Browse Topics

View all talks

Silver Linings

Stephanie ShirleyFilmed at Jewish Book Week 2014

Firstly, I’m an experienced speaker and aim to inspire each audience. What do I mean by that? I aim to say some things that you haven’t heard before, get you laughing – and perhaps mopping a tear or so. And, of course, I speak always from personal experience. Speaking chronologically, it starts as a Jewish story, a story of a five year old clutching the hand of her nine year old sister, travelling from Vienna on a Kindertransport to escape the Nazis in 1939. All that I am stems from that discontinuity in my life and the trauma remains with me 75 years on. You will come, like me, to know that tomorrow is not going to be like today and certainly nothing like yesterday. You will come to understand how I eventually grew to welcome change – a good starting point for an entrepreneur. If you listen to my inspirational talk, you will come to understand my patriotism and why I love this country with a passion only someone who had lost their human rights can feel. My memoir is a page-turner because my life has been so full. 300 pages – with pictures from my personal collection – cover my four score years. I’ve come close to death; dined with heads of state and discussed ideas with some of the greatest minds of our time. I’ve been let down by people yet know that people who could have taken advantage of me …. often didn’t. My late son was autistic and was thus free from all guile. Vulnerable people bring out the best in most of us most of the time. But their constant demands can unmask our own weaknesses. My family life was devastated by his autism and I always speak honestly about that. Indeed, many readers have commented on how mine is an honest lifestory, warts and all.

Dame Stephanie Shirley (80) arrived in Britain on a Kindertransport in 1939 and was fostered by a Christian couple in the Midlands who brought her up as they would their own. Later reunited with both her birth parents, the family survived but never bonded again.

She started work as a glorified mathematical clerk at age 18, taking an honours maths degree at evening classes. This was at the Post Office Research Station where she later worked on transatlantic telephone cables, the first electronic telephone exchange and the checking of the premium bond computer ERNIE.
An early pioneer of computing, she hit the glass ceiling and in 1962 founded a software house as a social business for women to work flexibly from home. She then took this into co-ownership and got a quarter of the FTSE 250 company into the hands of the staff at no cost to anyone but her. After 45 years it employed over 8000 male and female staff and was acquired by the French Steria. She had become extremely wealthy; but Dame Stephanie then started giving her money away at a rate sufficient to take her out of the Rich List.
The Shirley’s only child, Giles, proved to be severely autistic and Dame Stephanie has been supporting autism charities – four of which she founded and took to sustainability – to the tune of over £50m.

She has also supported the IT industry via the IT livery company and the Oxford Internet Institute and in 2014 was named by the Science Council as one of the top 100 scientists in the UK.
Her memoir titled Let IT Go has a pun on the IT and is a recollection of her refugee childhood, her woman’s business, the family’s experience of Giles’ autism and her strategic philanthropy.

