What may seem a necessity now for businesses – such as flexible and remote working, freelancers and job-shares – were, in fact, pioneered by female information technology pioneer – Dame Stephanie Shirley CH. I was lucky enough to meet the vanguard of the gig economy. 

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is in her eighties, but the woman I met in person defies her years; she’s enigmatic, full of beans and an inspiration to me – and so many others. She still works six-hour days in her ‘retirement’. 

An ardent philanthropist, donating more than £67 million to worthy causes, and a passionate supporter of autism charities (her son, Giles, had ASD), there’s rarely a spare moment in her busy schedule. So, I feel honoured she’s carved out some time to meet me in person, to chat about her incredibly longstanding, trailblazing work as an information technology pioneer (among her many other hats). 

A pioneer of the gig economy

As I’ve briefly mentioned, we all have Dame Stephanie – re-named Steve (more about that in my next blog) – to thank for the beginnings of the concept of the gig economy. She tells me:

“I noticed politically that zero-hour contracts are considered to be poor management. We used them for many years, and they were perfectly acceptable to both us and our freelancers. We had a lot of pioneering work – we did one of the first job shares. A husband and wife came to us and asked if they could do a job between them. Why not! It makes a lot of common sense to keep fixed costs down – you don’t know what next year’s business is going to be and it does keep costs down. I dislike bureaucracies, and I think the gig economy is the exact opposite of that,” 

Zero-hour contracts and job shares were virtually unheard of when she set up her first company in 1962 from her dining table – a software company for female programmers. This helped women work part-time in the technology sector and it was directly aimed at breaking the glass ceiling that was widespread in ‘conventional’ companies back then. She had some pretty innovative approaches to paying her staff too that suited both her and her employees.

A business woman unafraid to disrupt

“The most revolutionary thing we did which is very little used, is that we paid people on a cafeteria of benefits. So, every year we would say I want direct pay, or less pay but more pension. Or a better company car – but they had that flexibility over how they were remunerated,” she says. 

But she didn’t stop at re-inventing the wheel. Not one to rest on her laurels, and this is becoming more and more apparent to me by the minute, she broke more new ground by taking her business into co-ownership, peaking at 65% staff control. There is a lot of talk of disruptors now, but clearly Dame Stephanie was a disruptor of her age. 

Mostly I am just very proud that I did it,” she reminisces to me. “It energised the organisation in a way that no manager could have done. It was their company, and it blossomed under co-ownership. When I lost the company, it was a bit like Shakespeare’s King Lear – when he gave away his kingdom, his daughters no longer treated him as king – that certainly happened and it was very painful. But that was the choice I made and I did get through it.” 

The lows in entrepreneurship gives you insight

And that’s actually one of Dame Stephanie’s biggest nuggets of advice to entrepreneurs starting out: that there will be highs and lows, but that learning from failings – not successes – will be the most strategic and insightful. And she’s certainly been through the mill a few times in her personal and professional life. 

“We had a freelancer who was doing a small job for an oil company. The oil company told me she was using an inordinate amount of computer time, that was very expensive in those days. It was in one god almighty muddle. I think the company could have gone bust. I had to drop everything else, learn a new computer language, build up from a team of three. But that disaster proved quite useful. We all then said: we will never let that happen again. We set up cost and project controls and tightened up on all our systems and we’ve never had such a disaster again. It’s an opportunity to strengthen an organisation. Like losing a pitch – it’s always worth asking why did you give it to them, not use. And that’s very interesting,” she explains to me. 

Slow and steady wins the race

Something I also find quite staggering – but perhaps not surprising, on reflection – is that Dame Stephanie was a ‘paper millionaire for many years’, and she candidly admitted to me that while the business was doing really well, she wasn’t cash-rich. Remarkably, she’d still ask herself whether she could afford a new pair of tights. Being in it for the long haul, rather than expecting overnight success, is another pearl of wisdom. Perhaps it’s an obvious one, but hearing it in her words, with her success, really resonated. 

With revolutionary work practices under her belt, and bucket-loads of successes and triumphs along the way, Dame Stephanie Shirley has written a book, called ‘Let It Go. It charts her journey from child refugee, to entrepreneur, to pioneer of women’s rights, to co-ownership of her business – all while caring for her very disabled son – and then, her decision to give most of her wealth away. She was one of the top richest women in England, but inspiringly, she says she’s happier now, than when she was making her fortune. The book is being made into a film – and I, for one, will be first in line to see it.

For more inspiring entrepreneurial stories in the tech industry, check out the collection on our blog!