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This Woman Built A $3B Company By Disguising Herself As A Man

In the 1960s, women couldn’t open a bank account and the thought of women prioritizing work over domestic life seemed ludicrous. This was the world Dame Stephanie Shirley entered into when she started her multi-billion dollar UK software company, Freelance Programmers, later known as Xansa, 50 years ago.

She’s been called “the most successful tech entrepreneur you never heard of,” and she pioneered the idea of “a company for women, by women” and eventually built a $3 billion public company that went on to employ over 8,500 employees.

Shirley hit her head against the glass ceiling so many times and dealt with “being patted patronizingly” so often that, she jokes, her head is flat on top. In her TED Talk, “Why Do Ambitious Women Have Flat Heads?” she details the challenges she has faced in the workplace and how she started going by the name of “Steve” in correspondence in order to get in the door and be taken more seriously.

While many of the legal challenges Shirley faced when founding her tech company over five decades ago are gone, societal biases against women in leadership continue to permeate the workplace. She shares her top four lessons on what it takes to be successful against all odds.

Don’t Let Other People’s Expectations Define What’s Possible

When she founded her company, people snickered at the thought of freelance programmers because “software, at that time, was given away free with hardware. Nobody would buy software, certainly not from a woman.” Yet rather than succumb to popular opinion, Shirley took a more radical route, going by the name “Steve” instead of “Stephanie.” A belief in the value of her company led her to defy any expectations about what others believed was feasible.

Invest In Undervalued Assets

At a time when women were overlooked as productive members of working society, Shirley actively sought to recruit qualified women who no one else wanted. She gave opportunities to women who had been forced to leave the workplace after marriage or childbirth and created a work environment that allowed them to have flexible work hours and work from home. Through her focus on employee well-being and family-friendly policies, she created a highly loyal staff. The loyalty of her employees became invaluable as she began facing her own familial pressures. When her company went public in 1993, she also made 70 of her employees millionaires and had a staff of 8,500 workers.

You Must Be Willing to Pay The Cost For Success

If success were easy, we’d all be billionaires. Success requires sacrifice. For Shirley, this sacrifice came in the form of family life and health. In the midst of scaling her company, her late son was born autistic, and she needed to find a way to juggle both her work and her family obligations. In a controversial interview, she noted that “Many people don’t want to pay the cost of success — the cost to your health, family and life,” and said she was disappointed in today’s young women for “talking about doing what I was doing 50 years ago.” As a woman who pioneered the way for women in tech, she made it clear that women CEOs need to think carefully about the cost of success and their willingness to sacrifice other parts of their life.

Have a Mission Bigger Than Yourself

While it was hard enough to establish a software company, Shirley went a step further and made it her mission to champion equal rights for women in the workplace. This mission formed the foundational values for her company, guided hiring decisions, workplace culture, and ultimately her company's successful exit. Yet money was never her main pursuit, and despite relentless pressure and extreme sacrifice, she always loved her work.

Women in the workplace continue to face overt sexism and subtle biases that consistently undermine the work. Building a company takes extraordinary effort, but success comes to those who have the courage to defy expectations, strength to overcome challenges, and an unwavering belief in your own vision.

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