How Dame Steve Shirley overcame the odds to become a champion for female equality

at the ljcc

at the ljcc - Credit: Archant

Dame Steve Shirley tells Bridget Galton of escaping the Nazis and how she became an IT entrepreneur in a man’s world

But IT entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Steve Shirley has an irrepressibly buoyant view of life.

“I believe people are basically good and I am still very positive,” says the 79-year-old.

“My glass is more than half full.”

Shirley, who has gifted away the lion’s share of her business fortune, ascribes her success and remarkable philanthropy to a strong desire to be accepted – to survive and make her survival worthwhile.

“I am not a feminist, I am a humanist. I believe one person can make a difference. That pervades my whole life.”

Due to give a talk at the London Jewish Cultural Centre this month about her memoir Let IT Go, she says her background has touched a nerve with readers but adds: “I don’t feel Jewish. I wouldn’t even be classed as Jewish. I have no religion at all.”

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But back in Germany in 1933, it didn’t matter that her father, a judge, wasn’t devout and that her non-Jewish mother was Austrian.

“Shortly after my birth, my father was fired and our problems began. We moved to different countries trying to find a safe place and fetched up in Austria where there was a network that protected us for a bit.

“My father walked over the mountains to Switzerland and my sister and I were lucky to get out on the Kindertransport. To my shame I don’t know how my mother got out, but I know she used to wear a swastika to be safe.”

In 1938, the five-year-old Stephanie had only her nine-year-old sister Renate to protect her on the long journey to Liverpool Street station.

“I remember the childish things, the fact that I thought the train, which stopped a lot, was stopping for a little boy to be sick. Because of how we left, it took me a long time to lay some of those ghosts. My sister was older and remembers the Anschluss. When she and I went back to scatter our mother’s ashes in the Vienna woods she was quite fearful.”

The sisters were sent to kindly foster parents in the Midlands, and spent several years there, learning of their parents’ whereabouts via 25-word Red Cross telegrams.

“I was very lucky, my very existence is dependent on the Jewish and Christian activists who set up the Kindertransport, the Quakers who kept it going when they ran out of money and the Catholics who educated me.”

But war and separation took their toll on Shirley’s family relationships.

Her father remarried and moved to Australia, her mother was a constant critical presence and her sister, blonde and musical, a very different character to Stephanie who excelled at maths and science.

“Strange things happened to that relationship. She must have been fed up having to look after her little sister for those difficult early years though after she died I realised how much we had remained sisters who supported each other.”

Held back by gender

Luckily her gifts were spotted by the nuns and she won a scholarship to grammar school, then took her maths degree part-time in London while working at the Post Office research centre in Dollis Hill.

There she met her husband Derek and when the pair married, she resigned and went onto work at ICL.

Throughout her early career, the ambitious, driven Shirley kept bumping up against the gender glass ceiling in the world of technology.

So still in her 20s, just after the birth of her son Giles, she started her own software company on her kitchen table with £6 – at the time requiring her husband’s signature to open a bank account.

“I started just at the right time, when computers were about to take off, if I had been a bit earlier or later I wouldn’t have made it,” she says modestly.

Admirably committed to helping other women, she had an all-female workforce, until ironically, the sex discrimination act put a stop to it in 1975.

“There were jobs I went for in my 20s, people said they would never give a graduate position to a woman. They thought we were a bit sub-human, second class citizens.

“I am not an angry person but I am a fighter and I was going to be the exception. I was going to break the barrier down, even to the extent of changing my name to Steve when writing letters so I was through the door before they realised I was a she.”

Besides, having “a company of women for women” had the benefit of allowing Shirley to hoover up the top female talent going to waste.

“Because other employers weren’t using them I had the pick of the bunch. After equal opportunities legislation in 1975, we had to start employing men,” she chuckles. “If they were good enough of course.

“I was the first woman this and the first woman that, after a bit I felt that uniqueness gave me opportunities. At the very least you are memorable as the only woman in a group!”

Shirley believes her gender may have helped in other ways.

“As an entrepreneur I value my ability to think in different ways. Sometimes I could do something remarkable because no one had told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t.

“As a woman in business you can’t be weedy or needy. I am not competitive but I am a perfectionist and customers really valued that.”

But in the midst of starting her business, she and Derek endured the devastating experience of their beautiful boy being diagnosed with autism.

“At the time it was considered a very rare disorder, blamed on parental fault because you hadn’t bonded with you child.

But he was a beautiful looking baby and I wasn’t worried until he was eight-and-a-half months so we had plenty of time to bond. That made it all the more devastating when he started to regress and lost the little speech he had. You blame yourself and think ‘what have I done.’”

Shirley carried on working, but sharing Giles’ care with her husband put a huge strain on their marriage, She had a breakdown and at the age of 12 Giles went into residential home and never came out. He died aged 35 from an epileptic fit.

“In those dark times, no one thought to educate these children, they were thought ineducable. There was also no provision for adults but it’s moving upwards and there is a whole new understanding. Autism is considered to be part of the human condition.”

At its height, Shirley’s business was valued at £150million. But she give away a huge chunk of it when she made her 8,500 employees joint shareholders and upon retirement – to a flat in Henley-on-Thames – has set about giving the rest away.

“When I was first on the rich list I was pretty embarrassed. In British culture you don’t talk about money. At the same time it was so wonderful not to have to worry where the next meal is coming from. I am very comfortable and have thoroughly enjoyed learning to give my money away wisely.”

She champions charitable giving that doesn’t patronise, but respects the recipient.

“Because of my own childhood, that memory of poverty and how easy it is to feel patronised when you are living on charity, I have learned not to give it as a financial transaction but as a gift of love. To have that mutual respect so non-one finishes up in the red. I get as much pleasure from my gift as they do.”

One of her good causes is Kingswood, which offers long-term support for people with autism and challenging behaviour. Another funds research into autism, a third is a school for autism with an adult learning centre.

There are five charities which are financially and managerially independent and she’s “proud of that sustainability”.

“When you act unselfishly, the pleasure centres of the brain are stimulated. You get a real kick out of being able to help.”

n Dame Steve Shirley is at the LJCC on March 20, at 8pm. Tickets £10 in advance from or 020 8511 7900.