The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Dame Stephanie Shirley, computing pioneer, business woman and philanthropist.
Dame Stephanie says that her parents did their best to shield her and her sister from the horrors of the Nazis.
“There were lots of euphemisms going around,” she says. “They talked about people being lost rather than being killed.”
Born Vera Buchthal in the German city of Dortmund in 1933, Dame Stephanie’s Jewish father was a judge.
He had hoped that being in a position of power would protect his family, but as the Nazi government increased its persecution of German Jews, they fled to the Austrian capital Vienna.
However, this didn’t give them sanctuary for long, because in 1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria. With Jews in Austria then facing ever more repression, Dame Stephanie’s parents decided that they had to get her and her older sister Renate out of the country.
So in July 1939, just two months before the start of World War Two, the then five-year-old Dame Stephanie and nine-year-old Renate were placed on one of the Kindertransport trains taking Jewish child refugees to the UK.
“I was clutching the hand of my sister, so she, the poor thing, had to look after me as well as her own problems,” says Dame Stephanie, who is today 85.
“I felt upset rather than scared, because I just didn’t know what was going on. I remember the childish things, like losing my doll… and there was a little boy who was sick all the time on the train. But we were very lucky.”
While many of us might think we’d struggle to overcome such childhood trauma, Dame Stephanie says it gave her a lifelong determination to be successful. “I’m still driven by that start in life.”
She went on to become a computer industry and women’s rights pioneer in the 1950s and 1960s. And she amassed a personal fortune of £150m, most of which she has now given away to charity.
Dame Stephanie and her sister were taken in by a couple in the West Midlands, “who raised us as if we were their own. They brought us up in a very loving way”.
She excelled at school, particularly in maths. She was in fact so good at it, that she went to the local boys’ school for her maths lessons, because it wasn’t taught to the same level at her girls’ school.
After A-levels Dame Stephanie said she had wanted to study maths at university, but that the courses were not open to women. So instead she went straight into work, joining the then Post Office Research Station (PORS) in 1951. She changed her first name to Stephanie around the same time.
Based in London, the PORS was leading the UK’s development and use of computers. One of only a handful of female employees, Dame Stephanie helped to write computer programmes, including those for “Ernie”, the computer that randomly picked government premium bond prize winners.
But while she says that she loved the work, and met and fell in love with her future husband Derek Shirley, she was ground down by the sexism of the time. “My boss wouldn’t put me up for promotion because I was female,” she says. “Men said openly that they would never offer a job to a woman.
“I just got absolutely fed up with the sexism. It was everywhere. You learned to stand with your back to the wall so that someone couldn’t pinch your bottom. And you just learned to keep out of the way of certain people. Eventually I had enough, and left.”
In 1962 she quit to start up her own company called Freelance Programmers. Her idea was to make and sell software systems to the growing number of firms that were starting to install computers.
From day one she vowed that the business would, if possible, only employ women. And first priority would be given to women with children who would otherwise struggle to find work. These ladies would be allowed to work from home, so as to most easily fit the job around their parenting. This was revolutionary stuff back in the early 1960s.
The men back at the PORS were convinced that Dame Stephanie would fail.
“They literally laughed at me,” she says. “At the time software was given away, so it was a new idea to try to sell it. So they laughed at me, particularly because I was also a woman. I’m a proud person, and I didn’t like that. So I was determined to survive.”
And survive she certainly did, with Freelance Programmers growing to employ 4,000 women at its peak.
There was still some sexism to overcome though. In the early days of her business Dame Stephanie would send out letters advertising for work, and got no replies. So she started to sign them as “Steve” instead of “Stephanie” Shirley, and immediately she got lots of inquiries.
Men were ultimately able to join the company in 1975, following the passing of the UK’s Sex Discrimination Act. “We were an unintended consequence,” she says.
Dame Stephanie ran Freelance Programmers for 25 years, before handing over to a management team in 1987. The business subsequently floated on the London Stock Exchange, and its name was changed to Xansa. She was made a dame in 2000, for services to information technology.
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Louise Oliver, president of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs, says that Dame Stephanie “is a true inspiration”. “Being a woman in a man’s world, especially in the 1950’s, she showed true resilience and creativity.”
Since retiring from business, Dame Stephanie has dedicated her life to charity work, particularly in the field of autism. This is a cause particularly close to her because her late son Giles was severely autistic. He died at the age of 35 in 1998.
Now in her ninth decade, Dame Stephanie still regularly speaks to audiences about entrepreneurship, women’s rights, and autism issues. She says she works at least six hours a day.
“Going back to my refugee start, I really feel that I have had to justify my own existence. So I was determined not to fritter my life away.”