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Dame Stephanie Shirley: A life worth saving

As a pioneering information technology (IT) entrepreneur and one of the United Kingdom’s leading philanthropists, Dame Stephanie Shirley has spent a lifetime proving that success – even in the field of IT – does not need to come at the expense of humanity.




It is impossible to meet or speak to Dame Stephanie Shirley and not come away feeling slightly overawed. Aged 84, she packs far more into a day than most people half – or even a quarter – her age do. What’s more, her current role as a leading philanthropist is just her most recent. She has held a succession of high-profile positions (entrepreneur, female pioneer, businesswoman), any one of which would have satisfied a less energetic woman – and she has infused all of them with a deep caring and humanity.

Shirley was born Vera Buchthal in Dortmund, Germany in 1933; her father was Jewish and her mother was a Viennese Gentile. When she was five, her world was turned upside down and she was forced to flee her homeland as a Kindertransport refugee. She came to Britain, where she was raised by foster parents in the Midlands.

From early on, it was clear that she was very bright and had an aptitude for maths. But back in the 1950s, university places for women, especially in the sciences, were severely limited and so she went to work in mathematics for the Post Office Research Station. As might be expected, she quickly hit a glass ceiling. To get on, she had to get out – and, as virtually all organisations were similarly blind to the talents of women, this meant setting up on her own.

Challenging stereotypes
In 1962, Shirley founded a software company called Freelance Programmers. It’s hard to overstate just how far ahead of its time this was. Not only did the company allow women to work from home, it was also a social enterprise long before the phrase existed. “It really started as a crusade for women,” Shirley explains. “Freelance Programmers was not designed to make money. I wanted to have the same opportunities – for me and other women like me – as men had in the commercial world.”

“You had skilled women who were trained, competent, and worked in teams, but somehow, because they couldn’t work on site, their remuneration was measured on the time spent, their presence, rather than the work that they had done or the targets they had achieved.”

Freelance Programmers, which would take up the next 30 years of her life, was therefore a lifeline for talented, educated women like her. “Back then, it was absolutely black and white. You were not allowed to work on a ship, work on the stock exchange, drive a bus, or fly an aeroplane.” Astonishingly, she could not even open a company bank account without her husband’s permission.

Her nickname ‘Steve’ is a result of this mid-20th-century sexism. She found that if she used it instead of Stephanie on correspondence, she got more replies from prospective clients, as “they didn’t realise that he was a she until I was already through the door”.

Shirley was not just a pioneer among women, though. She was ahead of the rest of business and society in many other ways too – and was an early exponent of management practices that would only become mainstream decades later. She championed flexible working that fitted around people’s lives and she ran her company along stakeholder lines. Her business was networked and had an intranet long before most people knew what the word meant. And, famously, after the company floated on the London Stock Exchange in the 1990s, she gave a sizeable chunk of the proceeds to her staff, “at no cost to anyone but me”, creating around 70 millionaires.

Giving as a way of life
There were several reasons she did this: “Firstly, it is part of my philanthropy to give back to the staff and share with the staff. This was triggered by the recession we went through in the 70s when the company very nearly went out of business. I relied on these freelancers to keep up a facade of high-level activity when we were hanging on by our fingernails.” She also took the view that her staff were the company, again an idea that would become common only years later. Finally, there was her childhood. “I was an unaccompanied child refugee in 1939 and so many people helped me... I felt I had no choice but to start giving back, and that is what I’ve done.”

The IPO made her very rich – at one point she was worth USD 200 million and was the 11th richest woman in the UK. It also set the stage for her next act, which was to give far, far more back and become a full-time philanthropist.

Putting something back is rooted in who she is and the need she feels to help society. She has spoken on numerous occasions about the survivor guilt she feels and the depression she has struggled with as a result. For these reasons, she has no use for ostentatious wealth (she lives modestly and only employs staff in order to allow herself to work) and finds the idea of money that is sitting around idle abhorrent: “The legacy that we leave in life is not what we leave in our wills but how we lead our lives. If you’re hanging on to money that you don’t need, why are you hanging on to it? If there is no need, it is just greed... If I don’t commit in the world, I feel like I’m just taking up space... I feel I do need to justify the fact that I was saved.”

In practical terms, her work as a philanthropist now has many similarities to her time in business. “The timescales are much the same – with most of the philanthropy that I’ve done, the payoff comes after years, not months, because I’m aiming to do strategic things.” You also need to learn how to channel your energy, time, and money effectively. “When people start giving, I always say give locally so you can actually see what is happening. Give to something that you know about, and give small to see how you get on. After a year or so you will surely know if you need to give more of this or if you want to do it differently.”

The philanthropic journey
It is a constant learning process. “People talk about the philanthropic journey and I find that I am still on that journey.” Here, she says it helps that she was the recipient of charity so early in her life: “I’m always trying to give without being patronising – as a former refugee I know how patronising people can be when they give. I always try to give with generosity and with an open hand. I try to enjoy it and make sure that the exchange, whether it is money or time or skills, goes both ways. It is a social investment.”

Her focus is now on autism care and research. Her involvement in the area stems from personal experience – her only child, a son, was severely autistic and died in 1998 after a seizure brought on by the condition. “I spend a lot of time keeping up to date with what is happening [in autism research], meeting and discussing new potential projects. To be honest, as my own time runs out, I tend to focus on projects with shortened timescales. I am no longer able to start these large projects, because I may not be around.”

Her current project is a three-year think tank for autism. “It’s called the National Autism Project and its aim is to pull together information on how to make things happen. We try to identify the research that is not only effective but also cost-effective.” She is also trying to pull together a very fragmented sector. “In Britain there are something like 600 different autism not-for-profits – some are large charities, some are after-school groups – and they’re all doing their own thing and all helping in their own way. We are really trying to bring together ideas on what the best thing to do is in the national interest, and that I find quite exciting.”

Can she ever imagine stopping? No. She will never retire and intends to keep going as long as she can. She jokes that her own work-life balance is not something she would advise others to emulate, though – even now, in her ninth decade, she works six-hour days and catches up on the weekends.

Hers is a drive that “borders on the obsessive” and her determination to make her life “a life worth saving” has led to countless others benefiting from the careers, opportunities, precedents, and support systems that she has created. But while she may feel driven to do it, her giving is a passion, too, and she loves what she does: “I could not imagine a better lifestyle for me, and that is what everybody has to find – the thing that really fits them.”