Shaper: Dame Stephanie Shirley

Show aired on 1st April 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Mongo Santamaria with Watermelon Man. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers. I am Elliot Moss, thank you very much for joining me. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and we put right alongside them someone who is shaping the world of business. I am very pleased to say and we call them Business Shapers by the way if you didn’t know already. I am very pleased to say my Business Shaper today is Dame Stephanie Shirley also known as Steve which we will come on to a little bit later. She is probably one of the most prolific and successful businesswomen in the country. She is a Dame and she is also an extraordinary philanthropist. You are going to be hearing her amazing story and some wise words from her as well I am sure. In addition to hearing from Dame Stephanie you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon de Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that we have got some brilliant music of course from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul. Hugh Masekela is in there, Esperanza Spalding is as well and this is also from B B King.

Paying The Cost To Be The Boss from B B King. It is always apt when we hear that here on Jazz Shapers. My Business Shaper today as I said earlier is Dame Stephanie Shirley also known as Steve and we are going to find out why in a moment. She was involved in technology before people even thought about technology and she is important because women and technology have also not necessarily had a very positive history but Dame Stephanie was one of the first people who saw that right and then as I said also she has also been a prolific philanthropist and a giver of around I think around seventy million pounds over the last few years and she is a Dame to boot, Dame Commander.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
That’s great.

Elliot Moss
Wow I mean I don’t know, you know, it doesn’t usually mean the introduction…

Dame Stephanie Shirley
You’re supposed to salute.

Elliot Moss
I should salute, shall I stand up as well.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
No not necessary.

Elliot Moss
Not necessary but do you, is it meant to be a salute really?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
No a courtesy for a dame.

Elliot Moss
Now I am going to call you Steve.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Hello Steve.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Hello there.

Elliot Moss
Thank you for joining me. I am going to start with why Steve and then I am going to go back. Why Steve, Steve?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well I date from the days when women were really not expected to do very much outside the house and when I set up my business and I was launching out sales letters left, right and centre to absolutely no response and my dear husband suggested that I use the family nickname of Steve so instead of writing with that double feminine Stephanie-Shirley, Shirley being my marital name I was Steve Shirley and I began to get some responses to my letters and the business took off so I’ve been Steve ever since.

Elliot Moss
Now I believe that you moved to the UK, I say moved you were a refugee, you were part of the Kinder Transport moment in time as it happened. Just tell me a little bit can you remember being, this may sound crazy, being that little child coming here or…

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I remember the childish things, the lost doll rather than the lost home. You know what is England and why am I being sent there? So it was fairly traumatic on a train of a thousand children aged up to sixteen.

Elliot Moss
How old were you at the time?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I was five years old and I was lucky because I was able to clutch the hand of my nine year old sister so she poor thing had the responsibility for me as well but it was traumatic and I do remember it but how true that memory is who knows.

Elliot Moss
And you came to a foreign country you didn’t speak English I’m assuming at that point?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
It was everything a new family, a new name, new language, everything. I think that was quite actually helpful because I learnt to deal with change and having dealt with that I grew to welcome change and in a high tech business that was very useful.

Elliot Moss
And just very briefly we play our first piece of music what was it like in those early years? I mean do you remember feeling at home? You talked about you know…

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Early years of what?

Elliot Moss
The early years of your life. How soon did you think this is okay, this is my home I feel settled here or have you never, has that ever happened?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I mean some people say once a refugee always a refugee it does do something to your psyche. I am left with an ability to cope with change but a certain driven nature which comes from having lost absolutely everything and I am a different person because of those few childhood years. I was very lucky with my foster parents they basically brought me up as they would their own and I love them dearly although I was told always to be grateful, be grateful well I am grateful and the fact that complete strangers did so much for me has made a big difference and I think has helped in my philanthropy.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from Steve Shirley my Business Shaper today, Dame Stephanie Shirley that is to everyone else. Stay with me for much more from her. Time for some more music this is Nat King Cole with Let There Be Love.

That was Nat King Cole with Let There Be Love. I am talking to Dame Stephanie Shirley otherwise known as Steve. I feel very privileged I’m allowed to call her Steve. We were talking about your childhood and that sense of loss and what enables you to then deal with in life and that sense of your ability to adapt. You moved to London, you end up I believe in the 50s working at the Post Office research station in Dollis Hill.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
It was a very distinguished place in those days.

Elliot Moss
Was it?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Post Offices weren’t, aren’t now. I mean what was it like then?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
When handsome young men asked me what I did I used to say I worked for the Post Office thinking that they’d, well hoping that they would think I sold stamps but actually it was full of esoteric research workers, PhDs in this, PhDs in that. Lovely place to be and I met my husband there of course.

