Meet Steve – The Most Fascinating Woman You’ve Never Heard Of

Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley

Refugees, in order to survive, have been forced to flee their countries throughout history. Such was the case with five year old Stephanie and her 9 year old sister who fled Nazi Germany in 1938. Born of a Jewish father, their mother put them on a kindertransport, a train for children refugees that would take them from Vienna to England. They weren’t alone – nearly 10,000 primarily Jewish children – were welcomed into the United Kingdom.

Stephanie, of course, had no understanding of what was going on, what this England place was or why she and her sister were sent there. What she came to realize is that the foster family who took them in, helped save them from the holocaust. Even at a young age, this fact would have a major impact on Stephanie’s life. Having been saved through the generosity of total strangers, she became determined to show that her life had been worth saving. That she would certainly do.

She had an interest in science and a particular passion for mathematics. Those subjects weren’t readily available to females in those days – but she was determined to pursue her desired studies. Performing well on assessments, she was allowed to take several courses in math and science at the local school for boys. Upon graduating, she went to work rather than pursue a university education given the limited science curriculums available.

Instead, she went to work at the Post Office Research Station. There, she helped to build computers from scratch and programmed them using machine programming. At the same time, she pursued a mathematics degree in night school. She moved to the private sector, going to work for CDL Ltd., a computer development company. It was there that she first experienced the ‘glass ceiling’. It was the 1950’s. She would not tolerate being hugged or pinched – behavior that was deemed ‘normal’ at that time. More so, she realized that she had advanced as far as she ever would – entirely because of her gender.

By 1962, she was married, and with the full support and encouragement of her husband, decided to start her own business. Her concept was truly unique and well ahead of its time. Her company would sell software, a concept considered foolish by most. In those days, software was given away as an inducement to purchase the hardware. Stephanie knew there was an evolving need for custom software. Hers would be a company of women – bright, talented and smart – who, like herself, stayed home to raise children. With that, she launched Freelance Programmers. She pioneered flexible scheduling and embraced a ‘trust the staff’ approach.

As a female, she faced challenges which no male had to deal with. After discussion with her husband, she began to use the name Steve in her business dealings. Letters were answered. Doors were opened. The surprise that he was a she, quickly evaporated when business needs were met. The company’s output required extensive coding. Programming was in its infancy at that time which resulted in the company and its employees becoming coding trailblazers. It was this team of women that created the first ‘black box’ for the Concorde.

Stephanie – Steve – decided to give 25% of the company to her staff, at no cost to them. In 1975, Britain passed an Equal Employment Opportunity law, which had the ironic consequence of forcing Steve to hire men – but only highly qualified men. The company continued to grow. By 1996, this female owned company started with ‘bizarre concepts’ was valued at $3 billion. Seventy of the staff had become millionaires as the result of the ownership stake they were given. Those results were realized because Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley is a fearless brand.

Fearless Brands are both determined and persistent

What an incredible legacy Dame Shirley would have created if the story were to end there – it doesn’t. Steve, as she very comfortably goes by today, was nowhere near finished with her life’s purpose. She and her husband had a son, Giles. At the age of two and a half, he changed into an unmanageable toddler and lost what little speech he had. It was then that Giles was diagnosed as profoundly autistic.

Giles became the first resident in the first house in the first charity that Steve created. She became a pioneer in the development of services to support autism. She went on to start more homes, schools, research facilities – whatever she could do to fill any gap in services for the autistic. Most recently, she’s started a three year think tank on autism. Giles died in 1998. Steve’s love for her son and her commitment to address the impact of autism have not – and will not – waver. 

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is another of Steve’s initiatives. Its mission is to study the social, economic, legal and ethical ramifications of the internet. OII is a department of the University of Oxford which is committed to the social science of the internet and is focused on research, teaching and policy. 

Today, Dame Shirley is 82 years old. Her determination and persistence are as strong as ever. She is truly a fearless brand and someone from whom we can learn a great deal

Embrace what drives you – Dame Shirley enthusiastically embraced her new country, becoming a patriotic citizen of Great Britain. She has an appreciation for the generosity of strangers and a country which open its arms to people in need which as she says “Only someone who’s lost their human rights, can understand”. She was able to discover her purpose in life at a very early age – prove that hers was a life worth saving. Do you know what drives you? Do you know your purpose? If so, embrace it every day – if not, find the key which will unlock that power.

Make yourself invaluable – She half-jokingly says that she has no fear of ever being lost, because if she went missing “several charities would quickly come to find me.” Be so committed to what you do – to your purpose – that your absence couldn’t go unnoticed. Doing so isn’t difficult when you know your purpose – when you embrace your passion.

The magic is in making things happen – Ideas are great says Steve. What’s essential, however, is making it happen. That takes a relentless energy, strong self-belief and determination. It requires courage and a willingness to accept failure – on your path to success. If you know your purpose, but aren’t ‘making it happen’, you need to either reignite your energy or redirect your efforts.

What an amazing gift the world received when a young refugee was welcomed by a country and embraced by strangers. You can’t replicate exactly the ground-breaking and innovative path that Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley blazed. You may not become worth $1.5 billion or even live to 82 and beyond. But you can learn from her, adopt her traits, be inspired by her and build yourself into a fearless brand.


Friday's Fearless Brand Personal Branding

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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