The 2016 Women of the Year Lecture, sponsored by BT, took place at The Royal Institution of Great Britain, London on Monday 25 April and was hosted by award winning BBC broadcaster Sue MacGregor.
From escaping Germany in the Kinderstransport to becoming a successful businesswoman, from being the mother of an autistic child to becoming one of Britain’s greatest philanthropists: guest speaker Dame Stephanie Shirley shared her incredible life story with a packed audience of Women of the Year friends and alumnae including former Women of the Year Susie Hart and Baroness Doreen Lawrence.
The conversation began with Sue and Dame Stephanie talking about her childhood as a refugee in England living with foster parents, after escaping from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport. Dame Stephanie described how her parent’s decision to send her in the Kindertransport ultimately saved her life.
Other topics covered included Dame Stephanie’s career, her IT business – originally known as Xansa and now part of the Sopra Steria Group – describing the organisation as a social business, focused not on making profit but to provide suitable and flexible careers for working women.
Her business proved to be highly profitable in later years, as 70 of her members of staff became millionaires after the company had floated on the stock exchange in 1996.
Dame Stephanie discussed how attitudes towards women in business and STEM roles have developed in Britain since the Second World War. In the 1950s and 60s sexism in business was rife, women were treated as second class citizens – even Dame
Stephanie had to use her nickname ‘Steve’ as a pseudonym to sign off her letters to customers, as nobody answered her letters signed from her real name.
Sue asked whether women’s confidence was still an issue in business, with Dame Stephanie suggesting having a mentor was important and that she had a male mentor.
The conversation also covered Dame Stephanie’s philanthropy. She has devoted her retirement and wealth to giving back to society and funding projects in the fields of autism, inspired by her son Giles who was profoundly autistic. Her charitable Shirley Foundation is now one of the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK with well over £50m grants given. It has initiated and funded a number of projects that are pioneering by nature, strategic in impact and significant in money terms.
Sue concluded the evening by inviting members of the audience to put their questions to Dame Stephanie. These questions covered how to encourage companies to employ people with disabilities, refugees across Europe, her top women in business – who included fashion designer, Laura Ashley and The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick.
The 2016 lecture ended with Jane Luca, Chair of Women of the Year presenting Dame Stephanie with the Women of the Year Lecture Award.
All money raised from ticket sales and book sales of Dame Stephanie’s memoir, ‘Let IT Go’, went to the Women of the Year Foundation. The Foundation was established in 2001 with the aim of helping women to fulfil their potential and become, in their own context, future ‘Women of the Year’.
Women of the Year support a number of disadvantaged women both in the UK and abroad to start over and improve their lives either through retraining or in business.
In October 2015 Dame Stephanie Shirley was the recipient of The Women of the Year 60th Anniversary Special Award given in memory of Tony Lothian who founded the Women of the Year lunch. Women of the Year President Sandi Toksvig presented Dame Stephanie with her award ahead of the lecture.