Strategic Moves: How Canadian Kate Murphy became the CEO of a gaming startup in Norway
Kate Murphy is the CEO of Play Magnus, a startup based in Norway that offers apps and events for practicing and playing chess. How did she get picked to head the company, considering she doesn’t speak Norwegian or play the game? Kate discusses the leadership tactics she’s learned through her entrepreneurial experience combined with a top tier MBA.
By Hailey Eisen
As a female CEO working in a completely male-dominated industry, 32-year-old Kate Murphy says one of her greatest challenges is reporting to a seasoned, all-male board of directors. She also happens to be working in Norway, a country where she isn’t fluent in the language, and running a chess-based tech startup, Play Magnus, even though she can barely play the game herself.
So what is she doing to overcome these challenges? Besides taking chess lessons and brushing up on her Norwegian, Kate says “the key is to make sure you’re being heard — no matter how much work it takes to do so.”
It also helps that the startup she’s running is owned primarily by Magnus Carlsen, the 27-year-old World Chess Champion who became the youngest Grandmaster of chess when he was only 13-years-old. “Working with a mind like Magnus, arguably one of the smartest people alive, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kate says.
The company offers two apps, Magnus Trainer and Play Magnus (which has 2.2 million downloads worldwide), and focuses on chess as a tool to make the world a smarter place — beginning with youth.
“I knew, even without playing the game, that this was something I could get passionate about,” Kate recalls. “Chess is so good for training the brain, analytical thinking, calculation, problem solving, and creative thinking. I understood the benefits of chess and then I saw a really big opportunity to get more youth playing and engaged in the game.”
As CEO, she prefers to scrap the hierarchy and lead as part of the team. “What’s most important with a small team is that you’re approachable, and an equal,” she says. What she finds especially helpful in breaking down barriers is leading the company in a yoga class once a week. Personally, it’s her favourite way to reduce stress, allowing her to function at the very high level required by her job.
Kate was given the title of CEO after originally being hired as a consultant by Anders Brant — a serial entrepreneur and successful angel investor in the Scandinavian tech scene, and current Chairman of Play Magnus. He was impressed by Kate’s entrepreneurial spirit and the ease with which she took on a leadership role.
Neither trait is surprising, given Kate actually started her first business — making and selling candles — when she was just 12. Then, after finishing her undergraduate degree, she co-founded a company called iDance Convention, which continues to travel across Canada with winners from So You Think You Can Dance, teaching classes to hundreds of students at a time. “I was 23 when my partner and I started that business,” she recalls. “We both worked in
a dance company, we knew the ropes, and we didn’t have much to lose.”
A few years after launching iDance Convention, she made the decision to go back to school. “My heart was in the business world, but I knew I needed a wider breadth and understanding, especially of the financial side of things,” she says.
In 2010, she moved to Kingston to begin her MBA at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. She was drawn to Queen’s because of its reputation, and being a strong advocate of gender equality, Kate was impressed with the business school’s focus on women. During her MBA, she took up the role of VP of the Women in Leadership Club and was one of only two Canadian recipients of the Forté Foundation Fellowship — a program created with the intention of increasing the number of women enrolling in MBA programs.
She also liked that with Queen’s small community she’d have the opportunity to build real connections with fellow students. “I’ve tapped into the Queen’s alumni network for advice many times over the years,” she says. “I liked the fact that your classmates became your family.”
Nearly four years in, Kate has started to feel more at home in Norway. Though she’s still on the lookout for a good female mentor — which is hard in the ‘old boys club’ world of the chess community — she’s had no shortage of support. “Thankfully Norway has a culture of equality,” she says. “But I’ve also learned that it’s best not focus on being a woman. It’s much easier if you just see yourself as being in the place that you’re supposed to be in, and lead from there.”