After studying literature at Concordia, and a successful communications career in theatre and radio, Kate Arthur moved into the tech sector before founding a not-for-profit that teaches kids across Canada to code.
“It’s really neat when you build your first computer from scratch and it works. And when you get onto servers and how they work and how much data they manage and how the software works with the hardware, it’s really interesting. Even learning to code, I look at code like English literature. I read it and I try to understand it and see the patterns and the flows. It is like another language to me.”
Arthur always wanted to be a writer, in fiction and in non-fiction. And through an internship at Concordia, she found a passion for putting those writing skills to business use.
“While I was at Concordia I interned at Just for Laughs in communications. I really enjoyed communications, the pr side of things, writing press releases, building communication plans. So from my internship at Just for Laughs they helped me get back to England, which is where I’m originally from. I got a job in West End theatre for a small pr firm. We worked on huge projects with Nicole Kidman, Rachel Weisz, Colin Firth, while they were all onstage. Which was amazing, a really really exciting experience. I did all the marketing and pr and worked on talent management and media relations, so worked with the BBC and Channel 4.”
After a couple of years, Arthur and her boyfriend at the time (now husband) decided to take a break from the hectic pace of London life.
“We sold everything, put our bags on our backs, and took off for a year and a half. We had no keys, no phone, nothing. Except we did have a computer and we were building a website. This was before 2000, so before WordPress. We were using the website to communicate by coding. It was before Facebook and all of this. We got back to London and realized that we wanted to go somewhere else. My husband had been offered a job in Sydney, Australia and I had been offered a job in Montreal with CBC Radio Canada. My parents are here, I did my high school and university here, so we came to Montreal.”
She started at CBC Radio Canada as a communications manager and stayed there for eight years, during which time she had her three daughters. In 2009 she left because she wanted increased flexibility to spend time with her girls. It was then that she started an IT company with her husband, an IT consultant.
“The next four years I focused on building the business, and realized I really enjoyed business. To make money is very cool. It’s not a regular paycheck, it’s just ‘I will do something, and I will either make a lot of money, or figure out how to make more money’. I found it very stimulating.”
Her penchant for business should have come as no surprise, as she comes from a long line of successful and philanthropic businesswomen.
“My grandmother was a very successful businesswoman in Manchester. She had three companies. And this was in the 1940s, when women weren’t really seen as entrepreneurial or the breadwinners of the family. She left everything and moved to the north of Peru to start a school for kids who were mentally handicapped and mentally ill. So we have a family foundation in England still, and the school is still there.”
Arthur’s mother was also an entrepreneur, and had several businesses as their family traveled around the world for her father’s engineering job.
“She had a seniors’ residence here in Montreal. She had a business where she helped immigrant women get started in business. Here, in Canada, she was on the National Women’s Council. Very strong women in the family. And I’m from four sisters. And I have three girls.”
She also credits her nomadic upbringing with parts of her personality that allow her to excel in business.
“I’ve learned from that that I adapt really quickly, and I don’t really get stressed, I don’t get worked up about things. I don’t get daunted by big things. When I was asked ‘Why Canada, why not start small?’ I never even thought to start small. Canada doesn’t seem that big to me, it’s just people.”
Which is why when her husband showed her an article in the Guardian in 2013 about how they were introducing programming to kids in the education system in Estonia, she decided to start Kids Code Jeunesse here in Canada.
I was at a point in my career where I realized I had to at least have an understanding of programming and the way it all works so that I could help clients make decisions. There were all these choices I was deprived of by not knowing how to code. And I thought, if that’s how I feel now, imagine how my kids will feel in 10 years time when technology is moving so quickly. So I asked my husband, ‘Do you mind if I do this? I’m going to put all my energy behind making sure kids in Canada can code’. And he said go for it.
She left her business role with the IT company they had started, and four years of hard work later, Kids Code Jeunesse (KCJ) is still teaching kids and teachers to code. KCJ is a not-for-profit dedicated to empowering kids, teachers, and parents through basic digital literacy. Thanks to the KCJ fund, no child is turned away due to lack of funds. The program is now active in Quebec, BC, Alberta, and Ontario and is targeted to children between the ages of 5-12.
“We’ve taught 26,000 kids now and almost 3,000 teachers. We break it down because our lessons are eight weeks, and there are about 8,000 kids that have gone through two months of school with us. And then there are around 10,000 that have done outreach, like one off workshops. And another group that have done our bootcamp.”
Her three daughters all know how to code, one of whom recently won a national robotics competition and will be heading to Costa Rica to represent Canada. Her teammate is also a girl. Her oldest daughter is fluent in several programming languages and is building a website through which to sell her homemade crafts.
“What we try to instill in our girls, and the girls I mentor through Technovation, is that regardless of whether you’re a girl or a boy, you can do it. You just need to believe that you can do it. And that’s the part of my role as a mentor is that I like, to show you and help you to do it. Because the moment you can see it, that you’ve created your business, the sense of accomplishment and reward is great. So I think when you’re little, the girls should be learning to code with the boys, because it shows boys girls can do it, and it shows girls they can do it as well. And then when you get to the teens with girls, a lot of it is about confidence and finding their voice and standing strong.”
There’s a lot of big projects on the horizon for KCJ, some of which Arthur can’t yet reveal. But she could say they are in the second round of training teachers in BC and working with the Minister of Education.
“We have a lot happening. We’re doing a lot of large projects right now that are across the country, and we hope just to keep building and building to make sure we get to all the kids.”
Photo: Laurence Dessureault