Dame Stephanie Shirley

Why are you called Steve?

My name is Stephanie but no-one took women seriously when I started out in 1962. So I would write to people and give my name as Steve Shirley. It worked and the name stuck. But Dame Steve Shirley sounds odd so, ever since I was awarded a DBE in 2000, people have tended to call me Steve or Dame Stephanie. And, of course, nowadays women in business don't have the problem I had.

What was your luckiest break?

I was extraordinarily lucky. A million Jewish children died in Europe during the war, but I was one of only 10,000 who escaped to the UK. I was born in Germany, but the Quakers found me and my sister in Vienna and brought us as unaccompanied child refugees to England where we were taken in by kindly foster-parents. Both our parents survived and we were reunited but, sadly, I never really bonded with them again.

Did your traumatic upbringing affect the way you approach business?

It is very clear there is a relationship between trauma and entrepreneurship. You become a survivor, full stop. I think my 'guilt' about surviving the holocaust gave me a strong urge to succeed, to prove that my life had been worth saving. When I came up against the glass ceiling for women in business, this urge gave me the confidence to start my own business. And after that, the survivor mentality helped me through the difficult times.

What's been your biggest surprise in business?

A manager's job is not to be surprised. Though I remember once getting wrong-footed by the dollar-pound exchange rate moving in the wrong direction. The real lesson was that I wasn't even watching it at the time.

What trait do you like best in staff?

A passion for excellence used to be enough. But no-one does anything by themselves any more. So they must also be good at working with others.

What was your best day at work?

The day in 1991 when control of Xansa (then FI Group), the technology company I had founded, transferred to the workforce. It was quite something. I wondered if they would treasure it as much as me. Luckily, they have.

What's the best advice you've been given or would like to give?

Take a risk more often. Too often managers only pick the obvious experienced person when there might be a youngster who'd be terrific.

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The speaking schedule of philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley CH

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Articles about Dame Stephanie Shirley CH and her support for autism charities

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Dame Stephanie
Shirley CH

An inspiring biography of Dame Stephanie Shirley CH