She escaped the Nazis as a child. She later became one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs as a software pioneer. Now she’s focused on doing good. This Saturday Dame Stephanie Shirley turns 90.
“Steve Shirley, hello?” The British woman still answers the phone with a male-sounding abbreviation of her first name. She got it in the early 1960s because she wasn’t taken seriously as a woman and the founder of a company.
No one now doubts that the multimillionaire, who has invested a large part of her fortune in social projects, should be taken seriously. She became a champion of women’s rights and a significant supporter of people with autism, a brain development disorder. She turns 90 this Saturday.
From Dortmund to Great Britain
Born on September 16, 1933 with the name Vera Buchthal in Dortmund as the daughter of a Jewish lawyer, her prospects for a happy and successful life were not particularly good. The Nazi terror against the Jewish population in Germany soon forced her family to make a difficult decision: They sent little Vera and her older sister Renate on the Kindertransport from Vienna to safety in Great Britain.
Through the initiative, more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and neighboring countries were brought to safety shortly before the start of the war. Parents and other relatives stayed behind. Often it was a goodbye forever. The parents of Dame Stephanie, who later changed her birth name, survived the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the family could no longer get together emotionally. They had grown apart too much. The parents’ relationship also broke down.
“We had expectations of each other that were not realized in reality,” she said in an interview with the German Press Agency shortly before her birthday. It was terrible for her parents and also terrible for herself, she remembers. But she developed an emotional relationship with her foster parents and was “their child in every way except birth.”
Talent for mathematics – and teaching boys
Dame Stephanie now believes that the trauma of being uprooted is the source of her amazing resilience and creativity. She wanted to prove that saving her life was worth it. Around the age of ten, she discovered her talent for mathematics, which would later become the foundation of an amazing career. Because the nuns at the Catholic girls’ school she went to could no longer keep up, she was given permission to be taught at a school for boys.
Dame Stephanie later impressively demonstrated that she could hold her own in a male-dominated environment. As a woman, she was not allowed to study the subjects that interested her at university. A job at the post office offered her no opportunities for advancement. So she soon began working on a career as an independent software entrepreneur, “Steve” Shirley. Success didn’t take long to arrive.
Shirley hired primarily women
Because sexual assault in the workplace was common at the time, she made it her goal to employ primarily women. Often these were mothers who could no longer return to their previous employment after the birth of their children; some were single parents. “It was a way to equalize inequality,” she says today. However, a law that was supposed to promote equal rights ultimately made this model illegal in the mid-1970s.
Nevertheless, many of the practices that Shirley introduced at her company Freelance Programmers in the 1960s later became common practice: taking ethical principles into account, transferring company shares to employees and working from home are just a few examples. Today the company belongs to the Sopra Steria Group.
She supports charitable causes with her entrepreneurial spirit
Despite her success, she was not spared from suffering. Her son Giles developed autism disorder. The illness, about which almost nothing was known in the 1960s, meant that he had to spend a third of his life in hospital. So that he could leave the clinics, Shirley founded a home for people with autism, whose first resident was her son. Other organizations followed.
At the age of 60, she decided to dedicate herself exclusively to charitable causes, which she pursued from then on with the same entrepreneurial zeal as her software company. In 2000 she received a knighthood and was allowed to call herself a lady from then on. She was later even inducted into the “Order of the Companions of Honor.”
Although she once vowed never to set foot on German soil again and refused to speak German, she is now reconciled with the country of her birth. “Germany has made impressive efforts to come to terms with its Nazi past,” she says. Her autobiography has now also been published in German under the title “An Impossible Life”. She later accepted compensation from the Federal Republic for the injustice she had suffered, which she had initially rejected – in order to pass it on to an aid organization for underage refugees.
I am an author and journalist who has worked in the entertainment industry for over a decade. I currently work as a news editor at a major news website, and my focus is on covering the latest trends in entertainment. I also write occasional pieces for other outlets, and have authored two books about the entertainment industry.