From Refugee to Entrepreneur to Philanthropist: In conversation with Dame Shirley
It was with huge excitement that I sat down to listen to Dame Stephanie Shirley CH at our Amazon Cambridge on the 4th of April 2019. The room quickly filled up to capacity, as well as people joining from around the world across Amazon via Livestream. This was to celebrate the re-launch of her book "Let it go" published by Penguin and available on Amazon from the 4th of April.
As Lauren Kisser, Director AWS S3, introduced Dame Shirley, I sat there thinking about how she first entered the UK back in 1939 on a Kinder transport from Nazi Germany. My commute to work passes the memorial Statue in Liverpool Street Station a small bronze innocuous statue to those small Children whose Jewish Persecuted Parents agonisingly put them on trains from Vienna and other parts of Germany and Austria; knowing that they would probably never see their children again. Dame Shirley was just five years old, bewildered and confused when she entered our country along with her nine year old sister.
As I contemplated this, Dame Shirley began speaking and immediately this diminutive figure elegantly dressed in purple commanded the room with her intelligent sense of humour stating that "older I get, the better I used to be" which broke the ice and set the atmosphere.
As a woman working in tech companies all my working life, I listened with awe as she talked around several key themes that permutated through her childhood and working life. These broke down into: Heroism, Bravery, Tenacity, Resilience, Humility, Philanthropism
Heroism shone through when she spoke of the traumatic journey into the UK from Nazi Germany where a thousand children were accompanied by two adults. She spoke of one particular girl who, because she was aged over 16, did not qualify to be a refugee but volunteered to look after the "babies" on the journey to England, knowing that she would return to an uncertain future . In her case by way of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and oblivion. Through that heroism, Dame Shirley was determined to make her life worth saving by living a rich, full and amazing life.
Bravery and tenacity shone through when she spoke of determination to pursue a career in STEM. She spoke of how she never took no for an answer, and how society in the 1950's had very little expectation of women. She fought hard for a decent education and ended up at a boys school where sexism and lewd comments were rife. She observed we have come a long way since then but there is still a way to go which has been highlighted by the #Metoo movement.
I listened with shock when she described the sexism, bullying and discrimination she experienced when she entered the Civil Service in the 1950's, where dual pay bands existed (men, women) and a very firm glass ceiling were the accepted cultural norm. Dame Shirley’s approach was as she put it so eloquently was not to bash against it but to "…go through go under go over go round go elsewhere"
Jane Lewis is Engineering Excellence Regional Lead, EMEA at Amazon