Story of a humbling heroine: She fled the Nazis, made millions and is giving it all away in honour of the autistic son who was her greatest joy and challenge
- Dame Stephanie Shirley, 85, was among the last Jewish kids saved from Nazis
- She told of making a £150 million fortune and giving most of it away
- She revealed the challenges of caring for her severely autistic son, Giles
- Dame Stephanie says she and her husband once considered a suicide pact
Do you know a woman who deserves recognition for her extraordinary strength, bravery or perseverance? Nominate her for our Inspirational Women of the Year Awards, in association with Swarovski. She could be from any walk of life — an exceptional carer, teacher or community champion. Finalists will attend an awards gala next February, in support of YoungMinds, a charity working to improve the mental health of young people. It is part of Heads Together, co-ordinated by The Royal Foundation.
On a grey July day in 1939, a five-year-old girl and her young sister stumbled from a train at London’s Liverpool Street station into a strange new life.
Clutching a small suitcase and wearing a coat still with a yellow star on the lapel, Vera Buchthal and Renate, nine, had just completed a rail journey across Europe.
The pair — who had to leave behind their parents in Austria — were among the last Jewish children rescued by Kindertransport trains that saved thousands of Jewish children from the Nazis.
As she wept on the platform for her doll lost on the journey, no one could have imagined that little Vera would become a successful businesswoman.
Dame Stephanie Shirley, 85, (pictured) stepped off a train in London 1939 after being rescued from the Nazis and by the Eighties built a multi-billion-pound computer consultancy
Now known as Dame Stephanie Shirley, she would, over eight decades, build a global software empire, make a £150 million fortune — and give most of it away.
Perhaps due to the sexism she has battled all her life, Dame Stephanie is not well known outside her own industry — but that is set to change, as her 2012 memoirs, Let It Go, are to become a film.
Her pioneering rise is all the more remarkable as she combined it with caring for her severely autistic son, Giles, whose illness not only drove her marriage to the brink of collapse, but led her and her husband to consider a suicide pact to end all three lives.
Today, at 85, she still works a six-hour day. Unsurprisingly, after all she has overcome, she thinks working women today ‘don’t know how easy they have it’. She does qualify those words, however. ‘It’s right and proper that it is easier for women now than it was for me. Our daughters should have it better.
‘But I think a lot of women are not prepared for the responsibility of leadership — the fact that it does consume you and work has to take first place. They want the fun of success without paying the cost. It is not all about gender, it is just tough at the top.’
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Vera and Renate were raised by ‘wonderful’ foster parents, Guy and Ruby Smith, in the West Midlands. Discovering a talent for maths as a schoolgirl, Vera had to study the subject at a boys’ school, which was ‘horrible, but toughened me up and prepared me for the road ahead’. As a young woman, she began using her middle name, Stephanie.
By then, she had been reunited with her parents, who’d survived the war, but their closeness was weakened by years spent apart.
She says: ‘My relationship with my foster parents was wonderful. I am their child in all but birth.
‘I reconnected with my birth parents and we were doubly fortunate that we all survived. But, after a long gap like that, as often happens in broken families, I never really bonded with them again and that is a tragedy.
Dame Stephanie (pictured with her son Giles in 1971) revealed at one point the strain on her marriage from caring for her severely autistic son Giles, made her consider suicide
‘I was a loving, dutiful daughter, but mainly dutiful.’ In 1962, she set up her own firm, a couple of years after marrying a former colleague, Derek Shirley.
The couple met while working at the Post Office research station in Dollis Hill, North London. She was a scientific officer, building computers and writing code — a job she felt obliged to quit on marriage, as was usual then.
But Stephanie felt a burning need to be independent, so she set up her firm designing and selling computer software. Her idea was to employ only women, with sharp brains and a need for flexible work they could combine with a family, working from home. ‘I felt blocked in the male world, I felt sick and tired of it and I wanted to set up my own company as the sort of place I and other women wanted to work.’
