Pool Pioneers 

Dame Stephanie Shirley, from child refugee to tech pioneer 

She arrived in London with nothing, aged five, and went on to found a revolutionary all-woman computer-programming business worth billions. Lynn Enright meets the extraordinary Dame Stephanie Shirley 

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By Lynn Enright on

At a time when the UK is intent on curbing immigration and the West is struggling to do the decent thing by the millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and other war-torn countries, it is apt to consider the success of Dame Stephanie Shirley. 

Today, at 83, she sits, stylishly attired, glamorously accessorised and neatly made up, in the smart, chicly appointed Henley-on-Thames apartment she shares with her husband of 55 years, Derek. She is warm and witty, but with a doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly aura – this, after all, is a woman who established a pioneering computer-programming business in an era when most women were expected to give up their jobs after they got married. She is a philanthropist now, distributing the vast wealth she amassed during her hugely successful career to a cause close to her heart: research into autism. 

But, years ago, when she was just a small, frightened five-year-old girl, Stephanie Shirley, who was born Vera Buchtal in Dortmund, arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London, fleeing the Nazis, her parents far away in Germany, her nine-year-old sister by her side. Dame Stephanie Shirley was a child refugee brought to the UK on the Kindertransport and being a refugee is part of who she is, eight decades on.

“When this [refugee crisis] started, in about August last year, I gave an interview and I said for the first time in my life I was actually ashamed of this country because we were being so closed doors,” she says firmly. “In 1938 and '39 we took in 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees in eight months, and we managed to house them and educate them and feed them.” The argument that now, in 2016, we can’t afford to look after refugees holds no sway with Dame Shirley – “It’s not just speaking from a middle-class position; I know in the north-east of England, for example, there's plenty of accommodation” – and she is adamant that refugees have much to offer the UK. “They're not going to be contributing in the short term, but I think, from the point of view of the development of this country, generally, we have to.” Brexit drives her “scatty”: “The thought of just closing the doors and saying ‘Little England’.”

It was being a refugee, fostered by a middle-aged couple in the West Midlands, that Dame Shirley says gave her a willingness to adapt – a trait that would prove useful to her career. “My childhood trauma made me realise that I can deal with most things. The changes you go through as a refugee – new language, new family, new customs, new food, new everything – mean that you’re not scared of things. It's been useful to me in my high-tech career that I do welcome change.”

The changes you go through as a refugee – new language, new family, new customs, new food, new everything – mean that you’re not scared of things

After finishing school in the UK, Dame Shirley joined the post office, taking on a job at the research station, her talent for mathematics already clear. She worked to achieve a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in her spare time but, quickly and predictably, she hit the glass ceiling, with her attempts at progression stymied. After marrying her husband, an Englishman called Derek Shirley (whom she describes in her autobiography as “simply a good man”), she moved to another job in software development in the private sector. Soon, though, she realised what she had to do: she was an entrepreneur and, in 1962, aged 29, she founded her own company, selling software.

Her son, Giles, was born shortly afterwards and, for a few months, she was consumed completely by her love for him. “I was surprised by how strong maternal love was,” she tells me. “I didn't think it would compete with sexual love or anything like that and, my God, it does – it's much, much stronger. You can get sucked into that – all you do is feed and wash and care and cook and clean.” Soon, though, she found a way of working that could exist alongside family: she worked from her home, in Dollis Hill in London, and many of her all-women team of freelance computer programmers were mothers, too. The term “flexible working” didn’t exist then, but that was what she was doing, for herself and the women on her team. She inevitably encountered sexism – she started signing her letters “Steve” instead of Stephanie, on the advice of Derek – but her business grew as the market grew, and by the 1980s, when it was at its peak, Dame Stephanie Shirley was worth £150m. 

Her life story isn’t simply a neat triumph-over-adversity tale, however. The traumas of fleeing war and being separated from her family (they were reconciled, but never lived as a family again) – as well as the pressures of business – seemed to catch up with her when she had what she describes plainly as a “full-scale nervous breakdown”. And, devastatingly, it had quickly become clear that Giles had severe autism – when he was two, he lost his speech and never recovered it. Dame Shirley even ran her business from The Park, a children’s diagnostic psychiatric hospital in Oxford, at one stage. Giles was able to live at home for a time but, eventually, it seemed better and fairer for him to enrol him in a residential facility permanently. When today we speak about religious faith, which Derek lost over time and Dame Shirley (whose father was Jewish and mother was Christian) never had, she says clearly: “People who believe in good and a good God would think, ‘Why was a child like Giles born?’ Why indeed. Despite everything we tried to do, the quality of his life was very poor. We got to a simple sort of steady bit in the end, but that didn't last long.” Giles died of an epileptic fit when he was 35. 

These days, it is philanthropic work that fulfils Dame Shirley. She speaks proudly of a robot they’re using to teach children with autism at Prior’s Court School, a specialist school for children with autism that she established. “I love going there; I go once or twice a year,” she says. “I sometimes think that the school is going to be my legacy because I always thought my company would be the legacy – this company of women for women that was very successful. But, of course, it was eventually taken over after 45 years and so it no longer exists. People remember it, but that won't go on for much longer, will it? Whereas the school probably will be there in 50 or 100 years time, which is a nice feeling.”

She inevitably encountered sexism – she started signing her letters ‘Steve’ instead of Stephanie – but her business grew as the market grew

While her company no longer exists, her influence can still be felt, as she speaks at events regularly, encouraging a new generation of women in the workplace. She is loath though to call herself a feminist. “Feminism in my generation was very anti-male, which I was not, but I'm certainly a feminist in deed. I encourage women, I grow women, I've had a women's company.” She is clear that we need to encourage girls to study STEM subjects at school and address the “gender-biased teaching” that can turn them off, but says that it is sometimes woman’s “own ambivalence" that holds them back from top positions in business and industry. “We want to be beauties, we want to be admired and we want to be successful and financially secure. We want a lot of things, but we can't have them all,” she tells me. 

There are sacrifices to be made if you want to be as successful as Dame Stephanie Shirley. “I remember people being very surprised when I said I've never been to the National Theatre,” she says. “Then I explained that all my life I've been flogging my guts out with this company and I had a learning-disabled child. So, you give up things that are relatively unimportant. Other people would go out to dinner parties, they would entertain, they would go to the theatre – we haven't done any of those things. If that is a cost, then one has to pay it willingly.” 

Retirement is simply not an option for Dame Shirley and she continues to keep up with advances in tech. Social media, however, leaves her cold. “I cannot understand why somebody is interested in what I'm reading. That passes me by completely. Ideas are so important, but what I'm reading or what I had for breakfast? Ugh.” She has a Facebook presence, but she doesn’t maintain it herself: “ I've got some staff and they do it for me.”

I’m not surprised that Dame Shirley doesn’t go in for social media, a place where so many of us spend – or waste – our time, because work – hard work – has always been the way she has preferred to spend her time, the way she has made sense of life and all that it has thrown at her. “The thing you learn in business is to focus, focus on the things that you really care about. I'm a workaholic, I still care about my work – I'm not paid any more; well, I am for speaking – but if you concentrate on things that you know and care about, it makes for a very happy life.”

Dame Stephanie Shirley’s memoir Let IT Go is published by Andrews UK. Dame Stephanie Shirley was awarded The Women of the Year 60th Anniversary Special Award in 2016 


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