Pamela Puri On Leading tech4kidz: Youngsters Benefit When You Teach Them Digital Skills

By Stan Linhorst
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Tech4kidz offers technology classes for kids ages 6 to 15. The classes encourage problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, skills they may very well use in all sorts of ways later on in life, school and in careers.

Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

Pamela Puri saw the value in teaching computer coding and digital skills to her three elementary-school-age children. She looked for classes but couldn’t find any.

So Puri started her own company, tech4kidz.

She drew up a curriculum, hired instructors and rented classrooms at Le Moyne College. She started the company in 2014 and now employs seven teachers. Tech4kidz started with two classes. This month, tech4kidz has 11 classes. Each five-week class costs $100. Puri sees potential for tech4kidz to spread beyond Central New York.

Question: Give me the elevator speech for tech4kidz.

A: Tech4kidz offers technology classes for kids ages 6 to 15. The classes encourage problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, skills that they’re going to use in all sorts of ways later on in life, in school, in careers. It’s a great way of getting kids to slow down and think about things in a sequential manner, a step-by-step process.

Question: Did you start with the idea this would be a money-making business?

A: No. I started because I wanted my kids to try it. I had been reading a lot about early exposure to coding and programming. I taught a couple of classes at home. I loved what I saw it do — sequential thinking and what my kids had to do to solve the challenges. I thought: Wow, all kids should be doing this.

It’s more fun to do classes with your own peer group than doing it by yourself online or home alone. I started looking for classes and couldn’t really find anything in the age category — they were in elementary school. I found some things for high-school-age kids. I found some summer camps with one class for an hour during the day.

But I couldn’t find something similar to the way parents can sign kids up for gymnastics or soccer or swimming through the year.

I started a test-pilot class in an after-school program. The classrooms were full. The kids were chatting and sharing ideas. They’re exploring and having a great time.

Within a year, I moved to Le Moyne College computer labs, so the classes could be available for kids from all different school districts. At Le Moyne, I have the space to expand and grow and offer more classes, which is what has been happening.

Question: What subjects do you cover?

A: There are mobile app classes. Web design. Scratch programming — it’s an MIT-based program. Game design. Python. We come out with new ones all the time.

We offer a beginner or advanced class for each subject. Each class has an age requirement, because some of them are more complex. They’re about an hour to an hour and a half each, staggered throughout the day. Each class will run for five Sundays.

It teaches the kids how to take everything step by step and slow it down and break it down into pieces. It becomes a manageable task and it becomes a manageable problem. Making computer games and animations is the same way. The kids have an idea. We get them to write it down. Then they’re just sort of: This is hard — I can’t do this.

We ask: What do you want to do first? You want your character to jump? Great. Let’s program that.

We go piece by piece.

We keep testing it: Is that how you wanted it to look?

You want it go faster? Well great. Let’s fix it.

It gets them into the habit of slowing down and learning and taking everything step-by-step in a logical order. That’s a great skill for anything you’re going to do later on, whether you’re going to be a computer engineer or a computer-science student or not.

Question: The stereotype is those occupations are dominated by men.

A: I try to make all of the curriculum gender neutral, but I’ve tried hard to pay attention to girls and coding. There’s a lot out there in the media right now about trying to get girls in coding. I’ve noticed that the girls who start coding in the seven- and eight-year-old classes get interested. Because they’ve started young and developed that interest, I hope that they’ll move along with it.

We teach something basic and then the kids customize it. That’s where boys and girls will customize however they want. They’re putting their own taste and interest in. A girl can make whatever she wants. It’s her story, her characters, her colors, her animation, her background. It’s her music. It’s all hers, and hers will look completely different than the other girl beside her and the boy beside them.

The girls realize it’s not just something that boys are doing. They learn: It’s something that I can do, and I love it.

Question: Is your background in teaching or digital technologies?

A: I’m a CPA, so it’s all numbers and logic based. I’m also a CFP, a certified financial planner.
I taught financial planning for med-school students. I did a lot of one on one, a lot of presentations, workshops, seminars for up to 100 medical students at different time, talking about budget and cash flow and debt management and all sorts of topics. I really enjoyed it.

Question: It sounds like you are starting and leading a movement with tech4kidz. Were you in leadership roles growing up?

A: I was one of those kids that was in everything, tried almost every activity out there.
For instance, when I was in high school (Sir Robert Borden High School in Ottawa, Canada), our police department was starting a hotline to help teens who had questions, issues, concerns and needed someone to talk to. I went through training and worked on the hotline.

My parents influenced me. My dad (Subhash) was a mathematician and a professor, so numbers run strong in our family. You don’t realize sometimes until you’re older the benefits of your parents. My mom (Shashi) was the rock of our house. She instilled values: Education was a high priority. Respectfulness. Humbleness.

When I started working after college (1994 graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa), I coached a girls Special Olympics soccer team. That was a great experience.

I had an opportunity to volunteer with an Ottawa organization that worked with the government of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean to help small businesses get started. I worked there, and it was a rewarding experience. We would work with individuals on their business plan and help them to get a small-business loan. We’d follow up and see how the business and budgeting and book-keeping were going.

I had an opportunity to lead teams when I worked for Ernst & Young. I led the audit team, I led the tax team one year. I’ve always liked to get involved.

Question: What advice would you give someone moving into a leadership role or aspiring to one?

A: You have to be passionate about what you do. It’s a lot of work to start a business, run a business, grow it. Your passion has to come through when you speak to people.

Create teams. Work with and collaborate with people who share your passion. People come to the table with different experiences and different ideas. If you’re all passionate about it, you come up with great ideas when you’re brainstorming.

Talk, talk, talk to the people who are going to be using your product or your service. I like to talk not only to the kids taking the class, but to the parents who are bringing their kids to class, to the teachers who are instructing the class.

Everybody has a different perspective and feedback is so important. It can cause you to make changes to the next session. It can cause you to look into other classes.

Before I take any step, I put on the parent hat, and I say: OK, I have the class ready or the summer camp set up. Would I spend my time and money and send my kids to it? If not, I’m going to change it around to make sure it is.

I do a to-do list every day. It’s overwhelming, the number of things we have to do. Especially when you’re an entrepreneur or you’re starting up or you’re trying to grow the business. I’m a to-do-list nut.

Be flexible and open minded. You might think you’re going to go a certain way. If you collaborate with people, you will be surprised that you might take a different direction. Brainstorming is the best thing ever.

I’ve been unbelievably happy starting a business here. I didn’t realize the amount of resources in Syracuse. I’ve been working with the WISE Women’s Business Center since I started. If they can’t find something, they can point me in the direction of several people. You don’t have to go it alone. There are so many people who can help you.

I’ve been to meetups at The Tech Garden and at Syracuse CoWorks. Syracuse has a great group of people. They’re forward thinking, they’re innovative. There are organizations to help businesses get started. There are networking opportunities and meetups. I don’t know that I’ve lived anywhere (Ottawa, Boston, Australia, Toronto) where I’ve seen this many resources available.

Question: What do you consider the attributes or qualities of good leadership?

A: I like a hard-working ethic. Be genuine, listen. I like when people are pro-active.

Another great point is: It’s good to be uncomfortable. I find when you’re really comfortable, you’re probably not doing as much as you could or should to start a business or to grow a business. You gotta be out of your comfort zone a lot of the time. You’re going to be doing new stuff, learning, researching and learning and learning and learning.

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