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  • Writer's pictureUpasna Bhadhal

Life Lesson from a Pioneer of Gender Balanced Business

Updated: May 3, 2020

She came to Britain in 1939, as an unaccompanied 5 year old child refugee fleeing nazi occupation. She went on to found and later IPO, a software company with a difference, Dame Stephanie Shirley surely needs no introduction.

At a time when women were not even allowed to open their own bank accounts without their husbands permission, Steve (as she is known - the name Stephanie didn't harbour quite the same level of responses in the male dominated environment of big business) founded Freelance Programmers in 1962 at the age of 29 from her kitchen table. She created a business with a big difference(pun intended); it was steeped in the foundation of flexibility. She hired predominantly women with dependents who worked around the demands of housework and childcare. At one point, there were 300 employees of which only 3 were men, until rather ironically the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made that practice illegal. 

On Monday, at the Women Ahead Gender Balance Summit 2020, we got to hear Dame Steve Shirley's 10 lessons to her younger self:

1. Revel in your success! Why didn’t you bask in that first contract? Be confident on what you have achieved.

2. Harvest from your errors - don’t wait for the perfect candidate, time, opportunity - learn from your mistakes, don’t repeat.

3. Get your pricing right - profitless prosperity got her market share but it was a hard and costly lesson to learn.

4. Network, network, network - and always get there early if the thought scares you; so you can meet people one by one. 

5. Separate life and business - friends don’t make great colleagues but colleagues can make great friends.

6. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

7. Cherish difference! Work for the good of the team - don’t let petty politics get in the way.

8. Look after yourself with heathy selfishness (in the same logic of airlines telling you to put your mask on before your children).

9. Think about who you want to be, rather than only on what you want to do. A lesson she says that took her too long to find out.

10. Confidence is everything - success can only follow self confidence.


Upasna is the founder of Career Collective - a Talent and Culture Consultancy that helps global businesses build diverse cultures. She consults companies on inclusion and diversity and facilitates the hiring of senior executives. Upasna also advises start-ups and scale-ups on business development, capital raising and talent strategy. 

She is the Chair for the Allbright Motherhood Works network; on the London Leadership Committee for the World's largest professional women's network - Ellevate and an Ambassador for the Investment Industry focused Diversity project.

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