I have to admit, I had never heard of Dame Stephanie Shirley until very recently when her name popped up in one of my social timelines. It appears I’m not the only one, which seems utterly unbelievable once you hear her story.
What if I was to tell you that in the early 1960s, to get past the gender issues of the time, she set up her own software house; one of the first start-ups of its kind in the UK. But what made this business even more unique was that it was a women-only business, set up for women.
“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,” Shirley explains within her TED Talk (embedded below).“I recruited professionally qualified women who’d left the industry on marriage, or when their first child was expected and structured them into a home-working organisation. We pioneered the concept of women going back into the workforce after a career break. We pioneered all sorts of new, flexible work methods: job shares, profit-sharing, and eventually, co-ownership when I put a quarter of the company into the hands of the staff at no cost to anyone but me.”
If you need any proof of Shirley’s business success, aside from her business ultimately being valued at $3bn, her female-only workforce was solely responsible for the programming of the black box flight recorder of supersonic Concord. Work which was carried out in their own homes! Her business also developed software standards on management control protocols, which were adopted by NATO.
It seems incredible that today we are still struggling with the concept of flexible working, despite the myriad of virtual working technology we have available, when Shirely had pioneered a far simpler concept 50 years earlier. “All we used was a simple “trust the staff” approach and a simple telephone” Shirley shares.
In 1975, 13 years after Shirely had set up her business, equal opportunity legislation came in within Britain which made it illegal to have pro-female policies in place. The business had no choice but to open its doors to men.
What makes Shirley’s story of business success so inspirational is that her start in life was far from easy. At the age of five she was one of the 10,000 Jewish children who fled Nazi Europe, being separated from her parents, and brought to the safety of England. In her own words: “I’ve done more in the seven decades since that miserable day when my mother put me on the train than I would ever have dreamed possible. And I love England, my adopted country, with a passion that perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel. I decided to make mine a life that was worth saving.”
Towards the end of her talk, Shirley shares her two secrets of business success:
- Surround yourself with first-class people and people that you like
- Choose your partner very, very carefully
I urge you to watch Dame Shirley’s TED Talk, ‘Why do ambitious women have flat heads?’. It’s not long, but shares an incredible story, and fills you in on a life that is definitely worth knowing about!