Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley is one of the most remarkable living sheroes of our time, having created a multibillion dollar business that also established a new way to bring women into the workforce.
Although Shirley made her fame and fortune in England, she began her life in the industrial city of Dortmund, Germany in 1933 as Vera Buchthal, the daughter of a Jewish judge and a non-Jewish Viennese mother. Her father lost his position as the Nazi’s began their systematic persecution of Jews and other minorities, and by July 1939 Vera’s parents placed her and her older sister on the Kindertransport, an organized evacuation effort that took 10,000 mostly Jewish children out of Europe to Britain nine months before World War II broke out. The five year-old Vera said goodbye to her parents in Vienna and took the train to begin a new life in the UK.
Once in Britain, she and her sister were taken in by foster parents in the Midlands. She went to a convent school before heading to a girl’s high school in Oswestry near the Welsh border. She had demonstrated a strong talent in maths, but since there was no mathematics program, she campaigned to attend courses at a nearby boys school.
At 18 she changed her name to Stephanie Brook and became a British citizen. “I love England, my adopted country, with a passion that perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel,” she said. “I decided to make mine a life that was worth saving. And then, I just got on with it.”
Upon graduation, she decided not to attend university as botany was the only science open to women. Instead, she learned to write in machine code and build computers at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, during which time she earned a degree in mathematics at night school. This prepared her to launch her startup, the software house Freelance Programmers, with £6 in capital in 1962.
It wasn’t easy, both because the idea one would pay for software, which was usually given away free with hardware, was new to people.
“Nobody would buy software, certainly not from a woman,” she would say years later. “Although women were then coming out of the universities with decent degrees, there was a glass ceiling to our progress. And I’d hit that glass ceiling too often, and I wanted opportunities for women.”
Not only did Shirley create one of the first software startups in Britain, but she invented a new way of working. She recruited qualified women who had left the labor force because of marriages, pregnancy, or other breaks, and created flexible working methods like remote work and job shares. She was one of the first such companies to have employees dial in their work; one of the most important questions for candidates at job interviews was whether they had access to a telephone.
Not only did she build a company of women–only 3 of her first 300 staff were male programmers–but she brought them into the ownership structure, giving female employees co-ownership of the company and making many of them millionaires. She continued the practice of almost exclusively hiring women until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made it illegal, ironically reversing the original intention of the legislation.
“For years, I was the first woman this, or the only woman that,” she said in 2015. “And in those days, I couldn’t work on the stock exchange, I couldn’t drive a bus or fly an airplane. Indeed, I couldn’t open a bank account without my husband’s permission. My generation of women fought the battles for the right to work and the right for equal pay.”
Shirley hustled to make her business an enormous success. She adopted the first name “Steve” in order to secure meetings before people realized she was a woman. Having already changed her name twice (Shirley was her married name), she didn’t have a problem to do it again to realize her ambitions. She also negotiated fixed prices for customers, rather than hourly rates, so as to disguise the fact she employed part-time and remote workers. This was unusual for the time, but it paid off, and the company went from developing programs for scheduling freight trains to programming the black box flight recorders used on the Concorde planes.
The company grew to be valued at over three billion dollars, and Shirley retired a multimillionaire at age 60. Since then she has focused on philanthropy work, giving away a vast amount of her fortune to autism research. She also underwrote the establishment of the Oxford Internet Institute, a multidisciplinary department at the ancient university devoted to exploring the economic and social, legal, ethical, and behavioral consequences of the Digital Revolution.
Shirley was made Dame Commander in 2000 for her contribution to Information Technology, became the UK’s Ambassador of Philanthropy between 2009-2010, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Buckingham in 1991 (and many other universities since). Not only is she one of the most powerful people in Britain, she is a woman that fought for every opportunity she ever had, pioneered a new way to work, and should be considered one of the great Sheroes of our time.
Written for Sheroes of History by Alex Whitcomb from Tell History.
Find out more…
You can read Dame Stephanie Shirley’s memoirs in her book Let IT Go.
Listen to Dame Shirley being interviewed for Desert Island Discs here.
Go to Dame Shirley’s own website to find out lot’s more about her, her life & work.
Watch this video of her TED talk: