They say you should never meet your heroines because they are sure to disappoint you.
That was not the case when I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting the fantastic Dame Stephanie Shirley. Forward Ladies (FL) awarded Dame Stephanie Shirley the 2018 Life Time Achievement Award which she was unable to collect in person so I thought I would go and pay her a visit.
It took a full year to make the dairies work but finally, we did meet face to face at her home in Henley-On-Thames.
I first met Dame Stephanie Shirley a few years ago at an Oxford University Women’s Conference themed Power Shift where she was the dinner keynote speaker. I had never heard such a sad yet inspirational story and I couldn’t forget her.
A Jewish child immigrant and mother to a severely autistic child, most people would have felt diminished and victimised by the blows life had dealt her but she was not a victim in any way. Meeting her was a dream come true.
I was anxious about meeting her. What do you say to such a person? I had nothing to offer her and I didn’t want anything from her other than an opportunity to seek her views on a few questions. I worried whether she would be open and welcoming or distant and only meeting out of courtesy? She did not have to meet with me, so I discarded that thought immediately.
I felt welcomed and also felt that she was genuinely interested in me and my journey.
For those who do not know who Dame Stephanie Shirley is, she set up a software company in the days when women were certainly not seen as equal or as able as men.
She had to call herself "Steve" to gain traction with her sales letters.
She achieved phenomenal success with her software business which employed entirely women until the law made it illegal to do so. Her company ended up being listed on the stock exchange, resulting in 70 of her employees becoming millionaires too.
While success came to her in her professional life, her personal life was not easy as she had a severely autistic son who she eventually lost. This experience drove her philanthropic mission of supporting research into autism and supporting organisations with a shared vision around ending autism.
I have two children and I find it unimaginable to juggle the care of a child whilst leading a high growth business at the same time, so I always wondered how she did it all.
Pride, stubborn pride and wanting her life to matter were her answers.
As a black woman, an immigrant who pursued a career in a male-dominated sector of engineering and accountancy and now following entrepreneurial passions, I’ve always felt like a bit of a misfit because I don’t meet many people with a similar background. So I sometimes feel I do not fit anywhere and that lack of belonging drives me to seek and to create a new life and belonging for myself in my work.
I used to see pride and being proud as a negative attribute. Culturally, pride has very negative connotations which is reinforced by sayings such as "pride comes before the fall"!
After meeting Dame Stephanie Shirley, I’m going to reframe pride to mean the drive to succeed, to persevere in the face of adversity. Pride means you know your self-worth, have belief in your abilities and will not allow yourself to just give up on life or settle for less than you feel you deserve.
Reframed like that, makes it ok to be proud.
It may have been my one and only chance for a one to one audience with Dame Stephanie Shirley (she manages her time very strictly) but her approach to life, energy, enthusiasm, positivity and resilience is not one I am likely to forget. Most 86-year olds will be taking it easy at this point but not Dame Stephanie Shirley. Her diary is full and she is busy promoting her re-launched book Let it go!
Please do get a copy of the book! I've read it and I couldn't put it down!
It is filled with life lessons and gems that can only enhance your own life. You’ll also understand that life really is what you choose to make it.
If she can achieve so much despite all these challenges then what can you also achieve if you put your mind to it?
Who are your inspirational female heroines?
The mother of all awards #FLNationalAwards & Summit 2019 is coming to your region with events in Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Leeds! It’s an inspirational programme showcasing diversity in business, recognising the doers, trailblazers & inclusive leaders across the UK. Join the conversation and don’t miss out - nominate a woman who inspires you HERE