Stephanie Shirley knows what it takes to succeed, overcoming incredible odds—she was a child refugee—to found software house F.I. Group (now known as Xansa) in 1962. Her goal was to help women with dependents find jobs, when work was scarce—and she made it happen.
At a time when only three out of every 300 developers within her company were women, Shirley decided to take on the moniker “Steve” to help navigate the male-dominated business world. (Backstory: she signed business letters to potential clients “Steve”, and the nickname stuck.) Shirley spent years building her company into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, making 70 of her employees millionaires in the process. In 1993, she retired at age 60 to focus on philanthropic efforts—and since has given nearly $100 million away to charity.
But keep in mind that Shirley was not only a refugee, the 81-year-old is more specifically a survivor of Nazi Europe—a history she’s used as motivation to make a difference through her work and philanthropic efforts. “All that I am stems from when I got onto a train in Vienna, part of the Kindertransport that saved nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe,” she said in a TED talk this week. “I’m only alive because so long ago, I was helped by generous strangers…. I decided to make mine a life that was worth saving. And then, I just got on with it.”
A power story, right? Turns out, unsurprisingly, that Shirley has many insightful lessons behind her successes—and now you can apply them to your own life, too.
Women couldn’t find jobs back in the ’60s when Shirley began her career—and starting a software company wasn’t exactly something people were putting a whole lot of stock into. However, she rolled the dice on her determination, and started the company with a work-from-home structure to employ women with families. “People laughed at the very idea because software, at that time, was given away free with hardware,” she said. “Nobody would buy software, certainly not from a woman. 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 I wanted opportunities for women.”
So with about $100, she started her company—and finally broke that glass ceiling.
“For years, I was the first woman this, or the only woman that,” the trailblazer said. “And in those days, I couldn’t work on the stock exchange, I couldn’t drive a bus or fly an airplane. I couldn’t open a bank account without my husband’s permission. My generation of women fought the battles for the right to work and the right for equal pay.” But despite the resistance, she found ways around it, like adopting the name “Steve” to make her way into what was then, basically, a boys-only club.
Even as Shirley’s software business grew, people scoffed—particularly that same boys’ club. “I started my company of women, and the men said, ‘How interesting, because it only works because it’s small.’ And later, as it became sizable, they accepted, ‘Yes, it is sizable now, but of no strategic interest.’ And later, when it was a company valued at over three billion dollars, and I’d made 70 [members] of the staff into millionaires, they sort of said, ‘Well done, Steve!'” she explains, no doubt with a touchy of irony. Ultimately, haters are gonna hate. You just have to ignore them and carry on.
“You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads: They’re flat on top for being patted patronizingly,” she joked.
Your potential isn’t just dependent on you, but on who you allow into your inner circle as well. “Let me share with you two secrets of success: Surround yourself with first-class people and people that you like; and choose your partner very, very carefully,” Shirley said. “Because the other day when I said, “My husband’s an angel,” a woman complained—’You’re lucky,’ she said, ‘mine’s still alive.'”
So, newsflash: Negative people will drag you down. If a person you’re close to doesn’t fully support you, you may have to work on creating some distance within your relationship—or cut ‘em loose altogether.
Giving back will fill up your life. After the devastating loss of her son 17 years ago, Shirley has dedicated to her twilight years to philanthropic efforts. “I have learned to live without him, and I have learned to live without his need of me,” Shirley said.
On a lighter note, she added, “Philanthropy is all that I do now. I need never worry about getting lost, because several charities would quickly come and find me.” Even if it’s just a little something, any kind of charity work or donation can help.
Shirley says bringing an idea from conception to reality is a “very difficult thing and it demands extraordinary energy, self-belief and determination, the courage to risk family and home and a 24/7 commitment that borders on the obsessive.”
However, she’s never minded the idea of work, because she loves it. “It’s just as well that I’m a workaholic,” she says. “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.”
Remember, when you’re chasing your dreams, you’re really chasing happiness.
Shirley’s final lesson? Be adaptable; see life as an unfolding journey. “I learned that tomorrow’s never going to be like today, and certainly nothing like yesterday,” she explained. “And that made me able to cope with change, indeed, eventually to welcome change—though I’m told I’m still very difficult.”
Difficult or not, Shirley’s an inspiration to women everywhere—even if you still want to call her Steve.