From working at Goldman Sachs to Buffer, to teaching girls how to code, Michelle Sun is now making waves as CEO of First Code Academy. Shikin Hamid our Staff Writer learns more.
Coding skills are increasingly sought after in this digitalised world. Parents are increasingly aware about the benefits of coding for their children and are sending their kids to learn how to code.
At First Code Academy, students learn digital literacy and computational thinking skills, empowering them to become creators with technology. Using proprietary curriculum adapted from Silicon Valley high schools, their after-school learning programs are incorporated in learning environments designed to stimulate inquiry based learning, logical thinking and creative problem solving.
A: First Code Academy was founded with the mission to empower young children to become creators with technology. We teach children aged 6 and up computational thinking, problem solving and creativity skills through coding. We believe coding is the new literacy. It is the third language everyone needs to learn how to speak. A lot of people are learning Mandarin to do business in China, we think that coding is the new language not just for business, but for all aspects of life in a modern society.
Our aim is to allow students to build a strong foundation in programming concepts by providing children in each age group, Tinker (Age 6-8), Explorer (Age 9-11) and Creator (12 and above) with a structured learning roadmap starting with blocks-bases coding to syntax languages.
We believe coding is the new literacy
Q: How long you’ve been doing it? What’s your target market?
A: I started First Code Academy 3 years ago, in 2013. Teaching children aged 6 to 16, our students come from a variety of backgrounds, from those who are looking for a different way to express themselves to aspiring coders. Our belief is that coding is useful not just to prepare for a future career in software development, but also in developing critical thinking skills that are applicable to every area of our lives.
I started and failed in my first startup, which convinced me to learn coding myself
Q: What were you doing before entrepreneurship?
A: My career first started at Goldman Sachs as an equity analyst . As my team downsized in the financial crisis, I was hit by the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong. In my fevered and weak state, I started to reevaluate my career and what kind of impact I wanted to leave in the world.
I started and failed in my first startup, which convinced me to learn coding myself so I can be in control of my product. That led me to join the inaugural class of Hackbright Academy, a women-only coding academy in Silicon Valley and I later joined Buffer as the first growth hacker before moving back to Hong Kong and founding First Code Academy.
Q: What’s the idea behind First Code Academy? And what are some of your programmes?
A: When I was working in the Bay Area for a tech startup, I volunteered myself to teach middle school girls how to code. That led me to reflect on the education in Asia. I wanted to revolutionize how tech education is being taught in where I grew up in. When I moved back to Hong Kong, I started girls-only coding workshops and that eventually grew into First Code Academy today.
Our flagship program is AppJamming, an introductory mobile App development course where students learn to build utility apps and mobile games using blocks-based coding.
We also offer holiday programs for students to try out different technology skills and coding languages, such as Minecraft Modding, one of our most popular camps where students get to design and customise their own objects and characters for the Minecraft world.
I wanted to revolutionize how tech education is being taught in where I grew up in. When I moved back to Hong Kong, I started girls-only coding workshops
Q: In terms of sales & marketing, how do you reach your customers, and what works?
A: We maintain our online presence and interact with our parents and students through channels like Facebook and Instagram as well as digital advertising through Google. The most effective channels for us has been word-of-mouth referrals from our existing customers who have had a great experience with us.
One of the things we always hear from parents is how they can manage their child’s use of technology and how they can help them continue learning at home. That is why we recently started curating our own content via our Youtube channel and our blog, where we share our thoughts on technology, coding and more.
Q: How many students have participated in your programmes?
A: Till date, we have taught over 4,000 children coding in our weekly programs and holiday camps in Singapore and Hong Kong. We also partner with businesses like PayPal and schools to conduct coding workshops and after-school classes, including teaching coding to less privileged children under Google’s CS First initiatives. We empower children with the skill of bringing their ideas to reality with coding.
Q: Where do you see the future of STEM education especially for the future generation? Ultimately what is your vision for First Code Academy?
A: We see a growing interest from parents and children alike on STEM education. Taking coding as an example, we offer trial classes which allow children try out our coding curriculum to gauge their interest. One observation is that three years ago when we first started First Code Academy, parents tend to have a skeptical view how coding can help their children. They often ask “How can my kids benefit from coding?”
Today, we have seen a lot more young parents think of coding as an essential life skill that prepares their children for the future. They seem to have come to the terms that technology is here to stay for their children. The most common question has now shifted to, “How can I prepare my kids for the digital era?” That’s where coding and computational thinking education comes in.
We envision to be the leading coding education provider in Asia. After our presence in Hong Kong and Singapore, we are working towards establishing new campuses in other parts of Asia. We hope that whenever someone talks about coding education, First Code Academy is the first thing that came into their mind.
Q: Tell us about your Number 1 business challenge?
A: Our Number 1 business challenge of running First Code Academy is in changing the mindset of parents. In Asia, coding education is often viewed as an alternative education or enrichment activities. When I first started running it full time in Hong Kong, it was hard to explain to parents and get their understanding that coding education is important.
A mindset shift takes time. We have had consistent and regular communication that go out to parents sharing with them that coding is beneficial to their children and it is an important skill to have. Over the years, we have seen so much of changes in parents’ mindset and more parents are aware that it is beneficial and important for their children to learn coding.
Our Number 1 business challenge of running First Code Academy is in changing the mindset of parents. In Asia, coding education is often viewed as an alternative education or enrichment activities.
Q: What are three lessons that you’ve learned so far from entrepreneurship?
A: I wrote a post on the 5 lessons I learned as an entrepreneur so far for Forbes. I have shared while it may look cool it is to have the title of “CEO” for the business, it is important to ensure the business is solving a problem and making a positive change in the society. Additionally, often working as an entrepreneur, you may find yourself working around the clock. It is equally important to invest on yourselves than the hours you invest on your job.
Additionally, coming out with a must-haves list helps in prioritisation of work and that leads to a higher efficiency. Building and maintaining a strong network of entrepreneurs is also very important as established entrepreneurs are always there to provide advice and support whenever you need them.
Next, give yourself a break no matter how busy you are. Take the time to think about the company’s big picture, growth opportunity, company’s direction which requires much focus. You will be surprised by how helpful it is.
The opportunity to work on a problem that I truly passionate every day is what motivates me personally.
Q: As an entrepreneur, what motivates you personally?
A: The most rewarding moments while running First Code Academy is to see happy customers (our students) using our project (our classes). Running First Code Academy is an intersection between my passion (education), my knowledge and skills (technology) and an opportune timing. The opportunity to work on a problem that I truly passionate every day is what motivates me personally.
Q: What would be your advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs?
A: There are a lot of opportunities for women’s role in business world, especially in technology. We are equally active (if not more active!) users on social media, such as Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest, yet majority of technology companies globally are still dominated by male engineers! So to all female entrepreneurs, lean in! Do not be afraid to take the lead and never use scrutiny at workplace as an excuse for holding back.