Elliot Moss
And before I come to your husband you were I mean I understand you were writing what was, you were writing code, it was machine language I mean these are phrases that even as I was growing up as a kid in the 70s were relatively new. This was cutting edge stuff how did you end up being in that situation? How did you end up knowing what to do?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I mean in the early days computers needed mathematics in order to work on them at all and I was a mathematician. Now I would say a lapsed mathematician and I fell in love with computing, I could not believe that I should be paid so well for doing something that I loved so much. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was working on things like the first electronic telephone exchange in Britain that was at Highgate Woods. The Ernie computer that does the premium bond machines that was my first role where I really had a management task and really fringing onto the design of computers.

Elliot Moss
Now at some moment you decided that you wanted to run your own business and before we go into this extraordinary concept which people now call the Giga Economy this amazingly new-fangled thing where people do their own thing, they’re freelancers, you invented this forty-five years ago. We’ll go there in a moment. Why? Why did you say you know what I’m going to do this for myself?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well for the negative reasons Elliot. I was coming across the glass ceiling in a very excellent company where I was very happy and I thought if I can’t progress here I think I’m going to set up my own organisation that has a culture that allows me and other women to develop their personalities without being patronised, without being blocked in their careers and so pretty well overnight I decided I am going to do my own thing.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to hold it just there because I want to hear much more properly about your own thing. Stay with me for much more from Dame Stephanie Shirley my Business Shaper and you’re going to find out in a moment about the business she founded which floated a few years later for quite a decent amount.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
You’re going to ask me the date now I’m sure.

Elliot Moss
Don’t worry I’m not going to ask you the date, don’t worry. I’ll find it somewhere. Latest travel in a couple of minutes but before that it’s another part of our Future Shapers series, it’s someone who is going to be shaping the world of business in the very near future.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I am very lucky I get to meet someone who is shaping the world of business, someone who has done some extraordinary things. If you’ve missed any of the previous two hundred and fifty shows or so iTunes is your destination, British Airways High Life is your destination so is FT.com or cityAM.com. I’ve given you them all so you’ve got absolutely no excuses. Dame Stephanie Shirley otherwise known as Steve is my Business Shaper today. An extraordinary business woman and also philanthropist of some extraordinary note too. I have used extraordinary twice because she’s worth it and I like her title as well Dame Commander, one day I want to be not a Dame Commander but something else. Thank you. She’s nodding sagely. Now we were talking about this business we got to it and I believe that you said, they call it a software house I suppose that’s what you’d call it now but it was a software house that eventually was floated on the London stock exchange I think around ‘96 and then I think it became Zanza Plc and that Zanza Plc by the way then went on to be worth around, valued at about 1.2 billion pounds and…

Dame Stephanie Shirley
A bit higher than that actually.

Elliot Moss
…was it a bit higher?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Never mind we won’t argue.

Elliot Moss
You can tell me the real number, a bit more, about seventy of the people in…

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well I’m more proud of that than anything else we went towards co-ownership and ideally I would have liked to have got the whole company into the hands of staff but I succeeded in getting a quarter of the company into the hands of the staff without any cost except to me and I am very proud of that, it made it very collegiate, the femininity of the company for which it was known got absorbed into a sort of collegiate culture and we really had a position in the development of the industry which other people envied and have emulated since.

Elliot Moss
And you champion women and that’s a funny little note here, I like this footnote which is I believe within the first three hundred staff there are only three male programmers…

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well I put it the other way, two hundred and ninety seven women.

Elliot Moss
But then I think there was a Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 which meant you had to hire men. I mean that’s brilliant. That’s fantastic I mean this is, you know…

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Unintended consequences.

Elliot Moss
Of course, absolutely but I mean probably the one example where it went the other way.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Went the other way.

Elliot Moss
Yeah and quite right too. Did you love building a business?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Did I love building a business? I learnt to love certain aspects of it. But a lot of it was slog, a lot of it was trying to achieve some dream that I had, a crusade for women that took a very long time. It was twenty five years before the company paid a dividend for example. Twenty five years and most of the worthwhile things that I’ve done have been on seventeen years for this, eleven years for that but possibly in parallel. So parts of it I really thoroughly enjoyed. Somebody called me an entrepreneur at a time when I didn’t know what the word meant but clearly I am an entrepreneur because I enjoy starting things. I enjoy doing new things, making new things happen whereas once it becomes running and corporate the more successful it is the less I enjoy it and the less I have to contribute.

Elliot Moss
And despite all the accolades and I think we have confirmed its around twenty three honorary doctorates from pretty fantastic organisations or universities and more to come I imagine that doesn’t really touch you does it? Do you care or do you quite like it? Is it important do you think as a role model for people to see?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I do it as a role model because I think students need to see that people of all shapes and sizes and colours and cultures can achieve and when I travel in the Middle East for example I am very much conscious that I am an honorary man and a role model for women and not necessarily comfortable but somebody’s got to do it.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my exceptional Business Shaper today Dame Stephanie Steve Shirley. Time for some music and its good old blue eyes its Frank Sinatra and I’ve Got You Under My Skin.

