by Silvia Gioja, Regional Lead for Flanders, Belgium and BIM Lead Mobility, Arcadis Belgium

It is difficult to harness a personality like Stephanie Shirley in a few terms. Philanthropistbusiness womanmother are the first that come to mind, but not necessarily the most adherent. “I am all of this,” she says.

The first time I got to hear the Dame’s astounding professional and personal story was at an event recently organized by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), “Women in Fellowship.” On the one hand, listening to her reminded me that becoming a role model is linked to taking on substantial challenges – both in the short and long term. On the other, it provided me with the key to understanding reality from a woman who certainly wrote a page in the history of female entrepreneurship. Although the high tech company she founded in 1962, “Freelance Programmers”, originally founded with the equivalent of $100, made her one of the richest women in England, the money has never been the primary objective of the entrepreneur.

“A lot of people go into business to make money,” she says in an interview with the Guardian. “I really didn’t; I went in with a mission for women. Conversely, I was determined never, ever to be poor again.” 

With a veiled reference to her past as a refugee, when a Kindertransport train that saved about 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Europe took her away from Vienna to England.

Employing exclusively women until at least 1975, when the Sex Discrimination Act imposed gender equality and therefore forced her to also hire men in her organization, Shirley defied the conventions of the time on the role of women.

In a discriminating society where the only science degree women could access was botany, the maverick Stephanie took advantage of the brilliant intuition of signing herself as “Steve” to gain credibility and be competitive in the market.

Workaholic, pioneer of solutions such as flexible working, job sharing, profit sharing, creator of job opportunities, warrior for gay and transgender rights, she has managed to bring her company to the level of being chosen for black box programming of the Supersonic Concord.

Obviously there isn’t a guideline for success, but according to Shirley, two secrets to achieving it are to surround yourself with top-level people or people we like and take great care in choosing partners.

A success achieved despite family traumas linked above all to the autism of her only son, who later died in 1988 at the age of 35 from a more violent epileptic crisis than usual.

From the Shirley foundation, to donations, to “Autistica“, there are countless initiatives with which she has dedicated herself to philanthropy for years with the same tirelessness with which she applied herself in her professional life: “I do get committed, and I don’t just give my money; I try to give myself.” 

So much so that in 2003 she received the Beacon Fellowship Prize, which represents the ‘Nobel Prize of the charity world’ since it acknowledges remarkable philanthropic acts including commitment in terms of leadership, skills and innovation.In particular, she was awarded for her contribution to countering autism and for her pioneering work in harnessing information technology for the public good. “The more I give, the richer my life becomes.”

A person who is so extremely open to contributing to the growth of others, stating that knowledge is one of the few things that grows when it is shared, and who gives herself in different fields, elaborating innovative ideas and unhinging axioms, sensing new opportunities.

A life lived between solidarity and IT, facing challenges with determination and love for her activities: “for me my work is indistinguishable from pleasure”.

Dedicating time to reading “Let it go” containing the memories of the Dame who for years was “the first woman this, the only woman that”, and drawing inspiration for my life from this daily ritual, is one of the most formative gifts that I can do to myself every day.

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