In our regular series, industry big wigs take us back to their first jobs
Hi, Kathryn! Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Kathryn Parsons and I’m the co-founder and co-CEO of Decoded. We’re a technology education company with a mission to decode the digital world to equip people with the digital literacy, skills and qualifications they need for the future of work.
What was your first McJob?
Both my parents are Irish and came to London in the 60s with an incredible work ethic. My mum was a nurse, my dad an accountant, and they ended up running a hotel in London. So of course their two daughters were put to work. My older sister got to do the reception desk and I, age 13/14, got to clean the rooms.
What did you have to do?
I cleaned. But more importantly, I got to understand every aspect of the business, from bookkeeping to laundry: getting pricing right to making a fresh bed. I have retained a dysfunctional relationship with cleaning ever since.
Did you get paid?
Only pocket money. By 16, I was desperate to work, but I had no idea where to start. So I walked down the nearest high street until I saw a group of people in their 20s or 30s having a cigarette break outside an office. I asked what they did: “Sales”, and then if there were any jobs going. They took me upstairs, slammed a phone, script and Yellow Pages in front of me and said: “Go sell!” I was selling bin bags and cleaning fluid to business owners across the UK. In no time at all, I’d learned how to talk to strangers, accept rejection and realised that I loved communicating with people. I finished my first week, huge smile on my face, cash in my bank, and went and spent it on this awful tacky jewellery.
Did you have any other rubbish jobs?
I’d always had a passion for languages, and studied French, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Latin and Ancient Greek at Cambridge. When I left university there were not many jobs going for linguists, so I took two weeks unpaid work experience role at a magazine company. After insisting on a further paid role I was offered a place on their new digital travel magazine — hardly cool! — doing data entry in an office with no windows.
Why is alumni important in business?
You never know where life will take you, but fostering good relationships and networks is not only part of the fun, but is essential to your success. I launched Decoded when I was 30, fusing my love of technology, languages and business. A lot of people, especially women, get told: if you haven’t made it by 30, you’re never going to make it, which made the challenge of launching Decoded even more daunting. With a credit card loan as my only investment, I needed to leverage my networks as much as possible to find customers, employees, co-founders and investors. Those connections are invaluable because they were my first employees, my first customers, and now the best people to give you honest feedback.
What would happen if you went back and did your old jobs?
I don’t know how I did with was such enthusiasm, dedication and energy with a permanent smile on my face! I took every job I did very seriously because I wanted to be the best.
If you go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you give yourself?
Never burn your bridges. Be a champion for others. Be kind. Measure success by the positive impact you have on others. Expect nothing in return. Follow your heart. Trust your gut. Create, create, create! Stop thinking. Take action. Pause, reflect, be grateful and celebrate the milestones.