How Dame Shirley went from refugee to champion of female entrepreneurship

How Dame Shirley went from refugee to champion of female entrepreneurship

Posted: Tue 30th Jul 2019

Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley first arrived in the UK in the summer of 1939, travelling on a Kindertransport train from Vienna to London. The Nazi threat was growing in Germany and Shirley's mother feared for her Jewish family.

Shirley grew up with foster parents in the Midlands. The traumatic experience of being a young refugee had a lasting impact on her, but ultimately paved the way for her successful career as an entrepreneur.

Becoming a female entrepreneur in the 60s

Shirley was first described as an entrepreneur in the early 1960s. Back then, she didn't know what the term meant, but it fit with her interest in trying new things.

After leaving school, Shirley had worked in a Post Office research station, helping to build some of the Royal Mail's first computers. Eventually, she became frustrated with the sexism of the male-dominated environment and left to work for herself.

She started a software house, Freelance Programmers, from her own home in 1962. Though she had the skills to succeed, she struggled to find customers in the early years. Her husband suggested that the femininity of her name - Stephanie Shirley - might be working against her, so she started signing her name as Steve Shirley.

Once she adopted the Steve pseudonym, doors started opening and the name stuck. Despite trading under a male name, she remained a fierce champion of female entrepreneurship. Shirley predominantly employed women at her business - there were only three male programmers in her first 300 staff - until the Sex Discrimination Act made the practice illegal in 1975.

Shirley's business went on to be a global success, rebranding as Xansa in 2001 and generating a multi-million-pound turnover.

The introduction of flexible working

Flexible working was something that emerged naturally for Shirley's majority female workforce.

"No one taught me what I was or wasn't supposed to do in business. So I just went ahead and did it. Every survey of what women want in their employment comes up with two things: flexibility and work/life balance," Shirley told Enterprise Nation.

At Xansa, staff could work part-time, full-time or on hourly contracts, work from home or the office, and be freelance or on a salary. Staff could choose how much of their remuneration came as direct pay and how much came indirectly via pensions, holidays and similar perks.

"Xansa started as a crusade for women. We aimed to provide flexibility in the extreme," Shirley explained.

The drive behind immigrant-founded businesses

Shirley believes the trauma of her experience as a refugee became a driving force for her business.

"After surviving that, I realised I could cope with change and I eventually learned to enjoy it. It's been useful in both my technical life and as an entrepreneur," she said.

Earlier this year, the German government issued payments of €2,500 to all survivors of the Kindertransport programme, as compensation for the emotional trauma they went through. Shirley donated the money to Safe Passage, a project that aims to help unaccompanied refugees find safe routes to sanctuary.

Now retired, Shirley devotes much of her time to philanthropy and advocates for better support for refugees. The immigrant experience, she said, leads to a "cussed determination" that is well-matched with entrepreneurial drive.

"It's often discrimination at work that leads immigrants to go freelance or start their own business. Immigrants are able to bring ideas from their country of origin and apply them, with a better than average chance of success," Shirley said.

Looking ahead to the Festival of Female Entrepreneurs

For entrepreneurs starting a business today, Shirley believes it's easier to raise money than it was when she started out, whether you take a conventional or crowdfunding route. But apart from that, the basics of business remain largely unaltered.

"Concentrate on something you know and care about. Get yourself trained, then more trained, so that you're at the very edge of experience. And then take a risk and go for it!"

Shirley is keen to support other women in business wherever she can, which is how she came to be involved in this year's Festival of Female Entrepreneurs in Bristol. At the event on 18th October, she'll be interviewed by Enterprise Nation founder Emma Jones.

"It's a festival where people can find role models, learn something new and get motivated," Shirley said. "Plus women entrepreneurs are like catnip to me. The word 'festival' says it all: it will be fun."


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