Philanthropy podcast: Emma Turner speaks to Dame Stephanie
The incredible Dame Stephanie Shirley CH DBE FREng FBCS, tells us how she came to the UK as an unaccompanied child refugee and how her passion and determination empowered her to become a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. Join Emma Turner, Director of Barclays Private Bank Philanthropy Service, as she speaks to Dame Stephanie about all of this and more.
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Emma Turner (ET): Welcome to the Barclays Private Bank Philanthropy podcast, a series that tries to understand what drives leading philanthropists and what they've learnt along the way.
My name is Emma Turner and I run the Private Bank’s Philanthropy Service. And today I'm joined by Dame Stephanie Shirley, the workplace revolutionary and hugely successful IT entrepreneur, turned ardent philanthropist whose charitable focus is IT and her late son's disorder of autism.
In 1962, Dame Stephanie, also known as Steve, started a software house, Freelance Programmers, that pioneered new work practices and irrevocably changed the position of professional women.
She once said that her ambition was to come out of the Sunday Times Rich List because she'd given her money away to charity.
Her TED talk, ‘Why do ambitious women have flatheads?’ is a must watch, and her memoir, ‘Let It Go’ was published in 2012.
Has sold 40,000 copies to date and is now being made into a full length feature film. And there is lots more to her life story, which I hope she will touch on today. Hello, Dame Stephanie. How are you today?
Dame Stephanie (DS): Well, I'm a glassful sort of person, so I'm great.
ET: That's a lovely response. I'm now going to sit back and let you tell your incredible and very unique story. And at the end, I hope I will have time to round up with a couple of questions.
DS: I tell my woman story with pride and equal humility. I'm going to outline the business success that relied on women. But beware, the older I get, the better I used to be. When Mozart was my age he'd already been dead for 50 years.
I was invited to contribute because I set up what are the first high tech companies in Britain. That was back in 1962. Science and engineering and technology have opened up a wonderful life for me.
But let me start by explaining the background which lay the foundations of my innovation. The Holocaust echoes through my memories. As a five-year-old, I was one of the 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Nazi Europe.
I came to England in 1939, clutching the hand of my nine-year-old sister on a Kindertransport train from Vienna.
Each refugee train had just two adults, for about a thousand children aged 5 to 16. That refugee childhood continues to drive me. It taught me to deal with change.
Indeed, eventually, to welcome change, which is a real life skill in today's digital world. It taught me to determine unhealthily early to live a life that had been worth saving, so I don't fritter my time away.
And finally, my love for this country, one of the very few that would take us children in, is with a passion that perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel.
Starting at 18, I had a junior position in the public service, a sort of mathematical clerk. Remuneration went by age and gender, one pay scale for men, another, lower scale for women.
I then my first job when strong young man offered to carry buy equipment. I used to reply somewhat aggressively, “I believe in equal pay and will carry my own things.” Nowadays it's, “Oh how kind. Thank you so much.”
My bully of a first boss taught me how not to manage, but also the disciplines of work. Work is not just something I do when I'd rather be doing something else.
And always, but always. You have to recognise that you can't do anything by yourself. It's all a matter of teamwork. I didn't go to university, but rather studied for years at night school. Promotion was problematic for women.
My boss refused to put me up for promotion. Men stated explicitly that they would never appoint a woman, any woman to a graduate position. I moved into computing in the mid- 1950s.
I could not believe how high my pay was for something as enjoyable as software. Few women are defined by their work, but I am one such.
I've been to computer museums as a late pioneer of the industry and I am definitely a museum piece. My second employer was a small computing company with an excellent culture where I was for the first time responsible for a small team.
Frustration, was every day, I learnt not to bash my way through obstacles, but rather find other routes, go around, go over, go under, go elsewhere. Which is precisely what I did when I hit the glass ceiling for the umpteenth time.
I set up my own company to circumvent all the gender issues, a company of women, a company for women. It was an early social business designed to resolve those gender issues in a financially sustainable way.
There weren't any women role models in 1962. No one expected much from women in work because all the expectations were about home and family responsibilities.
I couldn't accept that, and so challenged the conventions of the time, even to the extent of changing my name from Stephanie, to Steve, in my business development letters, so as to get through the door and be shaking hands before anyone realised that he was a she.
In 1975, 13 years from my company's startup, sex discrimination legislation came in which meant it was illegal to have our pro-female policies.
As a fine example of unintended consequences, my woman's company had to let the men in and then on the company became well balanced between the sexes, which is as it should be.
In no way was mine a typical business. In no way am I typical. Money is all very nice, but when it's tied up in the business, you don't notice it. Not everyone is interested in the power that serious money brings.
I am far more interested in the achievement and realisation of goals, so I tried to lead differently to act as an advocate and role model for women in the economy.
