She was once described as ‘the entrepreneur that you’ve never heard of ‘ before she did her first TED Talk. Now, with over 2 million views of talk, Dame Stephanie Shirley CH’s memoirs are being made into a film for all to see. Renamed ‘Steve’ to get male business clients, she’s achieved incredible advances for women in the workplace. A child refugee, and now philanthropist, Dame Stephanie looks back on her career with humour, honesty and humble advice.
When I had the privilege of meeting Dame Stephanie – one of the most stand-out snippets of information she drops into conversation to me is that she came to Britain as a child refugee in 1939. I had read about this, of course. As a pioneer of freelancers, the gig economy, women’s rights and a vast array of other defining achievements, she has been a heroine of mine for a long time now – although she’d probably prefer me to say ‘hero’. But this tough start in life has shaped her ability to withstand pretty much anything that life throws her way – both personally and professionally.
Being a child refugee created resilience
She tells me: “I knew purpose very early on, in childhood. People were less understanding of children in those days and they’d say things like: aren’t you lucky to have been saved from Nazi Europe? I am lucky, but it’s not a healthy thing to say to a 5-year-old; we shouldn’t have to justify our own survival”
Dame Stephanie explains to me that this is what we all call ‘resilience’ these days. She believes that her sometimes difficult path in life, including the loss of her dear son Giles, who suffered with severe autism, has given her a steely determination that she’s applied to her prosperous business career – with remarkable success.
“Can you recover from the fall on the stony ground, the lost contract, the business disaster that takes you to new areas? Some people can do it, and others can’t. I think I can. I think that dates right back from having my refugee start. I’ve been an unaccompanied child refugee. I’ve lost my only child – what else can life throw at me? It gives you an ‘it is as it is’ attitude. I’ve survived those, I’ll survive the next problem,”
Meet ‘Steve Shirley’
Dame Stephanie reveals to me one problem she not only survived, but very much battled against, was the raging sexism back when she started out as an entrepreneur. She tells me of the time when she began her software company for female programmers and she was attempting to get new clients. But they were totally disinterested in hearing from a female businesswoman.
“I was writing letters by the dozen to potential customers and signing with this double female of ‘Stephanie Shirley’ – and I was getting absolutely no response whatsoever. And my dear husband said: ‘Maybe it’s the name? Let’s use the family nick-name of Steve!’. I used Steve Shirley and I began to get some meetings.”
I couldn’t help but ask how this really made her feel about working with people that treated her like this and I was delighted to hear how focused she was on developing her business, without her emotions holding her back.
A pioneer of women’s rights
Ironically, as a vanguard of women’s rights in the workplace, Dame Stephanie was pleased when new equal rights legislation came in on paper – but not in reality. She recalls:
“You think I’d be delighted to have that legislation going in, but it did make our pro-female policies illegal. We’d always employed a few men. But then we had to do 50/50 recruitment. The first few men coming in were a disaster! We didn’t know how to recruit them, we were bamboozled by their confidence, by the way in which they made claims we never thought of questioning, because women don’t do that.”
Intriguingly, a strong alpha female herself, Dame Stephanie doesn’t think all women are cut out for leadership. She explains to me that she doesn’t think many women are prepared to pay the price of success and that they’re not normally geared up for the ‘carnivorous environment’ that goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship.
Business owners: Start with purpose then perfect the process
Honesty is certainly one of ‘Steve’s’ stand-out traits, and it’s really refreshing. It strikes me that her humility too, has no doubt stood her in good stead, and her chameleon-esque ability to withstand and adapt to any number of challenges thrown her way – and move on. Candidly, she tells me she looks back and realises how amateur she was at the beginning of her business in the 1960s. If you are reading this, and like me, have slowed ‘your launch’ or ‘waited for the perfect time’ then Dame Stephanie is a shining example of just going out and doing it. There’s plenty of time to improve, perfect processes, rebrand, invest – but starting, and starting with purpose – should be the key driver.
“To begin with I was full of trust; it was all going to be alright. But it doesn’t stay alright unless you really work at it. I had a shift in thinking after three or four years. We started very amateur. Girls didn’t get any commercial training at school. I had no idea how to price or anything like that. I started off idiotically thinking in terms of how much my salary would be and dividing that into hours and doing arithmetic like that. We had a profit-less prosperity. Costs were covered, some profit, but it wasn’t stable until the pricing was right – it’s a long game. People think in terms of overnight success for entrepreneurs. Microsoft took 10 years. It’s a long game. For me, women were my motivation, not money.”
A crusade for women
And that’s an ethos that’s followed her through to this very day, having given a lot of her wealth away to autism charities and good causes. She’s never been in it for the money, despite making a tidy sum. In her words: “I was starting a crusade for women”. And while she may not be ‘the entrepreneur you’ve heard of’ anymore, she is also a huge inspiration to me personally, as a woman, as a business owner and as a pioneer of a new way of working.
You can watch the full interview below.
The memoir “Let It Go” is available here