Inspiring Woman: Dame Stephanie Shirley - Runneth London

Stephanie Shirley was born Vera Buchthal in Germany 1933 to Jewish parents. In 1939, at the age of five, she and her nine-year-old sister came to Britain as unaccompanied ‘Kindertransport’ child refugees. The sisters were adopted by foster parents in Staffordshire and lived in what she described as a “very conventional middle-class home”. Her biological parents survived the war, and later she was reunited with them but sadly she didn’t re-bond with them.

She attended Oswestry Girls’ High School near the Welsh border. She had a keen interest in mathematics but it wasn’t offered at her school, so she received special permission to study it at the local boys’ school.

“Married couples were not allowed to work together in the public sector.”

At the age of 18, she became a British citizen and changed her name to Stephanie Brook. She decided not to go to university, instead, she found work at the Post Office Research Station building computers from scratch, writing code and taking evening classes, eventually gaining an honours degree in mathematics.

She married a colleague, physicist Derek Shirley and at that time, was forced to give up her job because “Married couples were not allowed to work together in the public sector.”

Fed up with the glass ceiling and being patronised by male bosses, in 1962 she set up her own software company, Freelance Programmers (later F1), at her dining table with £6 of capital. She employed almost exclusively women (until it became illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975), with a particular interest in helping women return to work after they’d had a family. In the early days, they were able to work from home and the projects they worked on included programming the Concorde’s black box flight recorder.

Shirley adopted the pseudonym ‘Steve’ when signing business letters, in order to elicit a response in the male-dominated industry. She gave shares to employees and when F1 was floated on the stock exchange in 1996, it was valued at £121 million. Seventy of her staff became millionaires.

Soon after starting her business, Stephanie and Derek had a son, Giles. Giles was a normal, happy, healthy baby but at the age of two and a half, he suddenly turned wild and unmanageable. He had acquired severe autism. They would work in shifts to take care of him and eventually Derek took early retirement. It was a hugely stressful period for them, with Stephanie smoking 60 cigarettes a day and suffering a nervous breakdown.

Eventually, they found suitable care for Giles but tragically, at the age of 35, he died suddenly following an epileptic fit in the night.

“The fact that I almost died in the Holocaust means that I’m motivated to make sure that each day is worth living.”

In 1993, Stephanie retired at the age of 60 and has since focussed on her philanthropy. She has since given away around £67 million and is involved with over 100 philanthropic projects. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of her efforts is directed towards developing a national autism strategy. She is the president and founder of Autistica, a charity that raises funds for medical research into autism, she set up Prior’s Court School for students with autism and established the Shirley Foundation.

In 1980 Shirley was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2000, was promoted to Dame for services to IT.

Her refugee experience left a deep impression on her. “The fact that I almost died in the Holocaust means that I’m motivated to make sure that each day is worth living, that my life was worth saving. I was determined not to let other people define me, to break through, to build something new and to not be put off by the conventions of the day.”

At 83, she shows no signs of slowing down. Her website lists over 20 speaking events already scheduled for 2017!

If you have 13 minutes to spare, her TED talk ‘Why do Ambitious Women Have Flat Heads?’ is well worth watching.

Such an inspiring woman!

  1. Excellent article – well written and rich in detail. Dame Stephanie Shirley is clearly an inspirational woman!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Adrian. We’re so pleased you enjoyed reading Gilly’s article. Best wishes, Kath

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