Role models provide images of real people valued for their contribution to the real, not celebrity world. Although nowadays girls are getting the best marks in school and dominate many universities, there's still a need for such role models.
And to encourage women and girls in critical thinking, we all have to become creators as well as consumers.
People laughed at the very idea of selling software because at that time it was given away free with the hardware.
And they laughed even louder at my crusade for women, because I recruited professionally qualified women who had, as was then the norm, left the computer industry on marriage or when expecting their first child.
And structured them into a home working organisation, a modern cottage industry for women.
That crusade for women was the founding philosophy of the business. We had only 3 men, in the first three hundred staff.
I was a pathfinder for women and for years was the first woman this or the only woman that. Firsts do not have to be only. In those days, women couldn't work on the stock exchange or drive a bus.
I couldn't even open a bank account, without my husband's permission. All things financial were then biased against women. You needed a male signature to rent a car or television and of course to get a mortgage.
My generation of women fought the battles for the right to work and for equal pay. My company couldn't have started smaller.
On the dining room table with what would now be one hundred pounds, but financed by my own labour and a second mortgage on our marital home.
I pioneered that concept of women going back into the workforce after a career break. Euphemism for having children, women returners. I pioneered all kinds of flexible working, part-time, full-time, min-max contract, home or office based, paying people from a cafeteria of benefits.
Profit sharing and later co-ownership, when I got a quarter of the shares into the hands of the staff at no cost to anyone but me. It was my intention to take it to 100% staff control.
But for family reasons, I had to do a distress sale of some of the equity which put paid to my dreams overnight.
The best I achieved was 24% staff ownership and through a complex voting system, 62% staff control.
After 45 years, by which time I was retired, we employed over 8,000 staff, when we were acquired by a French company. So I was doing lots of new things.
We disguised the home-based nature of the bulk of the workforce by offering fixed prices, one of the first to do so for software.
Who would have guessed that the programming of the black box flight recorder for supersonic Concorde was done by some 30 women working from their homes?
When I started my company of women, people said, “How interesting.” But of course it only works because it's small.
And as the company grew the same people commented, “Yes, it's sizable now, but of no strategic interest.”
Later still, when the company was valued at nearly $3bn and I made 70 of the staff into millionaires, they had the nerve to comment, “Well done, Steve.” But of course, it's nothing new.
What an attitude to change. We floated on the main exchange in 1996 and there were 8500 staff when the company was acquired and so delisted in 2007.
It's now part of the Sopra Steria Group, a European leader in digital transformation. It's given me enormous wealth as well as years of pleasure.
People spoke of my overnight success, but it was a slow burn, 25 years before we paid a dividend. Even Bill Gates took 10 years with Microsoft.
People remember me for my successes, but I've had to recover from several failures. Its resilience that characterises the entrepreneur.
The first recession I managed through, brought things to a crunch. It was a rude awakening to find that it was not I, but rather the market that had been responsible for the company's growth up to then and being unprepared it was then that I had to quickly learn the art of the liquidator to focus on essentials.
I got to the stage of selling personal capital items. Our company nearly went bust. It only just survived and problems were made worse by a breakaway group, which soon failed.
But then, most new companies do fail. Yet every new venture is rooted in something else.
Eventually, of course, my company did achieve success and made me a wealthy woman, so I invested some of my self-made wealth in other IT startups, all of which quickly disappeared without trace.
So, the other organisations I'd like to speak about are not-for-profits, the challenges are exactly parallel, but the reward for success is social, not financial. The first not-for-profit is called Autism at Kingwood, Kingwood is a place near where I live.
And that was set up to provide long-term support for adults with autism. My late son was the first client, in the first home, of that first charity.
As fast as I could afford it, I dribbled a total of about £2m into that charity over a period of 17 years. Yes, you heard correctly, 17 years, before it became freestanding - those years were painful.
Today, it sustains itself and supports over 300 vulnerable people with autism in four English counties. I'm enormously proud of the good it achieves and of its aims for the future.
The second, not-for-profit, is a residential school, Prior’s Court for pupils with autism aged 5 to 25. I'd become wealthy by then. This was 1997, so I was able to invest some £30m in property, professional support and 5 years of startup losses.
We must not confuse morality with frugality. I nearly failed on that project for three reasons. The planned strategic alliance with the American school, which had inspired me, broke down.
And apart from hazy memories of our own schooling, none of the initial steering group had any educational experience. Then we only had two pupils.
When the school opened, Breakaway was 55 pupils. And finally, my own darling son, who'd been the pupil profile, died suddenly and unexpectedly and I lost all momentum.
Despite that, it took only 5 years to get that school managerially and financially independent of me.
Today, it's of world renown, turns over £10m a year, and it's in the early stages of acquiring another property to increase its capacity for doing good.
The third and most strategic not-for-profit is Autistica, which funds and lobbies for medical research. In 12 years, it's become the largest autism research charity in Europe.
