Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley is a British businesswoman and philanthropist.
In 1962, Shirley founded the software company F.I. Group (later Xansa, since acquired by Steria). She was concerned with creating work opportunities for women with dependants, and predominantly employed women – only three out of 300-odd programmers were male – until the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made that illegal. She adopted the name “Steve” to help her in the male-dominated business world. In 1993, she officially retired at the age of 60 and has taken up philanthropy since then. Shirley was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1980 Queen’s Birthday Honours, and promoted Dame Commander (DBE) in the New Year Honours 2000.
She set up the Shirley Foundation, based in the UK, in 1986 with a substantial gift to establish a charitable trust fund. Its mission is facilitation and support of pioneering projects with strategic impact in the field of autism spectrum disorders, with particular emphasis on medical research.
Christina, Equality Consultant and Founder of City Eye, recently met with Dame Stephanie Shirley who shared her story. Here, Trainer gives an account of her interview with Dame Stephanie Shirley.
Dame Stephanie Shirley sits in a room bathed in sunlight, overlooking the Thames. A wide uncluttered desk sits in a room filled with art works. She believes in the power of art. This is not a seven-bedroom mansion with a sweeping gravel drive and a couple of Rolls Royce cars in the garage. Not what is to be expected of a millionaire philanthropist.
“What I did for women, earlier on in my life was really strategic. Not so much for computing, but women generally.”
She considers this her most memorable achievement: “The fact, that we could do some of these sophisticated projects. We did it quietly in our own homes with the simple telephone, when I started my software company.” Leadership and Sponsorship may be fashionable themes of the moment, but Stephanie Shirley was there in 1962.
“My interest in women, which is self-centred really, has over the years morphed, into an interest in people with disabilities, vulnerable people. In the early days of my company we employed a woman with agoraphobia, who could hardly leave the house, so working from home was ideal, then that extended to people in wheelchairs, and we had a woman who was blind.”
“I love to learn. I love to learn myself. I love doing new things.”
“I’m really just interested in ideas and I’ve learnt to implement things, but having had some financial success, I can now pay other people to do the implementation. It’s not that I get bored easily, though I do, I suddenly got this idea as to how technology can help people with autism.”
The next proudest achievement is Prior’s Court, a school for children with autism. “It took five years of my life and cost £30 million. I am enormously proud of it. The school is very important and has 70 pupils with 500 staff. It acts as an incentive to others. We are making success there.”
“These are kids who are going to get into some sort of employment, modest employment, cleaning vegetables in the kitchen, market gardening, animal husbandry, but they going to be part of the human race and the bright ones have something to contribute, a great deal to contribute.”
“We’re just starting to use educational robots for example. That’s very recent. I’m excited about educational robots. I was absolutely amazed how a pupil who won’t read in public will read to the robot, which records it and plays back to his mum and his teacher. This child is reading.”
Children with autism learn differently. They are more visual than aural which is why Dame Stephanie surrounds them with art. She wanted to give the valuable art pieces to the school, but because of tax and insurance implications, they need to be on permanent loan. She also surrounds herself with art; even her airing cupboard door is an impressive work of art.
“ I love to learn,” she said.
“I knew in my teens that I wanted to do mathematics and I had to change schools twice, in order to study it. I still find it very beautiful, but I soon realised that I didn’t have it in me to contribute. But I was again very lucky, because computers came on to the scene. It was like falling in love, frankly. I couldn’t believe that I was paid so well for something that I enjoyed so much. Suddenly there was this virgin field where I was able to contribute.”
Dame Shirley’s did not have the easiest of starts in life. Born during the Nazi regime to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish Viennese mother, Shirley escaped Hitler’s rule as a Kindertransport child refugee and was placed in foster care in Sutton Coldfield.
“I needed to justify why I was saved when one million children died, six million over all.
It made me realise I didn’t want to fritter my life away. That was partly triggered by my kinder transport trauma in that I really did decide I am a patriot, because this country took me in as an unaccompanied child refugee.”
“After computers I moved much more into management, caring for people.”
“Because of my late son’s autism, I am so lucky where I still have something still to contribute to autism, not only cash, my innovation, and my business experience. We’ve just started a three-year think-tank for autism that’s pulling together all that I’ve known and I have credibility because I had an autistic son. He lived to 35 and he was part of my life, I still miss him.”
“I realized had been very, very lucky, all thanks to my mother putting me on the Kindertransport to England. It really was such a trauma, but nothing else has really thrown me in the rest of my life. Having dealt with that nothing else could throw me, apart from death. It certainly toughened me up.”
“But I don’t want to be defined by my refugee status; autism is what I do now.”
Dame Stephanie will be the Speaker at the Women of the Year Foundation on April 17th at the Royal Institution.