The Story of an Exceptional (Female) Entrepreneur

Stephanie Shirley | The Story-of-an-Exceptional-(Female)-Entrepreneur

The year was 1939. A mere nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War, five-year-old Stephanie Shirley – along with her nine-year-old sister – arrived in Britain as a Kindertransport child refugee. Stephanie Shirley was one among 1,000 (predominately Jewish) children rescued from the Nazi concentration camps taken in by the United Kingdom.

Eleven years later, she began working at the Post Office Research Station at Dollies Hill. She built computers from scratch and wrote code in machine language. After obtaining an honours degree in mathematics, she moved to CDL Ltd. In 1962, aged 29 – and after her marriage to physicist Derek Shirley – she founded a software company called Freelance Programmers with a capital of £6.

And the rest is history.

Freelance Programmers was a company radical for its time; a company that started off as a “crusade for women.” Having “bumped up against the glass ceiling” and “being fondled, being pushed against the wall” herself, Stephanie wanted to create a workplace meant specifically for women. Among her first 300 employees, only three programmers were male.

The company was established to give women, especially those with children, the opportunity to work and put their STEM skills to practice. At the time, the British industry and the government – in an act of deliberate sexism – were intentionally disregarding talented women programmers. Stephanie wanted to employ the very same women programmers.

The employees were provided with the benefits of working from home, having flexible work hours, and job-sharing. She introduced unique business practices such as task-oriented payment instead of the number of hours worked, profit sharing, and company co-ownership; something unusual back then. The company thrived and in 1992 was valued at $3 billion on the London Stock Exchange.

Under her tutelage, the company provided software development and consultancy services to the government and major British corporations. Her company’s projects included developing software for underwater weapons research and programming the black box flight recorder for the supersonic passenger airliner Concorde.

She retired in 1993, at the age of 60.

She has ever since focused on philanthropy. She has given away an estimated £67 million of her personal wealth to different projects and causes including autism research, actuated by the condition of her late son who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In her 2012 memoir, Let It Go, concerning her philanthropy, she writes, “I do it because of my personal history; I need to justify the fact that my life was saved.”

In the year 2000, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to information technology. Now, aged 87, she is Britain’s top tech entrepreneur who “doesn’t really believe in retirement.” She still wishes to work, still wants to give away money, wisely, and wants to make new things happen.

To say that the story of Dame Stephanie Shirley is inspiring is an understatement. Her life story is a testimony of the strength of the human spirit, the tenacity of a goal-driven individual, and the benevolence of the purehearted. From being a child refugee, to a information technology pioneer, to being Britain’s top entrepreneur, to being UK’s Ambassador for Philanthropy,  Dame Shirley epitomizes success; success that she defines to “come from doing my best to achieve something worthwhile – never if it’s easy or I could have done better.”

Posts You Might Like
The Story of an Exceptional (Female) Entrepreneur
Article Name
The Story of an Exceptional (Female) Entrepreneur
The year was 1939. A mere nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War, five-year-old Stephanie Shirley – along with her....
Publisher Name
The Women Leaders
Publisher Logo