After watching her engaging and humorous TED talk, I was later surprised to learn that Dame Stephanie Shirley had to work hard at improving her public speaking skills. In the process of learning about this extraordinary woman, I realize that she has worked hard at nearly every aspect of her life to craft, as she put it, “a life that was worth saving.”
Shirley is a refugee, one of the 10,000 Jewish children rescued from the Nazis in 1939 Vienna by the Kindertransport. The Kindertransport was put together by a group of British citizens who pooled their resources to save the lives of children under threat of extermination by the Nazis. Shirley’s survival has benefited the British people many times over. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity for brilliant women in the nascent computer industry, Shirley started a business in software development that employed under and often unemployed women who could work from home at jobs normally closed to them. The business grew to eventually employ 8,500 people and generate billions of pounds of revenue. She translated her profits from the business into philanthropy that often specifically benefited the autistic community in Britain and eventually around the world. She suffered a nervous breakdown in her forties and was forced to make major life changes that broke her heart but later led to vast improvements in how people with autism were housed and educated in Britain.
Shirley’s has been a life where she translated her personal struggles and difficulties into benefits for others who have found themselves in situations similar to hers. Also, she has had a sharp sense of humor throughout. Early in the life of her business, when people ignored letters of inquiry from Stephanie Shirley, she simply signed her name Steve.
It worked. Being flexible and willing to work with what was available then change the culture so no one else would have to go through what she went through has been a hallmark of Shirley’s life and work.
The world is a much better place for having Dame Stephanie Shirley in it and that is all thanks to the people who used their limited resources to save her life.
If you would like to learn more about refugee assistance throughout the world, here is a good place to start, UNHCR-US Resettlement Agencies