Dame Stephanie Shirley – the extraordinary entrepreneur

Dame Stephanie ShirleyHearing Dame Stephanie Shirley on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs this week reminded me what an extraordinary entrepreneur and philanthropist she is. I met her at her home in 2008 for this interview. Image by Mark Fairhurst.

After starting a computer software business on her dining table with £6 in 1962, Dame Stephanie Shirley rose to be the eleventh-richest woman in Britain – but behind the headlines is a woman whose life has been tough and tragic as well as glamorous and dynamic. I found myself encountering one of the most extraordinary people of our era – and one of the most generous.

Given her fortune and long business career Dame Stephanie shouldn’t be able to work in a homeless people’s shelter in Oxford anonymously – but she can and does. The surprise is not that she is there, but that no-one appears to recognise this computer entrepreneur and one of our nation’s most generous philanthropists.

When photographer Mark Fairhurst and I arrive at her Henley-on-Thames apartment the front door has been left open for us. Deep pale carpets and a glass sculpture on the windowsill give us a tantalising glimpse of the life of a multi-millionaire, albeit one who is giving her money away.

Dame Stephanie call us through and shuts the front door, which has a contemporary carved finish on the reverse. In all the photographs I’ve seen of her, Dame Stephanie has been dressed severely in black and looks a force to be reckoned with. Today, as she steps around a corner, she is dressed in beige slacks and a striking apricot jacket, her pleasant open face offering a warm welcoming smile, unusual rings on her fingers. On first appearance at least, aesthetics are important to Dame Stephanie, but given her intellect and the amount she has packed into her 70-plus years on the planet, is it frivolous to mention that her office is the epitome of good taste? It’s all finished in blonde wood (burr sycamore, she tells us); there’s a bespoke glass and bronze desk, highly textured soft furnishings; small items of great beauty are dotted here and there; a painting adorns each wall, but notably, there’s no computer. Dame Stephanie later tells me she considers herself an intuitive right-brain creative and she thinks like a woman. She certainly has kept a feminine touch. despite making her fortune, at least initially, in a male-dominated world. She sold computer software programming to companies buying the enormously expensive, room-sized computers of the 1960s. She made it her mission to employ women, who were able to work from home – it was her way of breaking the extremely low glass ceiling that had stifled so many talented women’s careers up to that decade. At her husband Derek’s suggestion, she called herself “Steve” to deflect attention from her female status.

“As a woman, you couldn’t take out a bank loan, couldn’t drive a bus, couldn’t work on the Stock Exchange…” Steve explains.

Ironically, in 1975, the new Sex Discrimination laws set up to redress these imbalances this meant she had to start employing men. As her business had a similar ethic to the John Lewis Partnership, when it floated to become the FTSE 250-rated £1 billion technology group known as Xansa, it created some 70 millionaires, most of them women.

What drove her to such success – what drives her to continue campaigning and working at an age when other millionaires are putting their feet up on a private yacht? The truth is extremely complex. A wartime child refugee, she fled Nazi Europe and arrived penniless, with her sister Renate, in the UK. They were offered a home by a loving childless couple, the Smiths, whom the girls addressed as Auntie and Uncle.

“It was quite a thing for them to do,” says Steve. “Auntie was a little bit fey with a lovely sense of humour, a bit of a flibbertigibbet. Between them, they gave us a lovely, secure childhood.”

Stephanie and Renate’s father, a judge who had sought to stop the Nazi evils, eventually walked from Austria to Switzerland to escape them, while their mother got out through Holland. Sadly, Stephanie never re-bonded with her parents, though she did attend the Nuremburg Trials when her father took part, and was horrified to see that the people behind the movement were not malevolent-looking monsters, but ordinary men.

In this era it comes as no surprise that the young Stephanie grew up and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, despite the Smiths’ love. Back then, it took an enlightened friend to recommend she sought therapy – which she received on the NHS.

“Thank goodness fo the NHS! I was able to have excellent analysis, starting off three times a week and gradually tailing off,” says Steve.

She determined to prove her life had been worth saving and whether you believe in nature or nurture, genetic heritage or environmental influences, she feels she had the best of both worlds in her parents and Auntie and Uncle.

Describing herself now, Steve says: “I’m a really happy person.” Helping other people was part of her path out of depression and though she declares that before therapy she was unfit to marry, she and physicist husband Derek have been together for 56 years.

Setting up a business was a precursor to the birth of the couple’s son, Giles – referred to throughout the interview by Steve as “our Giles.” A happy, healthy, quiet baby, he became a concern – then autism was diagnosed. Steve became an early member of the newly formed National Autistic Society.