All my speaking fees and book sales go to Autistica. I started it off, then acted as Chief Executive. Indeed, chief everything that took me only two years to get into professional management.
You can see I am a learning person. Those three charities today employ over a 1000 people.
So, I continue to do what I've always done - grow organisations, disrupt the status quo and try to make the world a fairer place. Nearly £70m has gone to various not for-profit projects, 3/4 to my late son's condition of autism.
And I note Barclays has a two year partnership with Scottish Autism to develop an environment accessible to autistic employees.
This online coaching and counselling service is to help people with the condition through COVID-19, and that's to launch next month and 1/4 to IT, because I’ve not completely forgotten by computer roots. Far from it.
I supported the new IT livery company in the City of London. Livery companies are traditionally associated with charity, education and trade, and my £5m gift provided a modest freehold building in the City of London.
It was the first new livery haul, as these centres are called for 50 years. And I made another founding investment of over £10m in the Oxford Internet Institute, a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University.
Focused not on the technology, but rather the social, economic, legal and ethical issues of this network of networks.
I'm enormously proud of its longitudinal studies and understanding of life online generally. Philanthropy is all that I do now. Nothing to do with stamps, and I need never worry about getting lost because several charities would quickly come and find me.
All these ideas are developed in my memoir ‘Let It Go’, published last year. And I've also just published my second book, some 30 of my speeches over the past 40 years. It's beautifully designed and I hope you like it.
So you can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads, they’re flat on top from being patted patronisingly. Of course, we enjoy things we're good at. And are good at the things we enjoy.
Apart from the time commitment, I've also worked at going beyond myself to see the broader picture. This means more than having a personal goal, like I want to be rich.
It means having goals for your community, your profession and your country. I found during difficult times, that to be able to go beyond one’s self, you need a healthy selfishness, to invest in yourself, your mind, body and spirit to ensure your own self-preservation and development.
Success is found at the edge of failure. I hope you too will succeed in these difficult times. The heart of management is about making things happen, and that's only worthwhile if done with sensitivity to social issues.
It’s people, not organisations, who make the world go round. It's people with all our strengths and failings who are the powerhouse at every level of life. The creative spark for new enterprise comes from people.
It's their drive that brings an enterprise to life, their professionalism and dedication to quality that make an enterprise flourish. Americans talk endlessly about attracting smart talent and smart people.
Leaders are often of high intellect and IQ, but IQ, qualifications and experience only goes so far. 21st century leadership is cultural, about values and becoming more entrepreneurial, more high-tech-assisted, more immediate.
Let me share with you two secrets of commercial success, always surround yourself with people who work smarter than you do.
My colleagues will confirm I do that and choose your partner very carefully. And the other day when I said my husband's an angel, a woman complained, “You're lucky she said, mine's still alive.”
My professional life was and is grounded in flexibility. Once my child was born, my work-life balance depended on my husband, my secret for happy marriage, I've learned to always let him have the last word.
As long as that last word is, yes dear.
I'm not very domesticated, but I do have a wonderful recipe for shepherd's pie. All I have to do, is mention it and my husband insists we eat out.
Every survey of how to recruit women comes up with two things, flexibility and work-life balance. I have never achieved work-life balance.
It's been all work, which is not healthy. And I've watched female colleagues struggle with the same issues and always advise them to get help, be it domestic help, childcare and or reduce their working hours.
You are your own person, every one of you can succeed in whatever you want, provided you accept the rules of the game and believe in yourself.
Be authentic and get trained. Present yourself at your aspirational level and apply for interesting tasks. Whatever your role, master finance.
Well, I guess Barclays demand that and marketing and take an international perspective.
Think strategically about how you want to spend the rest of your life. Having built a successful company in an exciting industry sector. I now devote myself to extended social responsibilities.
Nothing is simple. It's hard work to make change happen. The end result of all learning. But every single code of ethics mandates the strong to look after the weak.
It's pleasant to work purposefully on worthwhile projects. It's pleasant to have something to get up for each morning and see money working to good effect.
Charity, charity does not necessarily come wrapped in cash, but the more I give away, the richer my life becomes. Thank you very much.
ET: Oh, wow. Dame Stephanie, you answered any question that I might have ever had to ask you, it's an honour to have you with us today.
I moved beyond, I'm not quite sure. I'm almost speechless, actually, because I heard more about your story today than I ever have before. You are an icon. You are a leader. You are an absolutely unique person.
And I think we all feel honoured to have been allowed to hear your story directly from you today. Thank you very much for joining us.
DS: Thank you very much for listening.
ET: So thanks everybody for listening. We started our Philanthropy Service in 2009. The aim is to help our clients and their families achieve their philanthropic aspirations. Subscribe and follow us to receive regular updates.
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