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Dame Stephanie Shirley: It takes a long time to do most worthwhile things in life. Learn "urgent patience”

by - 26 April

"Even in the blackest moments of despair there is hope, if one can find the courage to pursue it".

Dame Stephanie, what’s the most defining moment in your life?
My long life (I’m 81 years old) was defined by my parents putting me on a Kindertransport from Vienna to England in 1939. This was to save my life – it was not a good time to be a Jew in Nazi Europe.

The famous author Victor Frankl claims in his book that: „Those who have a „why” to live, can bear with almost any „how”. What was/is your „why”?
The “why” in my life is because that childhood trauma made me determined very early on to make mine a life worthy of being saved.

What are the life lessons you’ve learned till now?
The main life lesson is summarized by the title of my memoir ‘Let IT Go’. This refers to the Buddhist focus on personal spiritual development: to lead a non-violent moral life, to seek happiness rather than be driven by material things.
It takes a long time to do most worthwhile things so I’ve also learnt “urgent patience”.

You said that you’re only alive because of the help of strangers. We see a rise of nationalism and populism in Europe now. What do you think should be the answer to it?
I’ve no easy answer. But having been given so much by strangers as a child, what else could I do but start giving myself? Not just money – philanthropy includes using my time and ideas and skills. Indeed, I believe it is demeaning to “just” give money.

What was it like to found a software company only for women at 1962?
I founded my software house in 1962 – one of the first hi-tech companies in Britain. Not to make money; but as a crusade for women. People laughed at me. Software was at that time given away free with the computer hardware – no-one would buy software.  And certainly not from a company of women working from their homes.
Who would have thought that the programming of the black box flight recorder for supersonic Concorde would have been developed by such a group of women?
We started on my dining room table with less than $100 in today’s terms, financed by my labour and borrowing against our little cottage. Everything was done at minimum cost and it was several years before I drew a salary, 25 years before the company paid any dividend. But it was exciting to innovate both socially and technically.

You said that there are two things you’re proud of – employing women at a time when they couldn't find work and giving away shares in the business. Why this is important for you?
The company started with a clear policy: “jobs for women with children”. Then as I learnt the importance of training, “jobs” changed to “careers”. Then as I found many women caring for elderly parents or disabled partners, it settled into “careers for women with dependents”.
Then – in 1975 – Equal Opportunities legislation came in to Britain and made our positive discrimination illegal! Since then the company became better balanced between men and women (which is as it should be).
I hadn’t put any money into the business. It was all done by teamwork and so our bonus system developed into co-ownership. I am enormously proud to have got a quarter of the company into the hands of the workforce, at no cost to anyone but me. 70 of the staff became millionaires.
The concept of fairness is important to me. And it always seems fair for those that have to share with those who have less.

How do you define success? What’s the price for it? What’s the price you’ve paid?
If things are easy, I’m not interested. Success to me is the achievement of a difficult aim.
I’m content in that I have done what was in me to do. Yes, there was a price in health, in family time, in friendships. If building a business were easy, we should all be millionaires. I’m remembered for my successes but I also had many failures. My secret was always to pick myself up, brush myself down and move on. Letting the memory go but learning from my mistakes. Harvesting the errors.

How do you see the future of Internet? 
Where would we be without the Internet? I founded the Oxford Internet Institute which is not about the technology but rather its social, economic, legal and ethical issues. Technology does not drive change but it facilitates everything.

Would machines replace people at work?
Machines have certainly replaced many sorts of manual and clerical work. And created enormous wealth by allowing new activities. Already 6% of British workers are employed in a type of job that did not even exist in 1990. That rises to 10% in London itself. Since 1990, there have been 1500 new job titles.

What advice would you give to young people? What should they study today to succeed tomorrow?
I’m often asked for advice by young people and it’s very simple. Choose to do something that you like and enjoy. Get trained. Surround yourself with first class people and then: ENJOY.

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