday Sexism project. She, too, puts her head above the parapet, to make herself a target of the very thing she’s trying to address and stop. Both of them know they will be vulnerable to attack for what they do, but they still do it.

What song could you sing most completely right now?
Pat Benatar, Love Is A Battlefield.

What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
Building a business certainly feels like a journey: different chapters, highs and lows and there are times you’re not certain about where you’re going.

If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
I find it very difficult to deal with people who say ‘no’ all the time and who think things are impossible. So I would like for people to start from a position where everything is possible, and work back from there.

You’ve one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
Pompeii. Such a bonkers place. Most people don’t realise the mixture of cultures that city was. And it was a little bit saucy as well, so that might be fun.

If money were no object, what would you buy?
Travelling between meetings wastes so much time, so I would have a mini-helicopter to get me places quicker.