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TED2015

Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do ambitious women have flat heads?

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Dame Stephanie Shirley is the most successful tech entrepreneur you never heard of. In the 1960s, she founded a pioneering all-woman software company in the UK, which was ultimately valued at $3 billion, making millionaires of 70 of her team members. In this frank and often hilarious talk, she explains why she went by “Steve,” how she upended the expectations of the time, and shares some sure-fire ways to identify ambitious women …

- Entrepreneur and philanthropist
In 1962, Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley founded Freelance Programmers, a software firm with innovative work practices -- and (mainly) women employees. Full bio

When I wrote my memoir,
00:12
the publishers were really confused.
00:14
Was it about me as a child refugee,
00:18
or as a woman who set up a high-tech
software company back in the 1960s,
00:22
one that went public
00:28
and eventually employed over 8,500 people?
00:30
Or was it as a mother
of an autistic child?
00:34
Or as a philanthropist that's
now given away serious money?
00:39
Well, it turns out, I'm all of these.
00:43
So let me tell you my story.
00:46
All that I am stems from when
I got onto a train in Vienna,
00:51
part of the Kindertransport that saved
nearly 10,000 Jewish children
00:58
from Nazi Europe.
01:03
I was five years old, clutching the hand
of my nine-year-old sister
01:05
and had very little idea as to
what was going on.
01:09
"What is England and
why am I going there?"
01:13
I'm only alive because so long ago,
I was helped by generous strangers.
01:18
I was lucky, and doubly lucky
to be later reunited
01:26
with my birth parents.
01:30
But, sadly, I never bonded
with them again.
01:32
But I've done more in the seven decades
since that miserable day
01:39
when my mother put me on the train
01:43
than I would ever have dreamed possible.
01:45
And I love England, my adopted country,
01:48
with a passion that perhaps only someone
who has lost their human rights can feel.
01:51
I decided to make mine a life
that was worth saving.
01:57
And then, I just got on with it.
02:04
(Laughter)
02:07
Let me take you back to the early 1960s.
02:11
To get past the gender issues of the time,
02:15
I set up my own software house at one
of the first such startups in Britain.
02:19
But it was also a company of women,
a company for women,
02:26
an early social business.
02:32
And people laughed at the very idea
because software, at that time,
02:35
was given away free with hardware.
02:39
Nobody would buy software,
certainly not from a woman.
02:41
Although women were then coming out
of the universities with decent degrees,
02:45
there was a glass ceiling to our progress.
02:51
And I'd hit that glass ceiling too often,
02:56
and I wanted opportunities for women.
03:00
I recruited professionally qualified women
who'd left the industry on marriage,
03:04
or when their first child was expected
03:09
and structured them into a
home-working organization.
03:11
We pioneered the concept of women
going back into the workforce
03:16
after a career break.
03:21
We pioneered all sorts of
new, flexible work methods:
03:23
job shares, profit-sharing,
and eventually, co-ownership
03:27
when I took a quarter of the company
into the hands of the staff
03:32
at no cost to anyone but me.
03:36
For years, I was the first woman this,
or the only woman that.
03:41
And in those days, I couldn't work
on the stock exchange,
03:47
I couldn't drive a bus or fly an airplane.
03:51
Indeed, I couldn't open a bank account
without my husband's permission.
03:55
My generation of women fought
the battles for the right to work
04:01
and the right for equal pay.
04:05
Nobody really expected much
from people at work or in society
04:10
because all the expectations then
04:14
were about home and
family responsibilities.
04:16
And I couldn't really face that,
04:20
so I started to challenge
the conventions of the time,
04:23
even to the extent of changing my name
from "Stephanie" to "Steve"
04:29
in my business development letters,
04:35
so as to get through the door
before anyone realized
04:36
that he was a she.
04:39
(Laughter)
04:40
My company, called Freelance Programmers,
and that's precisely what it was,
04:44
couldn't have started smaller:
on the dining room table,
04:51
and financed by the equivalent
of 100 dollars in today's terms,
04:56
and financed by my labor and
by borrowing against the house.
05:01
My interests were scientific,
the market was commercial --
05:08
things such as payroll,
which I found rather boring.
05:14
So I had to compromise with
operational research work,
05:18
which had the intellectual challenge
that interested me
05:23
and the commercial value
that was valued by the clients:
05:27
things like scheduling freight trains,
05:34
time-tabling buses, stock control,
lots and lots of stock control.
05:40
And eventually, the work came in.
05:46
We disguised the domestic and
part-time nature of the staff
05:50
by offering fixed prices,
one of the very first to do so.
05:54
And who would have guessed
that the programming
05:59
of the black box flight recorder
of Supersonic Concord
06:02
would have been done by a bunch
of women working in their own homes.
06:06
(Applause)
06:11
All we used was a simple
"trust the staff" approach
06:19
and a simple telephone.
06:24
We even used to ask job applicants,
"Do you have access to a telephone?"
06:26
An early project was to develop
software standards
06:34
on management control protocols.
06:37
And software was and still is a
maddeningly hard-to-control activity,
06:39
so that was enormously valuable.
06:45
We used the standards ourselves,
06:47
we were even paid to update
them over the years,
06:49
and eventually, they were adopted by NATO.
06:52
Our programmers -- remember, only women,
06:58
including gay and transgender --
07:02
worked with pencil and paper
to develop flowcharts
07:05
defining each task to be done.
07:10
And they then wrote code,
usually machine code,
07:14
sometimes binary code,
07:18
which was then sent
by mail to a data center
07:20
to be punched onto
paper tape or card
07:25
and then re-punched,
in order to verify it.
07:29
All this, before it ever got
near a computer.
07:34
That was programming in the early 1960s.
07:37
In 1975, 13 years from startup,
07:43
equal opportunity legislation
came in in Britain
07:48
and that made it illegal to have
our pro-female policies.
07:51
And as an example of
unintended consequences,
07:58
my female company had to let the men in.
08:02
(Laughter)
08:06
When I started my company of women,
08:11
the men said, "How interesting, because
it only works because it's small."
08:13
And later, as it became sizable,
they accepted, "Yes, it is sizable now,
08:20
but of no strategic interest."
08:26
And later, when it was a company
valued at over three billion dollars,
08:30
and I'd made 70 of the staff
into millionaires,
08:37
they sort of said, "Well done, Steve!"
08:41
(Laughter)
08:45
(Applause)
08:49
You can always tell ambitious women
by the shape of our heads:
08:53
They're flat on top for being
patted patronizingly.
08:58
(Laughter) (Applause)
09:01
And we have larger feet to stand
away from the kitchen sink.
09:07
(Laughter)
09:12
Let me share with you
two secrets of success:
09:13
Surround yourself with first-class people
and people that you like;
09:17
and choose your partner
very, very carefully.
09:23
Because the other day when I said,
"My husband's an angel,"
09:30
a woman complained --
"You're lucky," she said,
09:33
"mine's still alive."
09:35
(Laughter)
09:37
If success were easy,
we'd all be millionaires.
09:45
But in my case, it came in the midst
of family trauma and indeed, crisis.
09:51
Our late son, Giles, was an only child,
a beautiful, contented baby.
10:01
And then, at two and a half,
10:09
like a changeling in a fairy story,
10:13
he lost the little speech that he had
10:16
and turned into a wild,
unmanageable toddler.
10:20
Not the terrible twos;
10:25
he was profoundly autistic
and he never spoke again.
10:27
Giles was the first resident in the first
house of the first charity that I set up
10:36
to pioneer services for autism.
10:41
And then there's been
a groundbreaking Prior's Court school
10:45
for pupils with autism
10:48
and a medical research charity,
again, all for autism.
10:50
Because whenever I found a gap
in services, I tried to help.
10:54
I like doing new things
and making new things happen.
11:01
And I've just started a three-year
think tank for autism.
11:06
And so that some of my wealth does go back
to the industry from which it stems,
11:13
I've also founded
the Oxford Internet Institute
11:18
and other IT ventures.
11:22
The Oxford Internet Institute
focuses not on the technology,
11:24
but on the social, economic, legal
and ethical issues of the Internet.
11:28
Giles died unexpectedly 17 years ago now.
11:35
And I have learned to live without him,
11:42
and I have learned to live
without his need of me.
11:46
Philanthropy is all that I do now.
11:51
I need never worry about getting lost
11:54
because several charities
would quickly come and find me.
11:57
(Laughter)
12:00
It's one thing to have an idea
for an enterprise,
12:12
but as many people in this room will know,
12:16
making it happen is a very difficult thing
12:19
and it demands extraordinary energy,
self-belief and determination,
12:22
the courage to risk family and home,
12:30
and a 24/7 commitment
that borders on the obsessive.
12:34
So it's just as well
that I'm a workaholic.
12:39
I believe in the beauty of work when we
do it properly and in humility.
12:43
Work is not just something I do
when I'd rather be doing something else.
12:50
We live our lives forward.
12:57
So what has all that taught me?
12:59
I learned that tomorrow's
never going to be like today,
13:04
and certainly nothing like yesterday.
13:07
And that made me able to cope with change,
13:10
indeed, eventually to welcome change,
13:14
though I'm told I'm still very difficult.
13:18
Thank you very much.
13:23
(Applause)
13:25

