Ladies in tech

Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley CH

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Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley CH, age 86, is a workplace revolutionary and successful IT entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist.

Her life story begins with her 1939 arrival in Britain as an unaccompanied Kindertransport refugee. In 1962, she started a software house, Freelance Programmers, that pioneered new work practices and changed the position of professional women, especially in hi-tech. She went on to create a global business and a personal fortune shared with her colleagues; she made 70 of her staff millionaires at no cost to anyone, but herself.

Since retiring in 1993, her focus has been increasingly on philanthropy based on her strong belief in giving back to society. In 2009/10 she served as the UK’s first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy. Her charitable Shirley Foundation has initiated and funded a number of projects that are pioneering by nature and strategic in impact, totally £67m to date. The focus is on IT and her late son’s disorder of autism.

Her memoir Let It Go was published in 2012 It has sold 40,000 copies and Penguin re-published in April 2019 with a view to distributing it worldwide – the first translated version is launch in Germany in July 2020. A big screen film is also in the making by The Artists Partnership, with Producer Damian Jones and Director Haifaa al-Mansour. The shortlist for an actress to play Dame Stephanie includes Claire Foy and Emily Blunt. Filming should start in the next two years.

Dame Stephanie has been much honoured. In 2013, she was named by Woman’s Hour as one of the 100 most powerful women in Britain. In 2014, the Science Council listed her as one of the Top 100 practising scientists in the UK. In 2015, Dame Stephanie was given the Women of the Year Special Award. Her TED Talk in 2015 was to a standing ovation from more than a thousand of the world’s most recognised technical entrepreneurs, thinkers, creators and doers. It has received 1.9m views. In 2017, Dame Stephanie received a Companion of Honour, one of only 65 people worldwide to receive such a recognition.

Thank you Stephanie for taking the time out to answer some of the burning questions we have. You are an inspiration being the first woman to set up a woman only software company back in 1962.

Thanks. I was always conscious of being a role model and knew I was working for all women, not just me. If I was good it opened the door for others. If I failed, people would say for the next ten years “Oh! We had one of those and she was awful.” So, no pressure!

When was the first time you felt the glass ceiling and how did you challenge it?

My first job was as a lowly mathematical clerk in the civil service. After a few years, I asked my boss if he would put me up for promotion. But no, he wouldn’t. So I found an advert for that job and applied as if from an outside applicant. And got it! (which did not please my boss). So I always think that if you can’t get through some barrier, you should go around, go under, go over. Or go elsewhere.

How did you go about recruiting women and retaining them?

In the early days, recruiting was very much by word of mouth. There were many women experienced in computing who had “retired” on marriage or when their first child was expected, which was the norm then. They were keen as mustard to work in a flexible, family-friendly way. Which was what my little company offered. Our retention figures were also good – we gave gold watches after ten years’ service (ten years is a lifetime in computing) and had an elite club for staff who had served 20 years.

You pioneered the introduction of Flexi working and job share. Was it a light bulb moment or a slow burner?

Every survey of what women want from employment comes up with the same two things: flexibility and work/life balance. So our policies followed the work needs I had myself and which I knew were widely shared. A slow burn. But bits – for example, job sharing – were suggested to me. A husband and wife suggested doing one full-time job between them. So we thought: Why not? And organised it for them.

What was the decision making process for changing the direction of your company to co ownership?

We’d had a bonus system pretty well from the start. The 70s recession (the first I’d managed through) saw nil bonuses for several years, yet the freelance staff remained keen and committed. We wouldn’t have survived had they not trusted me, accepting slow payment without any guarantee of future work. Of course, this was the beginning of what we now know as the gig economy.
When we emerged from that tough period, it seemed self-evident to me that if staff were sharing the risk, they also deserved to share in the profits. And that was the start of co-ownership – still today an important part of our collegiate culture.

You challenged the convention of the time - having an all female software company. What is the advice or wisdom you can give to young females entering the tech workforce which is still heavily male dominated?
Have confidence. Challenge any twinge of sexism with humour and charm. Aim high. Present yourself at your aspirational level. Don’t let yourself be typecast into supporting roles.

Freelance programmers was a bootstrap startup. What was the journey from that to being listed on the London Stock Exchange with a 3 billion valuation?

It was not exactly easy. My entrepreneurial skills became less and less relevant as the organisation grew. The more successful we were, the less I had to offer and the less I enjoyed it.
It took me 11 years to manage succession. But I am proud of having eventually done it – most entrepreneurs hang on too long, suffocating the spirit of their brainchild.
People talk about my overnight success, but it was 25 years before we paid our first dividend. Even Microsoft took 10 years.

What is your secret to success?

Necessary but not sufficient is to find an activity that you enjoy, that you really want to be doing. And then get trained. And retrained so you’re at the leading edge of your chosen focus. And then just go for it.

Where does your motivation come from?

My motivation comes from my traumatic childhood. At five years old together with my nine year old sister, I was on one of the Kindertransport trains that saved some 10,000 mainly Jewish children from Nazi Europe. The 2.5 day journey from Vienna to London has made a lifelong impact:
I have learnt to manage change, indeed have come to welcome it. And that is useful in my still hi-tech career. I try not to fritter my life away but rather to think strategically. That motivation is as strong today as it was 75 years ago.
And I have learnt to Let It Go, a Buddhist principle of not letting past unpleasantness spoil the future. And I’ve no doubt that the near £70 million I have let go in venture philanthropy has brought me infinitely more joy than the money I have hung on to. Let It Go is the title of my memoir and of the film being made of my life.