Tech pioneer Stephanie Shirley: ‘I must make the life that was saved price saving’

Earlier than we now have even sat down at our desk, Dame Stephanie Shirley (“Please, name me Steve,” she says briskly) orders two glasses of champagne. She’s come bearing presents — her new guide, a set of her speeches on management, feminism, entrepreneurship and philanthropy, given over 40 years. It was her lockdown venture, she tells me with apparent satisfaction, an anthology of a life properly lived.

“I believe as one will get older, you get eager on legacy. You actually begin considering, what has my life been about?” she says, in an uncommon second of sentimentality. She sips and holds her drink out to me. “Anyway. To your good well being.”

In her practically 9 a long time, Shirley has managed to reside the equal of at the very least three extraordinary lives. The primary of those, because the youthful daughter of a bourgeois German-Jewish household, was reduce quick abruptly in 1939, when she was 5 years previous. That summer season, a yr after Austria had been annexed into the Third Reich, and her father, a choose, might not work in Vienna, the Buchthals made a life-changing choice. They despatched their daughters on the Kindertransport to Britain, eight weeks earlier than warfare broke out.

The youngsters, 9 and 5, had been met in London by a childless couple who had volunteered to foster them, and had been pushed to their new residence within the West Midlands. Years later, as an grownup, Shirley would discover herself giving out her date of start, unthinkingly, as July 1939 — the date she arrived as a toddler refugee into London’s Liverpool Avenue Station and began life anew.

To me, mom of a nearly-five-year-old daughter, the expertise is so unfathomable that it feels nearly glib to ask the way it felt. However she’s had years to mirror on it. “I’ve this sense, this survivor guilt from my childhood onwards, that I must make the life that was saved price saving,” she says. “I actually do little or no that’s frivolous. And once I do, I really feel a bit humorous about it.”

The big adjustments Shirley needed to embrace as a toddler — new dad and mom, new nationality, new language — appear to outline her character. She is addicted to vary and problem, qualities that helped her turn into a pioneer of Britain’s computing trade and a feminist function mannequin. It’s what drew her to her past love, computer systems, whereas working on the Put up Workplace Analysis Station at Dollis Hill within the Nineteen Fifties — on the time, a frontier of human data. It was the place Tommy Flowers — whom she labored alongside — had designed and constructed Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital pc, which was used to decrypt codes in Bletchley Park on D-Day. Shirley’s preternatural capability for arithmetic made her an unexpectedly gifted pc programmer, and he or she wrote software program for early computer systems that stuffed giant rooms by which ladies had been not often seen.

Shirley, who’s 88, wears a easy, tailor-made white shirt beneath a darkish blazer, each by Swiss label Akris, adorned with ornate coral-shaped brooches, outsized gold rings on every hand and a pair of chunky silver flower earrings gleaming in opposition to her tender bob. “I’m not increase something now, so I’m having fun with spending cash,” she says, with none hint of self-consciousness. What else is she spending it on, I ask? “I simply purchased a brand new portray, a [Jeremy] Annear. It’s an summary, make of it what you’ll.”


We’re assembly on a sunny winter day in London, on the Royal Society of Medication’s 110-year-old constructing on Wimpole Avenue, the place Shirley is a member. This wasn’t her first alternative, although. She needed to eat at The Clink, a contemporary European restaurant housed in Brixton jail, with its menu ready and served by inmates. “If I’m spending cash I love to do it in a fairly charitable approach,” she says, with a smile. However coronavirus guidelines compelled a swap to the Royal Society of Medication, which, too, is a non-profit. The marbled halls we stroll by way of to get to the restaurant had been as soon as utilized by medical doctors to offer emergency medical help throughout the first world warfare. Shirley greets the employees like previous associates as we make our method to our desk.

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It takes her about 10 seconds to resolve what to have. “The mushroom and the hen,” she tells me, casting the menu apart. I select the marinated aubergine and charred halloumi for starters, and sun-blushed tomato and mozzarella tortelloni with child spinach for my principal course.

As soon as the waiter has gone off with our order she turns to me with childlike glee. “So, have you ever ever accomplished a start-up? It is extremely thrilling,” she says. “I believe if you begin issues . . . you could have the chance to make a mark, to make a distinction, and to actually do one thing new. After which different individuals come alongside and make all of it clean and good and massive and shiny and glossy. However it’s my concept.”

