A Woman with Purpose: Dame Stephanie Shirley CH

A Woman with Purpose: Dame Stephanie Shirley CH

“Who would have thought that programming the black box for the supersonic Concorde was done by a bunch of women working from their homes?”

In the realm of computing pioneers, Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley CH is one of the most celebrated, not only for building a $3 billion tech empire in 1960s England, but for doing it with an all-female, work-from-home staff of professionally qualified women who had left the work force after marrying and having children.

Having arrived in the UK from Dortmund, Germany as a five-year-old in 1939 via Kindertransport, a rescue effort of predominantly Jewish children orchestrated before the start of WWII, Shirley always vowed she would make hers “a life worth saving”. And so, she was keen to point out the vast opportunities we, as a society, miss out on, by allowing inequitable systems to remain in place.

As a tech entrepreneur, she pioneered many business practices accepted today, including maternity leave, flexible work hours, job sharing and company co-ownership (making 70 staff member millionaires). Retiring in 1993, Shirley focus on philanthropy and since then has given much of her fortune to different projects via her own foundation – for many years one of the UKˈs top 50 grant-giving foundations. “I like my nice clothes (she has been a big fan of Akris for years), I love modern art, but in general, I feel I need to do something each day to justify my life,” she states. And that's as strong today as it was 88 years ago.

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is a role model for how to build your life, not just your company.

Picture taken by: Fran Monks

There was no funding, no investors, you started your empire with six pounds of capital, a kitchen table, a telephone and you. Were you fearless or just naive?

Both. I was sick and tired of being blocked in the business world because of my gender and was determined to create an organization that I, and other women, wanted to work in. But had no idea how difficult it was going to be!

Women in tech were rather unusual in the 60s. You even changed your name to “Steve” to have better options. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I was writing promotional letters (yes, letters this was before the days of email) and getting nil response. My husband suggested it might be because of that double feminine “Stephanie Shirley”. So I dissembled and started signing ‘Steve Shirley’. It worked! I’ve been Steve ever since.

Do you have any advice for young female tech entrepreneurs today?

First: it takes time before you can begin to make a profit. So consider starting your business in your free time while you are still employed. Secondly, I’d advise you to connect with other women entrepreneurs. Thirdly: feel comfortable and confident in Akris.

You made working from home possible, employed exclusively women, most of whom couldn't take a 9-to-5 office job because of their children. How did you come up with this rather unusual idea?

Our policy of positive discrimination was to help balance the sexism of the era. It was a social business with success measured in social, not financial, terms. The crude term is to ʻscratch your own itch.’

Before World War II, programming was a woman's job. Today, women make up only about 30 percent in the tech industry. How can we get more women into programming and IT?

Programming was grounded in the clerical area. That is different today. To get a healthy balance you need to recruit in a gender-neutral way and then ensure you retain female staff and that they move up through the organization.

What do you think the world would look like if more women worked in IT and technology?

Diversity (of any kind) leads to innovation. That’s essential for any organization to survive and doubly so in the fast-moving digital world.

Can you share a quote or motto that you live by?

Think for yourself but not of yourself.

Looking back, how would you describe your management style?

An iron fist in a velvet glove.

It's been said that you've never been a fan of separating private from professional life. Why are private matters important even in top management?

We are holistic people - you can't divide me up into the mother, the wife, the businesswoman. Work-life balance is important, not least to deal with the stress of top management.

Why do you believe in the power of purpose?

Success, even survival, in business requires resolve and determination. If it were easy, we’d all be millionaires.

Watch a short interview of Dame Stephanie Shirley CH with Engineering Hero:

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