How Do You Break Into an Industry While Breaking All the Rules? | St. Louis Public Radio

How Do You Break Into an Industry While Breaking All the Rules?

Oct 2, 2015
Originally published on October 14, 2016 9:00 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Meaning Of Work.

About Dame Stephanie Shirley's TED Talk

What's in a name? For tech entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley, bidding contracts under the name "Steve" enabled her to launch and grow a freelance software company with a virtually all-female staff.

About Dame Stephanie Shirley

In 1962, Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley founded Freelance Programmers, an innovative software firm that initially only hired women, a rarity in the male-dominated industry.

When she retired in 1993, Shirley had built a billion-dollar company and made millionaires of 70 of her staff members. Now a philanthropist, she supports research to study autism spectrum disorders and strategies to improve the IT industry.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So if seeing results or finding meaning or working collaboratively are all reasons behind why we work, what happens when the entire deck is stacked against you, when it seems like every single force out there is discouraging you from trying? How do you find the motivation to try anyway?

So maybe you've heard about the very low numbers of women employed by big tech companies - 16 percent of tech jobs at Microsoft held by women, at Twitter, it's 10 percent, at Google, 17.

But when Steve Shirley started a tech company, 100 percent of her employees...

STEVE SHIRLEY: Oh, yes, indeed.

RAZ: ...Were women.

SHIRLEY: It was a very exciting period.

RAZ: In fact, Steve Shirley will explain her name in a moment. Steve had vowed from the beginning...

SHIRLEY: It was a crusade for women.

RAZ: ...That her company would only hire women.

SHIRLEY: It was a burning mission to keep it on the road.

RAZ: OK, so her name?

SHIRLEY: Well, my name is Dame Stephanie Shirley, which sounds very grand. But way back in my past, I shortened my name from that. So really, I'm Steve Shirley. That's how I'm known.

RAZ: Everybody calls you Steve?

SHIRLEY: Everybody calls me Steve.

RAZ: Signing your name Steve instead of Stephanie turned out to be an easier way to get your letters answered in the 1960s because that's when Steve Shirley, as she is still known today, brought work to thousands of women in the U.K.

SHIRLEY: We were a very different sort of workplace.

RAZ: OK, first, what Steve's company did.

SHIRLEY: We would work with pencil and paper.

RAZ: It was basically a software company...

SHIRLEY: And then we would convert it into code.

RAZ: ...Before there were personal computers.

SHIRLEY: Which would then be punched onto cards or paper tape. And then it would be re-punched in order to verify it.

RAZ: The company would use math and statistics to model things like freight train schedules and bus routes and stock markets.

SHIRLEY: So intellectually demanding that you got this wonderful sense of achievement.

RAZ: And what Steve introduced back in the 1960s, aside from the idea that women could actually write code, was that it didn't necessarily matter where you did that work because Steve let the women who worked for her do it from home.

SHIRLEY: We used to ask job applicants, do you have access to a telephone?

RAZ: In those days, not everyone did.

SHIRLEY: I had a party line, which is - sounds rather fun, but it meant that I shared my home telephone with some other poor soul. It was a different world.

RAZ: And you were doing this before email, before fax machines, before Skype.

SHIRLEY: Well, we did have the simple telephone, and we had the enthusiasm of women being offered something really exciting - not particularly well paid, to be honest, because we were living on a shoestring. But I think it made a lot of other organizations consider whether there were different models of getting work done.

RAZ: Steve Shirley managed to build this company at a time when women in the U.K. couldn't even open a bank account without their husband's permission. Here's more of Steve Shirley's story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SHIRLEY: Let me take you back to the early 1960s. Although women were then coming out of the universities with decent degrees, there was a glass ceiling to our progress. And I'd hit that glass ceiling too often and so started to challenge the conventions of the time, even to the extent of changing my name from Stephanie to Steve in my business development letters so as to get through the door before anyone realized that he was a she.

(LAUGHTER)

SHIRLEY: I recruited professionally qualified women who'd left the industry on marriage or when their first child was expected and structured them into a home-working organization. And we pioneered the concept of women going back into the workforce after a career break. We disguised the domestic and part-time nature of this stuff by offering fixed prices - one of the very first to do so. We pioneered all sorts of new flexible work methods - job shares, profit sharing - and eventually, the work came in.