That was Frank Sinatra with I’ve Got You Under My Skin. I’ve been talking to Dame Stephanie Shirley and we’ve been talking about whether she loved building this business and we’ve agreed maybe it wasn’t love it was a slog but that you like making things and managing things is a bit dull and I can relate to that. Now you retired I use that word with a kind of Russell Harty inverted commas. You retired at the age of sixty in 1993 but in reality what you did is started another chapter and that chapter as I see it has been about you saying what can I give and where do I want to give and why and can you tell me a little bit about your connection with Autism in your own words because that’s been a big focus for you.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well my late son was autistic and eventually I came to terms with that and eventually I realised that I could use my business skills and drive and energy to do things for autism even without being a medic and so I have set up four independent autism charities now and taken each of them to sustainability so that they can operate without me financially and managerially. One is for long-term care for I think a hundred and forty adults with autism and that’s a charity that now employs two hundred and sixty people called Kingwood which is where it started and then a wonderful, wonderful school probably my magnum opus for nearly a hundred children, pupils with autism where there are six hundred staff and one robot teacher to take them through their childhood and a young adult centre to take them up to twenty five so that’s a major thing. A turnover of about twenty million but it is a sizeable operation and the one that I am mainly spending time on now is Austica which is medical research into autism. So I’ve applied my business skills to the not for profit sector.

Elliot Moss
And of course to a topic which is very dear to you.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Yes I think if you’re going to put so much energy into a career, into a passion it must be something that means something to you and autism is like that and I can talk to parents of autistic children and they know that I’ve been through the sort of hell that they’re going through.

Elliot Moss
Are you able to deal with people who aren’t as intelligent as you?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I think you need to rephrase that.

Elliot Moss
Well in the sense that no but you are so ridiculously capable and you are a mathematician, you’ve created a business, you’re a formidable philanthropist, the educational establishment looks at you and goes wow.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Oh fearfully respectable, yes.

Elliot Moss
Yeah I mean but what’s it like when you’re dealing with people all the time who you think come on I need a bit more than this.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I think indeed I hope that I can reach out to particularly other mothers of autistic children largely by listening, listening hard to them, as hard as one listens to non-communicating children. I mean my son did not have any speech for example but we could still communicate and I know the stresses on mothers in particular has been called equivalent to that of a combat soldier it is extremely stressful and I do think I mean on the phone I deal with these issues not quite daily but two or three a week.

Elliot Moss
And just jumping back to the seventeen years where you built the business and I talk about that first turning of a dividend of a profit how did you deal with people in the business that weren’t necessarily delivering quite what you needed?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
I think the role of a Founder, the role of a Manager is to grow other people so that they will deliver what you want. I very seldom had to let people go I don’t even like the expression. As an organisation grows you find that somebody who is not performing in one area would be splendid in another and you learn to grow on the skills of the staff that you’ve got rather than being this is how you’ve got to fit in to this organisation because people have so many ideas this is what diversity is all about.

Elliot Moss
So you never lost your temper.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Oh frequently.

Elliot Moss
Good that’s what I was getting to. I figured someone as formidable as you, you know if you don’t like it you’re going to at some point say hold on a minute…she is smiling. We’ll hold that there, we’ll hold that lovely smile there. Final chat coming up with my guest Dame Stephanie Shirley plus we will be playing a track from Esperanza Spalding. That’s after the latest traffic and travel.

That was Esperanza Spalding with I Know You Know. I am with Dame Stephanie Shirley just for a few more minutes and we were talking earlier about autism and I just want to confirm that tomorrow is in fact Autism Awareness day globally.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Globally, yes.

Elliot Moss
Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing here in the UK with the organisations that you’re involved with.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well one of my charities has actually encouraged the pupils of the school for autism to develop their own song for World Autism Awareness day and I hope you like it.

Elliot Moss
Here it is right now.

That was Let Me Shine from the pupils of Priors Court School ad it is their song for World Autism Awareness Day. I am Elliot Moss and you are listening to Jazz Shapers and my guest today is Dame Stephanie Shirley. Your life now in terms of your focus just tell me a little bit about how you spend your time because I know that it’s a creative role and you are working with charities. Are you still involved with businesses in different ways as well? Are you still, do people ask you for your advice?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
In an advisory role yes but my experience is more helpful to entrepreneurs rather than the large corporates. A couple of nights ago for example I had dinner with a group called the Supper Club where really we just talked about business issues all the time and I was trying to share the experience that I had had in my business and all businesses start small that would help the youngsters starting up.