Her business, called Freelance Programmers, attracted big-name clients. Early projects included programming Concorde’s black box flight recorder. But attitudes then were so antediluvian, she had to pretend to be a man to win customers, signing ‘Steve’ instead of ‘Stephanie’ on sales letters.
Ironically, she was forced to give up her female-only hiring policy when the Sex Discrimination Act came into force in the Seventies, but the company continued to employ many senior women.
By the Eighties, it was a multi-billion-pound computer consultancy known as FI Group.
Dame Stephanie (pictured in 2008) who describes herself as a workaholic, says she’s proud to be out of the rich lists after giving away £69 million
Derek, meanwhile, had changed his job to work closer to home, later taking early retirement.
Dame Stephanie sold her controlling interest in the firm in the Nineties, making £150 million from the sale and its 1996 float on the Stock Exchange. Her career was stellar and she won honour after honour, including a damehood in 2000.
But, behind the façade, she and Derek were struggling to bring up Giles, born in 1963, in a battle that nearly led her to suicide.
We are talking in the light-filled sitting room of her unassuming flat in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. When I say I had expected a gin palace on the river, she laughs. ‘I don’t need a big house or a boat. Money has given me choices, I choose to spend money on art. I am a workaholic, I choose to spend my time working.
‘I was in the rich lists, but now I am proud to be out of them, as I have given away £69 million. That was about £15 million to information technology, £50 million-plus to autism charities and the rest on artwork for hospitals.’
The latter are causes dear to her heart because of her son Giles. How did she manage to look after him and the firm?
‘For a long time, I thought work and looking after my son balanced each other,’ she says. ‘The only time I forgot Giles was when I was working and the only time I forgot work was when I was with Giles.’
Giles (pictured left with Stephanie) spent 11 years in a locked hospital ward after Stephanie lost the ability to function
But, as he grew into a teenager prone to seizures and violent rages, coping was difficult.
Aged 43, smoking 60 cigarettes a day, she finally snapped in 1976, when Giles was 13.
‘I lost the ability to function. We both ended up in hospital. Me because I couldn’t function and Giles as I was his carer. I came out after about a month. But Giles stayed in one of the old-style ‘‘subnormality’’ hospitals for 11 years in a locked ward.’
At one point, she considered suicide for herself and Derek, having first taken Giles’s life.
‘It was Derek who stopped me,’ she says. ‘He pointed out that it wouldn’t be suicide for Giles. Eventually, Giles lived a dignified, quiet life in the community. He was happy.’
Dealing with Giles had put an intolerable strain on her marriage. By 1998, she and Derek had decided to separate. But, that autumn, their son died in his sleep aged just 35.
Compared with the enormity of his death, the couple’s differences paled into insignificance. In 2019, they will celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary. Derek, she says, ‘was one of the few men who allowed me to be myself’. How does a parent deal with the death of a child? ‘You have to build a carapace. I am a survivor. My husband has never really recovered; he went into a depression. The big worry for every parent of a vulnerable child is what will happen when they are left on their own and that at least no longer applies. So his death was bittersweet.
Stephanie (pictured) advises women to stand with a ‘power stance’ and claims those who sit quietly won’t get very far
‘I miss Giles tremendously, I miss his need of me, but I’ve survived,’ she says. His death inspired her to set up three autism charities.
What advice would she give to her younger self? ‘Have confidence. It was a long time before I did — in my mid-50s.’
Do women still hold themselves back in business? ‘Oh, yes. If you sit very quietly, you are not going to get very far — you need to stand like this, the power stance,’ she says, leaping to her feet, planting her legs firmly apart and throwing her shoulders back, head high. As a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, one of her missions is to encourage more women to become engineers.
Regardless of her success, Dame Stephanie still feels like a refugee at heart. She is concerned about Brexit and the current climate, which she sees as divisive. ‘I try to be an example of how refugees can give back to the country as I am a patriot. I love this country with a passion that perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel.
‘The impact of arriving as part of the Kindertransport was that I was left with the need to make mine a life that was worth saving. I want to justify my existence and that is as strong today as ever.’
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