Monday, May 21 2018

Published on September 7 2017. Culture
Inspiring speaker at Arts Festival
Dame Stephanie Shirley

Inspiring speaker at Arts Festival

Rye Arts Festival has organised some stimulating speakers to come to Rye between September 16 and October 1 and Dame Stephanie Shirley is perhaps the most inspiring!

The philanthropist will be at the Methodist Church at 3pm on Thursday September 21 with a talk entitled Let IT Go, which explains how she became a multi-millionaire through being a computing pioneer, and then how she has put the millions of pounds she made to good use by handing it over to charity.

Dame Stephanie was born in 1933 in Dortmund, Germany. Her father was Jewish and a judge, although the Nazis removed him from the bench. Stephanie’s parents arranged for her, aged five, and her older sister to escape Germany via the Kindertransport in July 1939 just weeks before war broke out.

Stephanie and her sister moved to Sutton Coldfield to live with foster parents, and when she was 18 she formally became British. Rather than go into academia Stephanie worked, and in the 1950 joined the Post Office Research Section, where she built computers from scratch and wrote software – a job that surely would have flummoxed the panellists of What’s My Line should she have appeared on it!

Stephanie signed on at night school and after six years got a degree in mathematics. But she was an entrepreneur before that word had entered the lexicon and, with just £6 capital, founded Freelance Programmers (later F1) in 1962.

Stephanie took a unique approach to business – she hired women. Lots of them. Of her first 300 computer programmers, just three were men as she mainly employed women with dependents. Eventually the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act put paid to this hiring strategy that aimed to help women fight the rampant discrimination in the workplace, and which the recent pay disclosures at the BBC suggests is still very much with us.

She adopted the name Steve to help open doors in a male-dominated industry that would have been closed to Stephanie. And prior to selling her business and retiring to philanthropy in 1993 her company did break down barriers, including doing the coding for Concorde’s “Black Box” flight recorders.

Made a Dame in 2000, Stephanie set up The Shirley Foundation as a conduit to giving away or letting go to charity the millions she made from selling her company. A particular focus of her charitable work has been in autism, as her son Giles (1963-98) was autistic.

Come and listen to Dame Shirley – you cannot help but be inspired by her, drive, focus and generosity of spirit and money. So many people claim to be inspirational speakers but Dame Shirley is the real deal.

Tickets for this event are selling very quickly but some are still available. To find out more about this and the other 60 events in this year’s Festival, as well as to book tickets online, go to or telephone the Box Office on 01797 224442.


Photo: Courtesy Rye Arts Festival

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