At an age when most people are happy to slow down and enjoy a quiet life, Dame Stephanie Shirley has more oomph and pzzazz than ever. I’ve met 30-year-olds with far less energy.
The 83-year-old radiates dynamism and authority, as she takes a break from her incredibly busy schedule to share tales of her long and successful life as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and mentor. And she’s far from completed her “to do” list. “I am very much a get-up-and-go person, very motivated. I love doing new things and making new things happen,” she tells me. “It’s not always straightforward – after all, if success were easy, we’d all be millionaires”.
It’s clear the undoubted wealth that has come Dame Stephanie’s way has been earned through sheer hard work and stickability. She is quoted to have a personal fortune of £150 million and it is estimated she has donated £67 million to causes close to her heart, including the foundation of the Oxford Internet Institute in 2001 and a pioneering school for autistic children in Berkshire, where her profoundly autistic son Giles was the first occupant. Her latest project is to set up a three-year think tank to research autism and to come up with a national strategy to support families affected by the diagnosis.
The unexpected death of Giles in 1998, aged 35, devastated Dame Stephanie and her husband Derek, but they pressed on and have found comfort in each other and their 58-year marriage. Her charitable work also gives her a focus and she gets a huge kick out of helping young people up the career ladder, particularly women, who can be put off by early hurdles put before them.
So where did this determination to make a difference originate? Dame Shirley is under no illusion – a train journey from Vienna to England in 1939, at the age of five.
She explains: “I was born in Germany into a privileged family, but when I was five my parents did a very brave thing and arranged for me and my nine-year-old sister to come to England on the Kindertransport train. That two-and-a-half-day traumatic journey changed my life. It saved me from the Holocaust and gave me the drive, even as a child, to ensure I lived a life worth saving.”
Stephanie and her sister were fostered with a family in the Midlands and were sent to the village school for a while, until it was noted she had begun to speak with a Birmingham accent. A short period at a Roman Catholic school revealed a sharp intellect and she was transferred to a girls’ school. However, teachers realised they did not have the expertise to hone young Stephanie’s extraordinary gift for mathematics and she was sent for lessons at a nearby boys’ school.
Opting not to go to university, Stephanie got a job with the post office, working at its research station in Dollis Hill, London, writing codes for early computers. The words over the entrance to the office “Research is the door to tomorrow” chimed with the 18-year-old and she has taken the idea with her through life. While working full time, she took evening classes, which after six years earned her an honours degree in mathematics.
A job with ICL was an eye-opener for Stephanie, who admits she became “besotted” with the computer industry from that moment. However, she soon realised how male-dominated it was and that there was little or no chance of progression as a woman.
In 1962, three years after she married Derek Shirley, Stephanie set up Freelance Programmers, a company which employed only women who worked from home. It was a revolutionary concept in the early 1960s and Stephanie had to fight every inch of the way to overcome prejudice. She even had to change her name!
“I discovered I got very little response to business letters which I signed as “Stephanie”, but that if I changed it to ‘Steve’, I was taken seriously. I’ve been known as Steve ever since.”
The company grew and Stephanie continued to push the boundaries of sexism. Interestingly, when the Equality Opportunities Act became law in 1975, she had to start employing men.
Stephanie gave up full-time paid work on her 60th birthday in 1993, when she says she realised she “had done all I could do” within the industry. “I was an entrepreneur and I took little pleasure in writing quarterly reports,” she says. “I was ready for another challenge, a change of direction.”
The company was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1996, by which time it was owned by 25 per cent of the still mainly female workforce. The action created 70 millionaires, which still gives Stephanie a great sense of pride.
These days, Dame Stephanie – who was made a DBE in 2000 for services to information technology – travels the world making motivational speeches, mentors rising stars in the industry and monitors donations to worthy causes. She was the key speaker at the Wayfinder Woman “Inspiring through Technology” conference in East Sussex on 12 May.
As someone who has fought prejudice in a man’s world, she is proud to primarily be a role model for women, but has some surprisingly tough words to say to those starting out on their careers.
“I’m disappointed that many young women today still feel they have a difficult time in business. For many years I was the ‘first woman this and the first woman that’, at a time where there were no expectations of us. I began to challenge conventions and it was never easy. Yes, life is still tough, but many women don’t really push themselves.
“We can’t necessarily change the world, but we can change the way we do things.”