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For this entrepreneur, big challenges mean more for her to contribute

Dame Stephanie Shirley was so sick of being patronized that she decided to start her own software business -- then a laughable idea for a woman. But when her child was diagnosed with autism, it drove her toward a new life’s mission. Shirley gives her Brief but Spectacular take on making things happen.

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  • Dame Stephanie Shirley:

    You can always tell ambitious women by looking at the shape of their heads. They're flat on top from being patted patronizingly. And I'm sick of it.

    I was an unaccompanied child refugee who came to this country on the Kindertransport in 1939. I was 5 years old. And it was, indeed, a very traumatic 2.5-day journey across Europe. And it has driven my whole life. That's who I am. And even 75 years later, I still feel that need to justify my survival.

    Going into business was really not a natural for me. I'm really much more interested in public service. But I had come across the glass ceiling in a very good employer, and said, I'm sick of being patronized as a Jew, patronized as a woman, I'm going to do my own thing.

    I suddenly had this idea that I could set up a company that was a company of women, a company for women selling software, which, at that time, was given away free with the hardware. So, everybody laughed. You can't sell software, and certainly not as a woman.

    I had such difficulty with this double feminine name of Stephanie Shirley, Shirley being my marital name. My dear husband suggested that I use the family nickname of Steve. And so I started signing my letters as "Steve Shirley."

    And I began to get some response. And I would be through that door and shaking hands with somebody before they realized that he was a she.

    Women's careers are often linked with our child rearing. Our only child, Giles, was a lovely baby. And I know every mother says that. But then, at 2.5 years old, he lost the little speech that he had and turned into a wild, unmanageable toddler.

    The bombshell diagnosis was that he was profoundly autistic, and he never spoke again. So, that tragedy really drove the second part of my life and why I now work in autism, not computing.

    I have funded a whole lot of medical research into the causes of autism. I can talk with other parents about autism, because I have been through the hell that they're going through.

    I like to do new things. I'm a starter of things. I like to make new things happen. The more successful an organization or a project, the less I become interested and the less I have to contribute. So, I'm an entrepreneur.

    My name is Dame Stephanie Shirley,and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on making things happen.

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