Elliot Moss
Are you still a crusader? I mean we talked about the feminist thing do you think things have changed, have they got better? Easier for women who are now in business?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Things have changed infinitely for women today and I have very little patience with today’s women who complain about lack of diversity and that they’re held back because compared with the mountains that I had to climb they’ve got little molehills, little irritations and that is all. I think we have moved on from thinking about sexism to thinking about diversity generally. I am working to get people with autism into employment in the IT industry where they tend to be quite talented. I am working to get well ageism, I started working at eighteen I am now well into my eighties and I still enjoy work and want to go on working so what is this thing called ageism.

Elliot Moss
Now you mentioned, there’s a ted talk that you’ve done which has been seen by many, many, many people and it’s very good by the way I recommend it.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Nearly two million people.

Elliot Moss
It is ridiculous isn’t it. We couldn’t get them in this room it would be a bit of a squash and a squeeze. You talk in there about the importance of choosing your partner very carefully now your partner Derek, your husband he’s been with a very powerful, very successful, very intelligent woman all these years.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
You’re going to ask me questions that you should be asking him of course.

Elliot Moss
But I can’t ask him because he’s not here. And I am not going to ask him therefore what’s it been like for him but for you as a woman in the world what’s it been like for you having that support?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
My husband’s support was absolutely essential. We are a dual career family. We share everything, money, time, expertise and we’ve somehow managed to raise a very difficult child at the same time as building a business. I think my husband’s career was badly affected by my son’s autism but these things happen maybe it wouldn’t have gone as high as mine anyway and the emphasis has definitely been on mine.

Elliot Moss
And he’s fine with that obviously.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well he hasn’t complained yet.

Elliot Moss
Let’s not tell him, we won’t go there. Listen it’s been excellent to meet you and to spend just a little bit of time with you. Thank you for sharing with me and with everyone else listening. Just before I let you go what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Well I’ve chosen Scott Joplin because I don’t really know much about jazz but his music seems to me to have the elements of classical music that unpredictably inevitability and at the same time be joyous and youthful which I always wish to remain.

Elliot Moss
You are both those things and more thank you so much and here is one of Scott Joplin’s just for you.

That was Maple Leaf Rag from Scott Joplin the song choice of my Business Shaper today Dame Stephanie Shirley otherwise known as Steve. An incredible woman who was one of the pioneers in the world of technology. A woman who was also a trail blazer for women in business at a time when it just wasn’t happening and one of the UK’s most extraordinary philanthropists. I actually think she is one of the smartest, most intellectually fearsome guests I’ve had here on Jazz Shapers in the last five years, a phenomenal woman. Do join me again same time, same place that’s next Saturday 9.00am sharp for another edition of Jazz Shapers. In the meantime stay with us because coming up next its Nigel Williams.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Dame Stephanie Shirley (83) was an unaccompanied child refugee who arrived in England on the Kindertransport in 1939. In different ways, the rest of her nuclear family also escaped Nazi Europe, and the international Red Cross message service helped keep the family in touch. One of the 25-word messages from her grandmother (who was in hiding) is in the Red Cross Museum in Moorfields.

A successful IT entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist, Dame Stephanie Shirley served as the UK’s first ever National Ambassador for Philanthropy in 2009/10.

Her charitable Shirley Foundation is one of the top grant givers in the UK, with over £68m in social investments to-date. She has initiated – and taken to sustainability – a number of projects that are pioneering by nature and strategic in impact. The focus is on her professional discipline of IT and her late son’s disorder of autism.

Her 2015 TED talk has been viewed 1.8m times and a film is currently being made of her memoire Let IT Go.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

Follow Dame Stephanie on Twitter @DameStephanie_.

I date from the days when women were really not expected to do very much outside the house…

Some people say ‘once a refugee, always a refugee’. It does do something to your psyche. I am left with an ability to cope with change and a certain driven nature which comes from having lost absolutely everything.

I fell in love with computing, I could not believe that I should be paid so well for doing something that I loved so much.

I was coming across the glass ceiling in a company where I was very happy and I thought if I can’t progress here, I’m going to set up my own organisation that has a culture that allows me and other women to develop their personalities without being patronised.

I succeeded in getting a quarter of the company into the hands of the staff without any cost except to me and I am very proud of that

Did I love building a business? I learnt to love certain aspects of it. But a lot of it was slog, a lot of it was trying to achieve some dream that I had, a crusade for women that took a very long time.

Somebody called me an entrepreneur at a time when I didn’t know what the word meant but clearly I am an entrepreneur because I enjoy starting things.

I think students need to see that people of all shapes and sizes and colours and cultures can achieve…

I think the role of a founder, the role of a manager, is to grow other people so that they will deliver what you want. I very seldom had to let people go. I don’t even like the expression.