Shirley made her cash — about £150mn — from the software program programming firm she based in 1962, on the age of 29. It began, like all her ventures, at her kitchen desk in Chesham, in a rundown previous cottage she’d purchased together with her husband Derek, a former colleague on the Put up Workplace Analysis Station. It was that compulsive want for a problem that drove her to give up her protected job, when she found she would all the time be restricted by her gender. And simply to be contrarian, she determined that her firm, which she referred to as Freelance Programmers, would rent others similar to herself. The corporate’s first 300 employees had been nearly solely ladies who labored from residence, many whereas caring for his or her kids.

What made her so radical? “I believe I’m simply very stubborn. The extra individuals inform me I can’t do one thing, the extra I need to do it,” she laughs. However on reflection, she narrows it down to 2 issues: all the time feeling like an outsider — “my refugee affect, being on the receiving finish of discrimination. I used to be considering, that is simply improper” — and her lack of a proper college training. “I had a chip on my shoulder about not going to school till I used to be about 30. However I’m certain it will have taught me to suppose conventionally . . . you already know, ‘That is the best way you do issues,’” she says. “I used to be type of considering for myself . . . That hasn’t been stamped out of me.”

Royal Society of Medication

1 Wimpole Avenue, London W1G 0AE

Aubergine halloumi £8
Veg tartlet £8
Rooster supreme £19
Tortelloni £18
Pot of tea x2 £7
Complimentary glass of champagne x2
Whole (together with service) £72

In opposition to the percentages, Freelance Programmers has survived and thrived, in varied mutated kinds. By the yr 2007, the corporate, which listed on the London Inventory Change in 1996, was valued at nearly $3bn, employed 8,500 individuals and had made millionaires out of 70 of its unique employees, together with Shirley. It served blue-chip purchasers akin to Unilever, IBM, Exxon, the BBC and the Treasury, writing programmes for every thing from bettering the effectivity of Mars bar manufacturing and British Railways’ nationwide freight scheduling, to analysing the black packing containers in Concorde planes. In 2007, it was acquired by French software program providers firm Sopra Steria. This August marks the corporate’s sixtieth birthday.

The exact same yr her firm was born, Shirley grew to become pregnant together with her son Giles, a straightforward child who allowed her to construct out her fledgling enterprise whereas he performed fortunately in his basket. In toddlerhood, although, Giles regressed, changing into non-verbal and more and more tough to handle. Identified at Nice Ormond Avenue Hospital with extreme autism, he was, the medical doctors claimed, “ineducable”. As Giles grew bodily bigger and hit puberty, his violent outbursts and epileptic suits meant that he required full-time care by skilled employees. His transient institutionalisation — introduced on when Shirley had a nervous breakdown and needed to be hospitalised for a month — is one thing she has all the time struggled with, referring to it in her 2012 autobiography Let It Go as “actually a query of survival”.

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“[Motherhood] made me a a lot hotter, calmer, extra considerate individual,” she tells me. “Previous to that I’d actually been a little bit of an mental snob. Out of the blue, to have a studying disabled little one, you realise there’s a human soul in there, a spirit . . . a full individual.”

We’ve rattled by way of the primary a long time of her life, when she constructed her household and her wealth, however she dwells with relish on the latest chapter: the previous three a long time, which she has spent giving all of it away. She has invested £68mn, primarily within the three autism-focused charities that she based and ran herself, leaving her sufficient to be “comfy” after shedding a “complete chunk” when the dotcom bubble burst.

She nonetheless lives in the identical residence in Henley-on-Thames she moved into with Derek greater than 30 years in the past, to be nearer to Giles’s hospital, and she will’t even bear in mind the final vacation she took. Within the circumstances, then, a couple of extra Annears could be acceptable, I say.


Our starters arrive, a leisurely half-hour in: hers, a mushroom and spinach tartlet, with a grape and Stilton salad, which she raises her eyebrows at — “appears to be like like a principal course”. My aubergine and halloumi salad is scrumptious, the sharp-tasting pomegranate seeds intensifying the briny tang of the cheese.

Her charities, all based after she retired from her firm in 1993, embrace Autism at Kingwood, a residential residence for autistic adults like Giles, Prior’s Court docket, a boarding college for younger individuals with complicated autism, and Autistica, the UK’s nationwide autism analysis charity. The latter two had been funded through the Shirley Basis, arrange in 1996, which was one of many high 50 grant-giving foundations within the UK till it “spent out” in 2018 — together with serving to to determine the Oxford Web Institute, a number one analysis outfit learning the affect of know-how on society.

