What we learnt when Dame Stephanie Shirley came to The AllBright | AllBright

What we learnt when Dame Stephanie Shirley came to The AllBright

To celebrate London Tech Week, The AllBright Mayfair welcomed Dame Stephanie Shirley, one of the original women in tech, to the club for a scintillating talk hosted by our Co-Founder Debbie. During the talk they covered everything from feminism and the gender pay gap to philanthropy and Dame Stephanie’s male alter ego, Steve – here are some of the key highlights from the night.

On sexism…

‘What drove me to this vision [for my own company] was sexism. I had worked in the public sector and I had been horrified to find that there were two salary scales: one for men and one, much lower, for women. And I really felt that wasn’t fair. And almost overnight I said, ‘I’m not putting up with this anymore.’ I’ve been patronised as a Jew, I’ve been patronised as a woman, and I’ve had enough. I’m going to set up the sort of company that I would like to work for, a company for women. And what do women want? Flexibility and work life balance.’

On her alter ego, Steve…

‘In my innocence, I was sending off letters to potential customers singing with the double feminine of Stephanie and my marital name, Shirley. None of those letters got any reply whatsoever. This was n 1962, when things were vey different. My dear husband suggested that I use the family nickname of Steve. So I started writing the same letters signed with ‘Steve Shirley’, and – surprise, surprise – I got some meetings and the company began to take off.’

On the opportunities and challenges faced by women today…

‘In my generation, women had certain legal barriers – you couldn’t work on the stock exchange, you couldn’t fly a plane or drive a bus. Now women have it much more legally open to them, but they have more difficult problems because they’re left with the cultural issues. There’s enormous quiet pressure to keep women down, to keep our salaries down, to make sure that the gender pay gap is increasing, it seems. It is disgusting that women are not getting up higher in organisations.’

On her style as a manager…

‘I hadn’t been to university, so nobody taught me what one wasn’t supposed to do in business. So I just went and did it. I used to say, ‘That’s not the way to do this, let me show you how to do it.’ And I very quickly realised that wasn’t getting me anywhere and I got much better results if I said, ‘I’m having difficulty with this, shall we try doing it together?’ It’s about teamwork and trusting each other. I’ve always hired people based on values – was this somebody that I could trust? Was this somebody that I’d like to work with? Was this somebody that had a similar sense of humour or enough work ethic to go on even when things get tough?’

On her influences…

‘My first boss influenced me enormously. He taught me the sort of boss I did not want to be, and that’s a useful lesson. I was taught a lot by my colleagues – we tried to become a learning organisation, to harvest from our errors. You’re always making mistakes and you have to learn from them and perhaps even build on them. I never had a mentor – the term wasn’t used in my generation – but there was a boss later on, Tommy Flowers, who was an inventor of one of the very early computers. He epitomised for me the innovative manager that I aspired to be. And I look back now and think, ‘Well, I’m not as good as Tommy Flowers, but I’ve gone in that direction.’ It’s important to have a target of where you want to get to.’

On philanthropy…

‘I don’t think anybody has a duty to give back – philanthropy is something you do because you enjoy it, not because of duty. The pleasure that I get from giving is far, far more than the pleasure I got from making the money in the first place, and I enjoyed that. So it really is a lifestyle, it’s how I choose to live. I don’t think everybody should do it, but I recommend it because it makes money something much more meaningful than just some figures on a balance sheet.’

On the advice she’d give to entrepreneurs…

‘Somebody once said to me, ‘Take more risks.’ Entrepreneurs do take quite a lot of risks, and that’s why we get high rewards when the risk comes off. It’s taking a gamble, employing the younger person rather than the experienced person, making sure you’ve got a vibrant, diverse organisation that can face the future. The future, certainly on the technical side, is going to be very, very different, so you have to have that resilience and move and stay with it, otherwise you will be out of date. And that’s a difficult lesson. So my big advice is to take some risks.’

On the future of tech…

‘I think artificial intelligence and virtual reality are very much the short-term future, and that’s where I would choose to invest or work now. It’s just so exciting. I work largely with autism now, which was my late son’s condition. They have these amusing robots to help teach autistic children and it’s such fun, you can see the impact they’re having. That’s where you see technology is really getting at the heart of humanity.’

Dame Stephanie Shirley’s book, Let It Go, is available to buy now