Book - Let it Go by Dame Stephanie Shirley

The book is called Let it Go although I wonder how much Dame Stephanie really has. I only learnt about the lady recently and immediately looked her book up. This covers everything from building a women-led business in the 1960s to becoming an ardent philanthropist.

As a child refugee, she was one of the last and youngest of the 10,000 Jewish children to arrive in the country, along with her older sister. Her German parents put them on a train from Vienna and then parted ways to give the whole family a chance of surviving the nazis. And so this first act of letting it go began a very long train journey followed by a long, high-achieving life.

Most of us cannot imagine being uprooted from our civilised world but they were and their middle-class family lost everything. Later it emerged there was a Nazi in the family who justified his behaviour simply by saying ‘I kept my family fed’. And alive, the author adds with certainty.

The sisters were taken in by a couple in Sutton Coldfield, on the edge of Birmingham and were adored by their new Aunty and Uncle, despite the initial language barrier. Both excelled in the education system and they were pretty sheltered from the war in leafy Birmingham and then rural Shropshire. No doubt being so close to inevitable death and yet getting on that Kindertransport train set up Dame Stephanie’s journey beyond the 2.5 days on that train.

Research is the door to tomorrow

She was good at maths and became besotted for the computing industry starting work at the Post Office Research Centre a Dollis Hill where the above mantra was on the doorway. She was part of the team that worked on ERNIE the computer that selects Premium Bond winners.

Eventually, the sexism (in the world and specifically in the computing sector) got too much and she started her business. Freelance Programmers who did exactly what the name says. To have someone employing just women, working from home with hours to suit in a job they are good at was way ahead of it’s time in 1962. Frankly, we haven’t fully got to grip with it the UK today with the exception of the charity sector. The other thing she was besotted with was that her staff would eventually own at least some of the business and this bit took many years of hard work to realise.

It’s ironic that a business that started purely to give women with dependants chance to still work from home had to change it’s policy when the equal opportunities law kicked in. [Interestingly, Avon call themselves the company for women although of course, any man can work for them]. Freelance Programmers aim was to ensure women who were cast aside when they got married and had children, could still use their niche skills whilst getting paid relatively well. It was also the first software start-up in the days when the software was given away free.

Also ironic, that they did all this without computers as PCs came much later! So really, Stephanie - or Steve as she used to sign her name in order to obtain business from the male-dominated industry - is a person that is all about systems rather than tech. I realise I’m all about systems too. I always thought I was about being productive and organised but really, it’s systems.

I had no idea there were hundreds of women working in computers then. How many were there in the 1980s when I entered the exciting world of work! 

I love the quote from John Speedham Lewis. ‘it is all wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums’. I do think we need to look after ourselves before we can save others (or put the oxygen mask on yourself first as I often say in my workshops to social entrepreneurs) however, he has a point.

Considering how Stephanie clearly cares about people, it’s interesting to see she didn’t bond with her parents who thankfully survived the war too. They permanently separated soon after it ended and the family was spread throughout the world. It was a huge shock to learn her mum never left anything for her in her will even though she cared for in old age. Instead, her mum’s small estate was split between her older sister who'd lived in  Australia for most of her life and her own son Giles. 

Having been torn between caring for her autistic son at home or in a hospital where she felt he would be safer (back in the 70s when the ideal was for him to be in an institution whiling away his life), they invested his share in a small cottage for him so they could spend time with him there instead of going to the hospital where he resided. This alone is a long and heartbreaking story that warrants a separate book and shaped Stephanie’s philanthropic efforts.

The wealth grew beyond anyone’s wildest dreams after retirement, due in part to being listed on the stock exchange but also due to the ambitious growth plans of the CEO Stephanie hired to replace herself. So she threw every bit of energy and most of her millions into the community, specifically autism charities.  She did things differently to the average big cheque writer and this is what I really admire; rather than just giving money, Stephanie got involved. Either by being on boards or running things, like starting the Priors Court school for autistic kids who have just this week celebrated their 20th anniversary. Sadly her son passed away at just 35 shortly before her dream of a school materialised.

This book was published in 2012 and our language has changed dramatically to acceptance rather than curing the disorder. I understand her thinking though - she did live with it for 35 years and has put her money where her mouth is.

I love Stephanie’s distinction between charity and philanthropy too; I just thought it was another Americanism but now that I have read this, I’d like to work much more with the latter:

Charity - repairs the immediate damage of social ills

Philanthropy - is a more preventative way to make society a better place to live in.

 The book notes that Americans give more generously to causes. However, the cynic in me asks, to which causes? Those that benefit all or just some? Does giving to healthcare mean to pro-life charities or those are pro-choice. Go to those who are for the right to bear arms or against? Churches or schools that only allow a certain type of person to utilise or community schools that benefit all? 

Dame Stephanie is a survivor, a pioneer, an innovator and a feminist. All words that are wrongly used these days that I ordinarily would never utter them. Except in this case.

I finished reading the book on Dame Shirley’s 86th birthday, which means I have a helluva way to go to do a fair bit more for the community and in leaving the world better than I found it.