Posted on November 1, 2017 by staff

Life with mental illness: Dame Stephanie Shirley


Today we put mental health under the spotlight with a series of interviews with tech entrepreneurs as they open up about their experiences.

Our first interview is with 83-year-old Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley.

She is a stalwart of the tech world whose early work included offering part-time employment to professional women with dependants at an IT company.

Now the tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist uses her charitable Shirley Foundation to start and fund projects around IT and autism.

“My refugee start left me with serious depression – the classic survivor guilt,” she says.

“Pills didn’t help but six years analysis at the famed Tavistock Clinic did.

“The other classic antidote to mental health problems is compassion and I am now comfortable in my skin and happy with my focus on philanthropy.

“However, the combined pressure of caring for my profoundly autistic son, Giles, whilst leading my IT company led to a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown. Basically, I ceased to function. The company kept pretty quiet about this at the time.

“Entrepreneurial pressure and its excitement suits some, not others. The pressure may be worse when people go into business as alternative employment rather than in pursuit of a vision.

“I was the laughing stock of the industry when I started in 1962 – people would say to me ‘you can’t sell software’ – and it was 25 years before the company paid a dividend. Even Microsoft took 10 years.

“Tech entrepreneurs often have unrealistic expectations and then have to cope with failure.

“Ultimately tech entrepreneurs face continual change and aggressive international competition.

“If that’s not what they enjoy, they should ‘get out of the kitchen’. Female entrepreneurs face extra pressure around things like getting funding but such cultural issues are nothing to do with being digital.

“To look after my mental health I now have a healthy selfishness and, since my breakdown, try positively to keep my energy and spirits buoyed up. Skype conversations with family and friends are a help too.

“Co-workers can support people with mental health issues in exactly the same way as they would a physical illness or disability: be understanding of any difficulties, don’t patronise and don’t avoid the issues.

“I also believe that the combination of home and work pressures is something all managers need to look out for in their staff.

“When I came out about my issues initially people were surprised. Then they just accepted the fact in the same way they know I am diabetic and have special eating requirements.”