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About the speaker:

Dame Stephanie Shirley - Entrepreneur and philanthropist
In 1962, Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley founded Freelance Programmers, a software firm with innovative work practices -- and (mainly) women employees.

Why you should listen

In the austerity of post-World War II England, jobs were few, and opportunities for women to earn a wage were even fewer. So, on her dining room table, Stephanie Shirley founded the kind of company she'd like to work for -- one that posed challenging, rewarding tasks, built around flexible work rules that made it possible to have a real life. Her software company, Freelance Programmers made her one of the richest women in England (and one of the few to have earned her own money). Initially employing only women -- Shirley often bid for contracts as "Steve" to compete in the male-dominated industry -- the company was eventually valued at $3 billion, while 70 of the staff became millionaires when it floated on the stock market.

But money wasn't Shirley's object. "A lot of people go into business to make money," she told the Guardian. "I really didn't; I went in with a mission for women. Conversely, I was determined never, ever to be poor again." Freelance Programmers became the FI Group became Xansa; it was acquired by Steria in 2007.

Shirley retired in 1993, but she hasn't stopped pushing for progress in the fields she loves. For instance, she works tirelessly to push forward research into autism spectrum disorders, as well as to study and improve the IT industry and the role of the internet in society. She told the Guardian, "I do get committed, and I don't just give my money; I try to give of myself."

More profile about the speaker
Dame Stephanie Shirley | Speaker | TED.com