“We were told to put our Giles into an institution and go away and start our family again. We thought about the advice given to us by our consultant and decided to concentrate on the son we had – we really couldn’t take the risk of having another vulnerable child,” she says. Now research has proven autism has genetic origins – research that has in part been funded by Autism Speaks – a charitable trust with a mission to find the causes of autism spectrum disorders.

“It was the right decision for us, but in a sense, I mourn not having grandchildren, not having more family,” says Steve. “And I think I would have developed in a different way without Giles.”

Back in the 1980s, the Shirleys decided to focus their efforts, and burgeoning wealth, on providing Giles, who had the most severe form of autism, with the best possible care. They could see he had become institutionalised and felt his human rights were being eroded. Steve sold some of her company shares, the couple sold their house in Buckinghamshire, and they moved to Henley and, against medical advice, set Giles up with a team of carers in a bungalow. Then they realised they could extend the care with other needy, less well-off people with similar problems. This developed into the Kingwood Trust, which still exists today, offering non-institutional living to young adults with autism in the Thames Valley. Sadly, Giles died following an epileptic seizure in his sleep.

“We miss him terribly,” says Steve, adding that they find it particularly hard at big festivals like Christmas and Easter, when they would have spent time with him. Though it’s more than a decade since Giles died, she adds that every year is significant and the Shirleys’ commitment to the autism cause is in no way diminished by the passing of time and his loss.

Though the Shirley Foundation is one of the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK, with more than £50 million donated to date, it solely supports autistic and IT causes. The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford have benefited from the foundation both for research in autism and to set up an internet institute.

So what is left for Steve Shirley to achieve – what makes her get up every morning and why does she stay in Henley when the world is her oyster?

“I like to travel to new countries – I find that very refreshing. I have a super life still – nothing pleases me more than working with a bright intelligent team,” she says, then puts it succinctly with the quote: “The beauty of work when we do it properly and in humility.”

“I think all this does come back to my childhood. The trauma of my childhood in so many ways made me able to cope with change… this determination to justify why I was saved when a million children died – that drives me today. You would think it would fade out,” she says.

Her sister Renate, five years older, also put her energies into helping other people.

“She found her salvation through a different route. She worked for Dr Barnardo’s. She went to Australia on a £10 assisted passage and did a great deal for childcare practices in Australia,” says Steve. “She got lumbered with me at the age of nine. We were very, very different.”

Though Steve would love to have an extra hour in the day, she makes time out for herself a priority.

“I still have a weekly massage and that is pretty important to me. If I need relaxation I spend it at a local spa,” she says, remembering the dark days when she looked forward to a trip to the dentist because it was time spent on herself and an escape from the intense pressure of responsibility for Giles.

“It was such a bad time,” she says, completely without self-pity.

Her other relaxation these days is swimming and she has an impressive collection of works of art, displayed at various significant buildings.

Having moved to Henley to be close to Giles in the first instance, the Shirleys still enjoy living in the town.

“I love it, we have the galleries, the regatta and the Kenton Theatre. I was very proud to get the first lifetime achievement award here and I love the river,” says Steve, also highlighting the literary festival, the art, music and food culture of the town. She helps with the annual cash count after the Royal British Legion poppy day, part of her mission to give back, and enjoys being involved with her local community in Henley-on-Thames. If Steve had to live elsewhere she would choose Oxford city centre.

“I visit a couple of times a month,” she says. “I love the intellectual life there, it must stem from not going to university. The other place I could live is New York City, but Derek wouldn’t want to!”

So how would Dame Stephanie Shirley like to be known – as a highly successful businesswoman, a philanthropist, or both?

“I’d like to be remembered as a social entrepreneur,” she says, neatly tying both elements of her working life together. I ask her how her friends would describe her and she says her husband has summed her up with the words, “A nice, warm, prig.”

But Derek also gave her 10 out of 10 and that, from the person who has shared a lifetime with you, has to be worth more than millions in the bank.

To find out more about Dame Steve Shirley’s charities visit:

The Shirley Foundation: http://www.steveshirley.com/tsf or tel: 01491 579004.

Autism Speaks: http://www.autismspeaks.org.uk or tel: 01491 412311.

The Kingwood Trust: http://www.kingwood.org.uk or tel: 01189 310143.

You can contact photographer Mark Fairhurst by clicking here.

And the Desert Island Discs interview that inspired me to re-post this interview is now available to listen to here.