A Talk With Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley
Dame Stephanie Shirley, known as ‘Steve’ for reasons explained in the podcast, escaped Nazi persecution before founding a software startup in 1962 with just £6 which provided employment to hundreds of women when they weren’t taken seriously in the workplace.
“I remember selling a six-figure software project to a junior minister, and he was trying to pinch my bottom. It was very hard to maintain a sort of professionalism.”
Steve’s story is one that reminds us both how much the world has moved on since the early days of her startup, and sadly how little has changed.
“I can’t believe how today we’re still talking about the same sorts of things that I was talking about 50 years ago: feeling undervalued, women’s ideas taken and presented by men as their own, women being talked over, women being patronised, women being sexually assaulted.”
From coming to England on the Kindertransport in 1939 to falling in love with mathematics, being appalled at pay inequality, founding her own company (Xansa plc, now part of the Sopra Group) in 1962, and navigating the 1975 equal opportunities legislation:
“We tried to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. But all in all, we realised that that was the way the world was going. And now of course, all of business is much more inclusive. But it was a struggle. In the early days, women were second class citizens.”
Having retired from the business aged 60 (she’s now 88), Steve is now a full-time philanthropist, focusing on things she knows and cares about, treating her various charities as businesses. Her advice to listeners?
“All the important things that I’ve done have been either disruptive or long term. Sticking with 11 years for this, 17 years for that, five years [there]. These are not things that are done overnight with a burst of energy.”
We chat about:
- From refugee to entrepreneur
- Why she had to become Steve to get traction
- Surviving a nervous breakdown
- Becoming a good philanthropist