RAZ: So think of the drive - the chutzpah - this took, right, to have started a business on her dining room table.

SHIRLEY: Well, I was described as aggressive and, you know, sort of, a man might be assertive or they'll have gravitas, but I was - I suppose I've always been a bit aggressive.

RAZ: And yet, year after year, her company grew.

SHIRLEY: So once it was known that I was hiring women to decent, part-time, flexible work opportunities, I had a flood of people coming in.

RAZ: And Steve's team of women programmers were able to keep up with the growing demand through the '60s and '70s as more and more companies in the U.K. started to automate their work through computers.

SHIRLEY: And it gradually got much more into systems work, business design, choosing equipments, contracts. I did work seven days a week. I did sleep occasionally. I did very little else. So the business began to take off. I love business, really. I mean, because most of my contemporaries are playing bridge or golf, and that's not me.

RAZ: It just seems boring to you?

SHIRLEY: Irrelevant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SHIRLEY: When I started my company of women, the men sort of said, how interesting - because it only works because it's small. And later, as it became sizable, they sort of accepted, yes, it is sizable now, but of no strategic interest. And later, when it was a company valued at over $3 billion and I'd made 70 of the staff into millionaires, they sort of said, well-done, Steve.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

SHIRLEY: You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads. They're flat on top for being patted patronizingly.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

RAZ: When you were at the company and sort of really building that business, what motivated you, what propelled you?

SHIRLEY: Again, I think it was a lot of the sort of feminine thing that in having started a company, in no way was I going to fail. So even in the 1970s recession, where we nearly went out of business, I was so proud that women could do this, that in - somehow or other, we stuck in there. I mean, I feel I'm so lucky because I have done what is in me to do.

RAZ: But sometimes the will to work hard grows from our hardest experiences, and, in Steve Shirley's case, from her childhood. She wasn't actually born in the U.K. And when she was just 5 years old, as a little girl in Austria, in 1934, the Nazis marched in to occupy her country. And suddenly, Jews like her were in danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SHIRLEY: All that I am stems from when I got onto a train in Vienna, part of the kinder transport that saved nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe. I was 5 years old, clutching the hand of my 9-year-old sister, and had very little idea as to what was going on. What is England and why am I going there? I was lucky, and doubly lucky, to be later reunited with my birth parents. But, sadly, I never bonded with them again. But I've done more in the seven decades since that miserable day when my mother put me on the train than I would ever have dreamed possible. I loved England, my adopted country, with a passion that perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel. I decided to make mine a life that was worth saving, and then I just got on with it.

RAZ: I mean, this idea that you went through life thinking, I need to make my life a life that was worth saving - that's a huge burden to carry.

SHIRLEY: But other people have equal drive as, you know, the musician who is determined to finish up in Wigmore Hall, or the artist who starves in the garage because he's determined to make some wonderful sculpture that nobody else wants. But there's a passion involved in doing a really good, quality piece of work that's better than you've done ever before. This really gives a drive to the individual. It's what makes us human. Animals don't work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SHIRLEY: It's one thing to have an idea for an enterprise, but as many people in this room will know, making it happen is a very difficult thing. And it demands, really, extraordinary energy, self-belief and determination, the courage to risk family and home, in a 24-by-seven commitment that borders on the obsessive. So it's just as well that I'm a workaholic. I believe in the beauty of work when we do it properly and in humility. Work is not just something I do when I'd rather be doing something else.

So what has all that taught me? I learned that tomorrow's never going to be like today and certainly nothing like yesterday. And that made me able to cope with change - indeed, eventually, to welcome change. Though I'm told I'm still very difficult.

Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Dame Stephanie Shirley, or, as everyone calls her today, Steve Shirley. She did all these things, by the way, and raised a child with autism. Steve now spends her time and her considerable wealth on autism-related philanthropy. You can find out more about her and see her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Whistle while you work.

(WHISTLING)

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Put on that grin and start right in to whistle loud and long. Just hum a merry tune.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on the meaning of work this week. We'd love to hear from you. If you have any feedback, send us an email at tedradiohour@npr.org. You can follow us on Twitter. That's @TEDRadioHour. And you've been listening to ideas worth spreading, right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.