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One of the most inspiring women ever! Dame Stephanie Shirley

I love telling my daughters real-life stories about people who have made a difference whilst becoming financially healthy and wealthy. Many of the stories that are shared on this topic (not just by me) tend to be about men. As I have two daughters, I wanted to seek out more stories about women.

As I was researching for this blog, I came across Dame Stephanie Shirley, who I'd never heard of before. I learned about her story. It is truly inspiring and one that I needed to share with my daughters.

Dame Stephanie Shirley's Story

From humble beginnings ...

Dame Shirley had one of the most traumatic starts to life. She was born in Germany in 1933 and had a Jewish father. As a result, when she was 5 years old and the second world war started, she was sent as a refugee to the UK with her older sister.

In England, she went into foster care and attended an all girls school. She was good with numbers but, in those days, girl's schools didn't teach maths. That didn't stop her from learning maths in her own time. She got permission to take the maths exams at a boy's school.

As universities only had a very limited number of courses for girls, she decided to get a job. She wanted to use her maths skills, so ended up building computers and writing code (which was a lot different from the code people use today).

Dame Shirley enjoyed the work but hated the workplace. In those days, women weren't seen as equals to men and her male colleagues would often bully her (and more).

Starting her own company ...

In 1959, at the age of 26, with only £6, she decided to start her own company called Freelance Programmers. She'd work from home and offer to write code for companies. This was a massive risk. As Dame Shirley once said:

"It sounded mad. Drawbacks included the following. I had no capital to speak of. I had no experience of running a company. I had no employees, no office, no customers, and no reason to believe that there were any companies out there with any interest in buying my product. Nobody sold software in those days. Insofar as it existed, it was given away free."

These drawbacks didn't stop her!

At first, she noticed that when she wrote to companies asking if they would be interested in her services, she wouldn't get any responses. She then decided to start signing off her letters as "Steve" rather than "Stephanie". Her plan worked, as companies thought they were dealing with a man, she started to get more requests for programming. She still refers to herself as "Steve" today.

Rather than setting up an office, she worked from her kitchen table. As more work came in, she recruited more women like her and allowed them to work from home and work around their own schedules. Both employing lots of women and allowing them to work flexibly was so unique at that time. As we know, it would take most companies many more decades to start doing the same thing. Dame Shirley was truly a pioneer.

Her company, of women working from home, would go on to program the code for the 'black box' on Concorde planes.

Picture of Concorde which had a black box programmed by Dame Stephanie Shirley and her team

Sharing her success ...

In 2007, she accepted an offer to sell her company for £456 million. Again, she did something quite unique. She rewarded many of her loyal staff with a share of ownership just before the sale. This resulted in over 70 workers becoming millionaires overnight.

In a world where people are so focused on becoming rich themselves, it is inspiring to hear how Dame Shirley rewarded those that helped her on her journey.

Focusing on charity ...

Dame Shirley's late son had severe autism. As she raised him, she realised that more help was needed for families with autism. Rather than just giving money to charities, she used her entrepreneurial skills to create her own charity, The Shirley Foundation, which has spent millions on helping families all over the world.

Her charitable mindset comes from her humble beginnings. She always felt that she was so lucky to be alive after the war started, that she wanted to make sure that she could help save or improve the lives of others.

Such was her focus using her money to help others, rather than just getting rich for herself, that she fell out of the "Rich List" due to the amount of money that she's given away.

Her work in supporting women and charities ultimately led her to become a 'Dame'. She was also named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine in 2013.


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Watch her TED Talk here

Link to video here

My favourite quote from Dame Shirley

"Think in terms of doing the right thing, not just doing things right!"

This is such a powerful statement as many children grow up focusing on always trying to get everything right and are scared of failure. We know that to make a real impact you have to try new things, and that might mean failing from time to time, and that's OK!

Key learning from this story

There are so many lessons that we should be teaching our kids from this story, here are just a few:

  • If Dame Shirley can start life as a refugee and achieve what she did, in a time when there were such limited opportunities for women, it shows that there are always opportunities to overcome the barriers that will inevitably come up in our lifetime.

  • Thinking creatively and considering unconventional approaches is so important when pursuing entrepreneurial dreams. Taking calculated risks can lead to extraordinary outcomes.

  • She didn't work on her own. She created a team and they worked together to create something no one thought would be possible.

  • When she made money, she didn't try to show it off. She focused on what mattered most to her. She wanted to help others and created her own charity. (This is probably why most of us had never heard of her. If she had spent her money on fancy houses and cars, then she would have been more famous, which isn't the way it should be in my opinion!).

I hope you share this inspiring story about Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley with your kids. Especially if you have daughters. Please do share this blog with other families so that they can spread the word about this amazing woman.

I love inspiring stories like Dame Stephanie's. I would put it up there with the likes of Ronald Read's story. Have you heard of Ronald Read? If not, check out his story here

Thanks for reading!


p.s. Don't forget to subscribe and grab your kid's a copy of Grandpa's Fortune Fables

Grandpa's fortune fables book cover

1 Comment

Jun 14, 2023

Thank you for sharing this Will, what an incredible lady I'd also never heard of - but very glad I now have. Remarkable story. Lucy

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