On International Women’s Day (IWD), we talk to one female edtech founder whose mission is to make the industry more inclusive.
Liane Katz is Co-Founder and CEO of the award-winning MAMA.codes, an edtech startup on a mission to excite kids about coding and tech careers, by exposing them to creative computer programming from an early age. The company is also determined to make the tech industry more inclusive by closing the gender tech gap and digital divide in education.
Katz has been named one of the most influential women in UK tech by Computer Weekly, in its 2022 longlist. This isn’t the first time she has been recognised for her contribution to tech. Katz appreciates that “tech makes the world go round” in every industry and believes that coding is the “best skill and second language children can learn”. For her, the starting point is to show people how coding can be fun, creative and easy. Reaching kids when they are as young as three – when they are incredibly receptive to learning the language of coding, and before any biases kick in about what a coder might look like – is key to her company’s approach.
How the coding seed was sown
After more than a decade in digital media at The Guardian, starting a family meant her online travel editor job was no longer the best fit, so Katz turned to a role elsewhere. Already tech literate, she was seconded to a project building the newspaper’s first responsive website and mobile app, in a product management role. Joining a team of developers in a bunker room, Katz was “suddenly thrust into a completely different world”. It was a male-heavy environment; only one female developer among 65. Although it was 2010, for Katz this came as a surprise: “I was really shocked because my background had been at an all-girls school, where we were told we could do anything.”
The cultural gulf between two parts of the same organisation was also huge, she says. Used to the noisy, friendly fun of a media environment full of flamboyantly dressed women, Katz moved to a “silent basement, surrounded by men in death metal t-shirts”. Yet this was the place where her love of coding was born, which she learnt how to do in her lunch breaks.
Building literacy and confidence with tech
During her school years, Katz had been told she was quite good at STEM subjects; even a “natural physicist” in her teens. She enjoyed maths but gave up any STEM subjects at A-level because she felt unsupported: “I felt like I was swimming upstream and going against the grain trying to mix humanities and STEM subjects.”
She believes her career trajectory would have been radically different if she’d had better support at school and university (where she studied history and French) to focus on “more 21st-century relevant subjects and skills”. But learning to code in her mid 30s, Katz realised she could apply her language skills to coding.
By this time, coding had become part of the national curriculum in England. “But I hadn’t heard anything about it from my daughter, which meant she either wasn’t doing any coding in school or not enjoying it,” explains Katz. “This wasn’t good enough for me, and I kind of had an epiphany during this time that coding makes the world go round, not just in software engineering, but whatever career you're going to go into, you’ll need literacy and confidence with tech to have a successful career.”
On the hunt for a fun, creative coding experience they could enjoy together, Katz found offerings either limited or impenetrable. Teaming up with two other mums, united by a common goal for their daughters to fall in love with coding, Katz tested the waters with local neighbourhood coding clubs. These early “parent hack events” in 2017, teaching mums, dads and their kids the basic concepts of coding, quickly developed into drop-off classes just for kids. “I wasn’t a teacher, I wasn’t a coder, but found myself teaching tiny children in a rented local gym space. And I loved it.”
Empowering kids, women and parents
After parting ways with her initial co-founders, Katz grew the business by building a franchise, focusing on free training for mums and women to teach classes locally. Some of them had digital and STEM backgrounds but plenty were trained from scratch. Since Covid-19, MAMA.codes is predominantly online, attracting people from as far afield as Hawaii.
Overall, the company has taught more than 4,000 children. The current teaching team is over 70% women with over 40% from diverse backgrounds.
There have been many proud moments for Katz – from free outreach programmes, including for the Grenfell Tower community, to surviving and thriving through the pandemic without losing a penny. The company is also busy launching its own coding app, Looparoo, which Katz believes “will dramatically improve access to quality coding education” for lower income families around the UK and worldwide because it won’t rely on a live tutor. She is hoping the app will reach millions of children in the next five years and is crowdfunding shortly to achieve this.
For Katz, children need to see the benefit of coding to enjoy it: what they can build with it and how they can realise their imagination. “The thing that unifies their experiences is having agency and control over what happens on screen,” she explains. This sense of empowerment can offer girls, in particular, the confidence that they can succeed in tech.
Central to the MAMA.codes ethos is raising digital kids who are exposed to purposeful, project-based coding that is a world away from parental fears about passive screen time and addictive social media. “We’re all about teaching them to use tech competently and consciously and coaching families to find a healthy balance.”
A brighter future
Katz recognises that girls need “more active encouragement to stick with tech”, adding: “We’re doing what we can through MAMA.codes to train kids to apply for these jobs, but entering the tech workforce, women then need the right support to stay in these roles, and make it a manageable career if they have children.” She has seen a groundswell of support for women in tech, women in STEM and women in entrepreneurship and is encouraged, for example, by meeting many more female chief technology officers these days.
“But day-to-day it still feels very tough for women in tech,” says Katz. “It’s going to take time to change some ingrained cultures and behaviours.” She agrees that tipping the tech workforce numbers more quickly is about exposure to opportunity, exposure to female role models, mentorship and encouragement, and, of course, skills training in or out of school.
This means an “end-to-end strategy” is needed, she adds: “We’re at the very beginning of that tech talent pipeline…We try to ensure that everyone has that base level of skills, fluency and confidence, which you then can't take away from them as they progress through their formal education.”
And finally, Katz believes that highlighting the idea of “tech for good” is also important; “it builds on the idea of young children seeing coding as a means to an end,” she says, and ultimately becoming more independent thinkers – with a greater sense of autonomy and independence in their education and what they feel they can do with their careers.
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