Of all her pet initiatives, Prior’s Court docket is a transparent favorite. “The environment comes from what it does, it takes care of these very susceptible kids . . . And there’s a lot care that it type of permeates the entire constructing. It has a stunning environment,” she sighs. Put up-Brexit and the pandemic, staffing has been a problem. About 14 per cent of the varsity’s specialist employees had been from continental Europe and it’s been a wrestle to recruit from there. However regardless of the difficulties, it’s the one place that provides her an actual sense of hope, she says.

I’m curious how she chooses to provide her cash away — what’s her technique? “I describe myself as a enterprise philanthropist . . . I see an issue, I normally do a feasibility research and have a extremely good give it some thought. After which set out and attempt to clear up it. Generally I do, typically I don’t,” she shrugs.

OK, however the way to slender it down? Her rule is to solely give to issues that she is aware of and cares about. “So if any person asks me to provide to, say . . . ” she trails off, looking for an instance, and names a well known charity outdoors her area of experience. “Great individuals although I’m certain they’re, I don’t give, not even £5. I actually focus on what I can do. What do I do know and care about? Autism and IT.”

In fact, she wasn’t all the time so intentional. Her very first donation — $20,000 — was to a faculty debating society in Bermuda, due to a pal who was concerned with it. “You realize, this clearly isn’t the best way to do it,” she says, impishly.

Our principal programs arrive. Her curiosity is piqued by the deep-fried sorrel leaves accompanying her hen supreme swimming in a beetroot purée. She pronounces the hen “robust” however the leaves scrumptious.

In earlier conversations, Shirley has stayed away from politics and tells me she is a “floating voter”, however as we speak she has views. “It does appear to me I’m in search of leaders to set an ethical tone. And that is what we’re not getting for the time being . . . [Boris Johnson’s] morals simply appear to go away rather a lot to be desired. That’s probably not what I need from management, nor what I aspire to be as a frontrunner.”

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Having been a refugee in Britain, embraced and assimilated by the nation and its individuals, she is a patriot, she says. “I really like this nation with a ardour that solely somebody who has misplaced their human rights can really feel.” However she has been disillusioned by the federal government’s behaviour on this regard too. “I’m dissatisfied that Britain appears to have misplaced its ethical management on the earth, the best way it’s behaving with refugees.”

Final yr, she accepted £4,000 in reparations from the German authorities, paid to the thousand or so remaining Kindertransport kids. “I gave the cash to a charity, Protected Passage, that appears after as we speak’s refugee kids from Europe coming to Britain,” she says. “They inform me ghastly issues like there are 11,000 kids milling across the streets of Calais, 17 of them disappear every single day on common. Simply disappear. Killed, trafficked. I imply simply horrendous . . . I don’t know why Britain can’t do extra.”

So what kind of chief did she aspire to be, I ask. “To suppose for myself, however not of myself.”


We’re coming as much as three hours collectively and I’m aware she could also be drained, however I ask if she would love dessert. “I’m diabetic, I actually shouldn’t be consuming pudding,” she says regretfully. I decline too, out of solidarity, and we each resolve on black tea — “Indian tea”, as she calls it.

We sit again, digesting. There’s been a lot to have a good time in her life, however there’s additionally been appreciable heartache. Derek, whom she was married to for 62 years, died late final yr. And in 1998, on the age of 35, her son Giles died whereas having an epileptic slot in his sleep. “To lose a toddler is a tragedy,” she tells me quietly. “There’s no title . . . in the event you’re a toddler that loses a mum or dad you’re an orphan, however there’s no title for any person who loses a toddler.” I need to know the way she compelled that wretched grief into one thing optimistic, how she made it by way of, however I can’t fairly convey myself to ask.

She permits herself a uncommon second of vulnerability. “I’ve misplaced rather a lot. I’m aware of that. I’m aware I’m shedding my youth, I’m shedding my power, very aware I’m most likely in my final decade. That’s not a superb feeling both. However I’m aware that I’m turning into a task mannequin for aged individuals, as a result of I’m so busy. There’s rather more life left in me. Bodily I discover it a pressure, however mentally it’s only a pleasure . . . ” She trails off.

As we end our tea, she shakes it off and appears at me. “No, my life has been excellent. It’s been an extended life, nevertheless it’s been a superb life.”

Has she discovered that elusive key to being completely satisfied? “You realize, I wasn’t all the time completely satisfied. I’m completely satisfied now and that comes just because I spend my life in a compassionate mode. I believe I’m simply terribly fortunate to have one thing to rise up for every morning.” She pauses, smiles. “Most ladies my age are simply serious about lunch.”

Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European know-how correspondent

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