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Book Review: Let It Go by Dame Stephanie Shirley

Stephanie Shirley’s autobiography, Let It Go, begins in heartbreak.  She was five years old when the danger posed by Nazis caused her Austrian parents to put her on the Kindertransport, an orphan train to England.  Through the opening pages, Shirley conveys, in the simple but evocative style that characterizes her whole book, how frightening this experience must have been for the children, as well as how wrenching it was for the parents.  But the first chapter nevertheless ends in the grateful recognition that her own salvation had been brought about by the kindness of countless ordinary strangers, citizens of Great Britain, who quietly and bravely arranged for these thousands of children to be brought to safety.  And then she says something about her past that resonates with what the reader knows of her future:

Without my being fully aware of what was going on or why, a large number of good-natured strangers took it upon themselves to save my life.  It took me some years to digest this fact and its implications.  But, once I had, a simple resolution took root deep in my heart:  I had to make sure that mine was a life that had been worth saving.

Stephanie Shirley grew up to become one of England’s first software developers and one of Britain’s richest women.  She has also been one of the UK’s most tireless servants and one of its most generous philanthropists.  Hers has unquestionably been a life worth saving.

But here there is none of the self-congratulation that such a resume might invite. Quite the opposite.  The story is told in a very simple, even rather “unvarnished” tone. Shirley seems at pains to be as fair in her memories as she can, giving herself credit where it is due but also letting others in her story shine–and being self-critical when the situation calls for it, but never self-effacing.  It cannot have been an easy task for her or her collaborator, Richard Askwith, to have written such a story and not have it sound like a confessional or a press release.

There is a great deal of corporate or business history in the book that may not be to everyone’s taste.  But there is also much that is human, such as the narrative of the struggle to cope with an autistic son.

The parts I liked best are the ones pointing to another era, a time in the not-so-distant past when Britain was a very different place.  You have a good sense of life during and after the war from her descriptions.  And, in particular, the story of her disillusionment with the gender prejudice of the workplace really strikes home how very much things have changed.  When she tells of having to get her husband’s written permission to open the bank account for her business in the early 1960s, I thought to myself, as I often do, that the “advanced nations” are unaccountably self-congratulatory about offering better conditions for women than the developing countries, when they are not far removed in time from very similar circumstances (and still have plenty far to go!).

It is funny and heart-warming, though, to read Shirley recounting how she recruited other women who, like her, had become fed up with British business and, anyway, were forced to quit when they had children, but wanted to stay active and keep current (not to mention earn money) even while changing nappies.  The business she put together was very forward-looking from a technological perspective but also quite futuristic in its social approach to work.  Yet the pictures that run through your mind while you read the story look like something out of a Doris Day movie.  It’s really fun.

This is the life story of someone who is iconic in British business and culture–and who will be important to history.  It is an easy, engaging read, inspiring at points, and highly recommended.

I am honored that Dame Stephanie will be speaking and signing her book at the upcoming Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy.


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