29 May 2019
One of the greatest parts of my work life now is being able to interview extraordinary people and hearing their stories.
I’ve been podcasting for almost two years now and in that time I’ve interviewed some of the greatest names in business and sport. But I felt that it was important not to limit our remit to this. We’ve since spoken to some of the most resilient and inspiring people I’ve ever met.
For this week’s episode, I released an interview that I did with someone a few weeks ago. This person is one of the greats. Interestingly, you may never have heard of Steve Shirley.
Having worked at the birthplace of the Bletchley Park Mark II computers, Dollis Hill, Steve created a software company more than 50 years ago, back when code was written by pencil on paper, before being punched into tape. Fascinating, right? The story becomes even more so, when I tell you that Steve’s full name is actually Dame Stephanie Shirley.
Transforming the world of working in tech
She chose to go by the traditionally masculine moniker, Steve, because there simply weren’t women known in the software business in those days and her feminine name was putting potential clients off. When she began signing off her correspondence with ‘Steve’ rather than ‘Stephanie’ the work starting rolling in.
Having been overlooked for a promotion and being treated differently because of her gender, Steve, as she is still known today, set up Freelance Programmers. This was a company for working mums, with projects set on outcomes not time, and work was done from home.
This extraordinary outfit was responsible for coding the black box recorders on Concorde planes, working for the MoD and for NATO. These were women changing the world of technology, managing work and family, from their own homes. This was in the days when Steve had to have her husband’s signature to open the business bank account.
The first billion-pound tech firm?
Steve went on to sell her share of the business for £150 million. In today’s money, I’d estimate that to be around a billion pounds. Could that mean she launched one of, if not the first billion-pound software businesses?
To say that hers is an extraordinary story is an understatement.
Steve was a refugee in WW2, coming over to the UK with her nine-year-old sister and a small suitcase to her name. She was one of around 10,000 Jewish children to escape to Britain. Steve had to build a new life with a new family, in a new language, at just five years old.
Despite showing a real passion for maths during her education, she was unable to study maths because the girls’ school didn’t teach it. She instead travelled to a nearby boys’ school to study the subject. She was the only girl to attend a class there.
This became one of the first of many barriers that Steve would overcome because of her gender.
A life of philanthropy
Her professional success is partnered with a real sadness in her personal life. In 1998, Steve’s son Giles passed away at 35 years old. Giles was severely autistic and needed constant care. There were few support services available for Giles as he was growing up. So, Steve created them, establishing a care home in which Giles was the first resident.
Since the sale of the business, Steve has dedicated her time to philanthropy, donating more than £60 million in grants including for national strategies for autism. Steve also founded three autism charities that collectively employ around 1,000 people.
At 86 years old, her life isn’t slowing down. If anything she’s doing more and more, having a greater impact and making a difference to those affected by autism.
A short blog can’t do her life justice! She shares more of her story on the latest episode of the Mind Your Own Business podcast, which is now live across all the main platforms. Take a listen to her incredible story. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.