All that I am stems from when I got onto a train in Vienna, one of the Kindertransports which saved nearly 10,000 Jewish children form Nazi Europe. At 5 years old clutching the hand of my 9 year old sister I had only the vaguest idea of where I was being sent to, what is England? And why was I going there? I am only alive because so long ago generous strangers saved me. It was a two and a half day journey with a night crossing from Holland, each train had one thousand children, aged 5-16 with just two adults, there were also some girls aged 17 plus caring for babies, of course I didn’t know at the time but those volunteers travelled under a special concession dependant on their return to what they must have known was almost certain death. I like always to record the sheer heroism of those young people. I was doubly lucky to be reunited with my birth parents after the war, sadly I never bonded with them again but I have done more in the 7 decades since that miserable day when my Mother put me on the train, than I would ever have believed possible. I love England, my adopted country with a passion only someone who has lost their human rights can feel. I decided to make my life one that was worth saving and then I just got on with it. So where did my success come from? To circumvent the gender issues of the time, this was in the early 1950s, I set up my own software house a technical company, one of the first of the UKs such start-ups. It was a company of women, a company for women an early social business. People laughed at the very idea, software at that time was given away free with the hardware, and they laughed even louder at my crusade for women. Although women were then coming out of the universities with decent degrees, there was a glass ceiling to our progress but I wanted opportunities for women. I recruited professionally qualified women who left the computer industry on marriage or when their first child was expected and structured them into a home working organisation and we pioneered the concept of “women returners” going back into the work force after a career break, we pioneered a lot of new work methods all kinds of flexible working, job shares then profit sharing and later co-ownership when I got a quarter of the company into the hands of the staff at no costs to anyone but me. So I was a path finder in professionalism of women especially in high tech industries and for years I was the first women this and the only women that. My generation of women fought the battles for right to work and right to pay. No one expected much for women in work because all the expectations then were about home and family responsibilities, I couldn’t accept that and so I challenged the conventions of the day, even to the extent of changing my name from Stephanie to Steve in my business development letters so that it would get through the door before anyone realised that he was a she. It couldn’t have started smaller, on the dining room table and financed by my own labour and the mortgage on the marital home, second mortgage. My interest were scientific, the market work was commercial things such as pay roll which I found so boring, so I went for operational research work which is both intellectually satisfying and commercially valued. I was doing scheduling of freight trains, timetabling buses, siting oil depots, gradually the work came in. We disguised the domestic and part time nature of the work force by offering fixed prices. Who would have guessed that the programming of the black box flight recorder for the supersonic concord was done by a bunch of women working in their own homes? All that we used was the simple telephone and a trust the staff approach. An early project for an American consultancy was to develop software standards, management control protocols. Software was and indeed still is maddeningly hard to pin down an activity so that was enormously valuable and we used the standard ourselves and were paid to update them some years later. Later still we feared that the developments in software would invalidate our business model but the giant IBM was the first to unbundle software from the hardware and that gave a great boost to the business. In 1975, 13 years from start up, equal opportunities legislation came in in Britain. Which meant it was illegal to have our pro female policies, and as an example of unintended consequences, we had to let the men in if they were good enough of course. When I started my company the men said, “how interesting, well of course it only works because it’s small”. As the company grew the same people commented, “yes it’s sizeable now but of no strategic interest”. Later still, when it grew and was a gazillion pound business and I had made seventy of my staff into multimillionaires they commented, “well done Steve”. But of course it’s nothing new. You can always tell ambitious women from the shape of our heads, they’re flat on top for being patted patronisingly, sometimes with smaller feet so as to stand closer to the kitchen sink. Now my experiences may seem to you like ancient history but in some cultures I find myself again acting as a role model for women. The British ambassador to a middle Eastern country told me on my last visit there that he would get a call from immigration whenever an unaccompanied female Brit aged less than 30 arrived at the border, your excellency sir we have another prostitute seeking entry. Women still have a long way to go. Let me share with you one of the secrets of success, choose your partner very carefully, the other day when I said, “my husbands’ an angel,” a women complained, you’re lucky she said, “mine’s still alive”. If success were easy we would all be millionaires. In my case it came in the middle of family pressures, our late son Giles was an only child, a beautiful contented baby and then at 2 and a half like a changeling in a fairy story, he lost the little speech that he had and turned into a wild, unmanageable toddler. Giles was severely autistic, he never spoke again. Classically, Giles was the first resident in the first home of the first charity that I founded to pioneer services for Autism and that led to a number of not for profit projects. Giving is all that I do now. My husband need never worry, if I were ever to be marooned on a desert island several charities would come and find me. We live our lives forward but my memoir “Let it go” looks back to that unaccompanied Jewish child refugee. Those years taught me that tomorrow is never going to be like today, certainly not like yesterday it made me be able to cope with change, to welcome change, I like doing new things and making new things happen. Those years taught me that even in the blackest moments of despair there is hope if one can find the courage to pursue it. Sometimes the worst is less overwhelmingly awful than we fear, sometimes the right attitude can create good even from life’s most terrible situations. We waste too much time being afraid when what we should really fear is wasting time.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Share This