How did I get here? Now, where to from here?
Coding Kids Founder Emily de la Pena discusses her journey and what she envisions for the future
My name is Emily de la Pena and I am the Founder of Coding Kids. I started Coding Kids in January 2016. Now, 15 months later we are operating at 20 schools in South East Queensland and travelling throughout regional Queensland. How did I get here? I’m not a teacher nor am I a programmer. So let me start at the beginning.
I graduated from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor in Civil Engineering in 2004. I spent five years working as a civil engineer before moving to Germany to teach English. I taught after-school English classes to school students and school holiday programs for two years. Afterwards, I came back to Australia and returned into engineering. Three years later I decided to take a year off to explore.
My year of exploration was not about travel and geographic exploration but rather an exploration of ideas. A few years prior I met and had my first conversation with my now business mentor. It was then that I decided I needed to do something different with my life. I knew that I wanted to be in business for myself but I didn’t know how or which industry. I wanted my work to be aligned with my values and to see work as play, learning and adventure. 2015 was my time to explore and go on an intellectual adventure.
Why did I set one calendar year as my deadline? It is not a realistic expectation to put a hard deadline on finding my way forward. Although I could commit to spending one year exploring that would not guarantee the desired outcome of identifying a business to start. I felt that an arbitrary deadline would kick my subconscious into getting its act together and giving me what I wanted. What would I have done had I not found that elusive business idea? I would simply have gone back to working as a civil engineer, for the short term.
I spent that year learning, exploring, meeting new people, and experiencing new ideas. I completed a Certificate IV in Small Business Management at TAFE, I volunteered at a social enterprise startup one and half days a week and at a non-profit one day a week. I experimented with e-commerce drop shipping, social enterprise, creating a new fashion label, and offering career coaching. I learned as much as I could about business, startups, marketing, online freelancers, social media, and public relations. I consumed MOOCs (massive open online course), blogs, books, podcasts, conferences, and seminars. I went to meetup groups, did Startup Weekend twice, participated in RHOK (Random Hacks of Kindness) Hackathon twice and found more mentors and co-explorers. My cousin and I were on the same path of exploration that year and we co-authored a blog about our experiences.
Early in the year, whilst volunteering with CoderDojo I could see that there was a strong demand for children’s coding classes. CoderDojo is a non-profit and is run by volunteers. It is doing fantastic work in this space. However, there are limits to volunteer work. It is difficult to scale fast and invest into product development. Free does not mean accessible or better. What if there was revenue to fund scaling and product development? We could deliver a better product to more customers faster. But, who am I? What could I do about it? This was someone else’s opportunity, not mine. I was only a volunteer with CoderDojo, what did I know about this space. So I threw that idea out of the window and continued with my year of exploration.
Later in the year I was talking to a girlfriend about the possibility of running children’s coding classes. Suddenly, it clicked in my mind. Why not me? I had been volunteering at CoderDojo for a year now, I had some experience. I had previously spent two years in Germany running after-school and school holiday programs for school students. I was already working at a startup, learning about marketing and PR. So I decided to go for it. January 2016 I started cold calling schools.
Term 1, 2016 started with two schools on board. Now, 15 months laters we are operating in 20 schools with a team of 22 tutors. We are working with a dozen partner organisations including non-profits and government agencies. We are now spreading our reach beyond South East Queensland and heading into regional Queensland including Indigenous communities. Teachers from other countries are accessing our teacher PD products. I was interviewed by 612 ABC Radio Brisbane, I have won a number of awards including Advance Queensland’s Digital Community Champion, 40 under 40: Top Young Entrepreneurs Brisbane, and shortlisted as a What’s on 4 Kids Award Finalist.
Now where to from here?
The bigger picture is a nebulous problem. How might we disrupt education so that students can grow to become agile, relevant, working adults in rapidly changing environment? There are many businesses and non-profit organisations trying to hack away at this problem. No one knows the answer, but we are all trying to develop a solution. I don’t have a defined ultimate vision, but I know that I want to tackle this problem. Right now, Coding Kids and I are focused on exploring and mapping the terrain as we make our way there.
We have a viable business model. We can continue to exist as status quo, but now I have a choice. I can create a paid full-time job for myself or I can fund exploration.
Exploration is dependent on funding, but success is not and results can be disastrous. During the European Age of Exploration, naval expeditions were financed by royals and aristocrats. There were cases where ships and crew were lost at sea, but sometimes the naval expeditions returned with opportunities for trade with new trade routes and new commodities such as corn, potato, vanilla, cacao, tobacco, silver and gold.
We are exploring an uncharted territory of ideas and it requires investment. Maybe our ship encounters a storm or maybe it returns with a shipful of spices and precious metals. Regardless of the outcome, exploration is aligned with my values and a desire to solve this beast of a problem. My work is asking me to be the very thing I want my students to become: to be agile, create change, and contribute to my community. My work is exploration, play, learning and an adventure of ideas. We are explorers. We can not guarantee success, but we are going to try our hardest and have fun at the same time.
Do you see the world as I do? Let’s work together. I’m building a team of explorers and adventurers.
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