I was in awe of Let It Go by Dame Stephanie Shirley, the memoirs of one of Britain’s most successful (and possibly most unknown?) female software company entrepreneurs. I certainly hadn’t heard of this amazing woman before and I’m willing to bet that many of you haven’t either. This inspiring book is the story of her journey from 5-year-old Kindertransport child in 1939 to one of Britain’s wealthiest women and most generous philanthropists.
Just before the outbreak of World War II, Shirley, of German Jewish descent, was sent to England on the Kindertransport and placed with a kind, middle-aged British couple. Within a few years, Shirley excelled academically and had to attend a boy’s school where they taught maths and science to her level (shocking but true).
In 1962, she founded a women-employees-only software company where, in between nappy changes and breast feeding, her employees would design ground breaking software solutions for companies such as Rolls-Royce, British Rail, Tate & Lyle and the black box recorder of the Concorde. As the concept of a ‘female computer programmer’ was an oxymoron, Shirley used the first name Steve to drum up business. And that was the easy part of the all the misogyny she met on her way.
Things were not so simple on the home-front either. Shirley’s son Giles turned out to have an extremely severe, debilitating form of autism and had to be institutionalised. Again, Shirley was inspired to act, establishing a specialist school for autistic children and donating large parts of her fortune to the cause.
Shirley is not one to complain and this is very much a book about a woman who chose to ‘solider on’. I loved her modest but self-assured and somewhat old-fashioned voice and the theme of ‘letting go’ which runs through this book. Her happiness, she says, has been defined by her ability to let go of her childhood traumas (with the help of therapy), of control (to empower her employees), and, crucially, of her money.
Shirley is exactly the kind of female role model we need today. The fact that she relatively unknown speaks for itself and I’d like to help change that. Dame Stephanie always wowed to make hers a ‘life worth saving’, it seems she more than delivered.
Let It Go by Dame Stephanie Shirley is published by Penguin Business, 302 pages.