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Tech pioneer Dame Stephanie Shirley on defying the glass ceiling to become a 'venture philanthropist'

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Dame Stephanie Shirley is a British technology pioneer who defied hitting the glass ceiling early in her career and went on to launch her own hugely successful computing business.

Founded in 1962, Freelance Programmers staffed only women, many of whom worked flexible hours and were able to combine their jobs with their responsibilities as primary caregivers.

Speaking on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show, Dame Stephanie said at the beginning “we were the laughing stock of the industry” — not least because the company was selling software at a time when it was largely given away for free with hardware.

Dame Stephanie also famously signed her new business letters as “Steve” in the hope of getting a foot through the door with new clients.

Dame Stephanie Shirley. Photo: Yahoo Finance UK

Freelance Programmers prevailed and went on to programme Concorde’s black box recorder, one of its most high-profile assignments. Majority-ownership of Freelance Programmers (then known as F International) was transferred to employees in 1991 and, when the company later floated on the stock exchange five years later, 70 members of the staff were made millionaires.

Now in her eighties, Dame Stephanie describes herself as a “venture philanthropist” and has donated much of her wealth to charity, with a particular focus on projects devoted to technology and autism.

Watch the full Dame Stephanie Shirley Global Change Agents interview for:

  • Dame Stephanie’s experience arriving in the UK as a Kindertransport refugee

  • How her early experiences in male-dominated workplaces and hitting the glass ceiling motivated her to launch a startup

  • Dame Stephanie on the #MeToo movement and tackling unconscious bias

  • Her reflections on what she might have done differently

  • Dame Stephanie on changing attitudes around autism in the workplace

  • How she keeps up her energy

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.