Before we have even sat down at our table, Dame Stephanie Shirley (“Please, call me Steve,” she says briskly) orders two glasses of champagne. She’s come bearing gifts — her new book, a collection of her speeches on leadership, feminism, entrepreneurship and philanthropy, given over 40 years. It was her lockdown project, she tells me with obvious pride, an anthology of a life well lived.
“I think as one gets older, you get keen on legacy. You really start thinking, what has my life been about?” she says, in an unusual moment of sentimentality. She sips and holds her drink out to me. “Anyway. To your good health.”
In her nearly nine decades, Shirley has managed to live the equivalent of at least three extraordinary lives. The first of these, as the younger daughter of a bourgeois German-Jewish family, was cut short abruptly in 1939, when she was five years old. That summer, a year after Austria had been annexed into the Third Reich, and her father, a judge, could no longer work in Vienna, the Buchthals made a life-changing decision. They sent their daughters on the Kindertransport to Britain, eight weeks before war broke out.
The children, nine and five, were met in London by a childless couple who had volunteered to foster them, and were driven to their new home in the West Midlands. Years later, as an adult, Shirley would find herself giving out her date of birth, unthinkingly, as July 1939 — the date she arrived as a child refugee into London’s Liverpool Street Station and started life anew.
To me, mother of a nearly-five-year-old daughter, the experience is so unfathomable that it feels almost glib to ask how it felt. But she’s had years to reflect on it. “I have this feeling, this survivor guilt from my childhood onwards, that I need to make the life that was saved worth saving,” she says. “I really do very little that’s frivolous. And when I do, I feel a bit funny about it.”
The enormous changes Shirley had to embrace as a child — new parents, new nationality, new language — seem to define her personality. She is addicted to change and challenge, qualities that helped her become a pioneer of Britain’s computing industry and a feminist role model. It is what drew her to her first love, computers, while working at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill in the 1950s — at the time, a frontier of human knowledge. It was where Tommy Flowers — whom she worked alongside — had designed and built Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, which was used to decrypt codes in Bletchley Park on D-Day. Shirley’s preternatural ability for mathematics made her an unexpectedly gifted computer programmer, and she wrote software for early computers that filled large rooms in which women were rarely seen.
Shirley, who is 88, wears a simple, tailored white blouse under a dark blazer, both by Swiss label Akris, adorned with ornate coral-shaped brooches, oversized gold rings on each hand and a pair of chunky silver flower earrings gleaming against her soft bob. “I’m not building up anything now, so I’m enjoying spending money,” she says, without any trace of self-consciousness. What else is she spending it on, I ask? “I just bought a new painting, a [Jeremy] Annear. It’s an abstract, make of it what you will.”
We are meeting on a sunny winter day in London, at the Royal Society of Medicine’s 110-year-old building on Wimpole Street, where Shirley is a member. This wasn’t her first choice, though. She wanted to eat at The Clink, a modern European restaurant housed in Brixton prison, with its menu prepared and served by inmates. “If I’m spending money I like to do it in a reasonably charitable way,” she says, with a grin. But coronavirus rules forced a switch to the Royal Society of Medicine, which, too, is a non-profit. The marbled halls we walk through to get to the restaurant were once used by doctors to provide emergency medical assistance during the first world war. Shirley greets the staff like old friends as we make our way to our table.
It takes her about 10 seconds to decide what to have. “The mushroom and the chicken,” she tells me, casting the menu aside. I choose the marinated aubergine and charred halloumi for starters, and sun-blushed tomato and mozzarella tortelloni with baby spinach for my main course.
Once the waiter has gone off with our order she turns to me with childlike glee. “So, have you ever done a start-up? It is very exciting,” she says. “I think when you start things . . . you have the opportunity to make a mark, to make a difference, and to really do something new. And then other people come along and make it all smooth and nice and big and bright and shiny. But it’s my idea.”
Shirley made her money — about £150mn — from the software programming company she founded in 1962, at the age of 29. It started, like all her ventures, at her kitchen table in Chesham, in a rundown old cottage she’d bought with her husband Derek, a former colleague at the Post Office Research Station. It was that compulsive need for a challenge that drove her to quit her safe job, when she discovered she would always be limited by her gender. And just to be contrarian, she decided that her company, which she called Freelance Programmers, would hire others just like herself. The company’s first 300 staff were almost exclusively women who worked from home, many while caring for their children.
What made her so radical? “I think I’m just very cussed. The more people tell me I can’t do something, the more I want to do it,” she laughs. But on reflection, she narrows it down to two things: always feeling like an outsider — “my refugee influence, being on the receiving end of discrimination. I was thinking, this is just wrong” — and her lack of a formal university education. “I had a chip on my shoulder about not going to university until I was about 30. But I’m sure it would have taught me to think conventionally . . . you know, ‘This is the way you do things,’” she says. “I was sort of thinking for myself . . . That hasn’t been stamped out of me.”
Royal Society of Medicine
1 Wimpole Street, London W1G 0AE
Aubergine halloumi £8
Veg tartlet £8
Chicken supreme £19
Pot of tea x2 £7
Complimentary glass of champagne x2
Total (including service) £72
Against the odds, Freelance Programmers has survived and thrived, in various mutated forms. By the year 2007, the company, which listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1996, was valued at almost $3bn, employed 8,500 people and had made millionaires out of 70 of its original staff, including Shirley. It served blue-chip clients such as Unilever, IBM, Exxon, the BBC and the Treasury, writing programmes for everything from improving the efficiency of Mars bar production and British Railways’ nationwide freight scheduling, to analysing the black boxes in Concorde planes. In 2007, it was acquired by French software services company Sopra Steria. This August marks the company’s 60th birthday.
The very same year her company was born, Shirley became pregnant with her son Giles, an easy baby who allowed her to build out her fledgling business while he played happily in his basket. In toddlerhood, though, Giles regressed, becoming non-verbal and increasingly difficult to manage. Diagnosed at Great Ormond Street Hospital with severe autism, he was, the doctors claimed, “ineducable”. As Giles grew physically larger and hit puberty, his violent outbursts and epileptic fits meant that he required full-time care by trained staff. His brief institutionalisation — brought on when Shirley had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalised for a month — is something she has always struggled with, referring to it in her 2012 autobiography Let It Go as “literally a question of survival”.
“[Motherhood] made me a much warmer, calmer, more thoughtful person,” she tells me. “Prior to that I’d really been a bit of an intellectual snob. Suddenly, to have a learning disabled child, you realise there is a human soul in there, a spirit . . . a full person.”
We’ve rattled through the first decades of her life, when she built her family and her wealth, but she dwells with relish on the most recent chapter: the past three decades, which she has spent giving it all away. She has invested £68mn, primarily in the three autism-focused charities that she founded and ran herself, leaving her enough to be “comfortable” after losing a “whole chunk” when the dotcom bubble burst.
She still lives in the same home in Henley-on-Thames she moved into with Derek more than 30 years ago, to be nearer to Giles’s hospital, and she can’t even remember the last holiday she took. In the circumstances, then, a few more Annears would 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 — “looks like a main course”. My aubergine and halloumi salad is delicious, the sharp-tasting pomegranate seeds intensifying the briny tang of the cheese.
Her charities, all founded after she retired from her company in 1993, include Autism at Kingwood, a residential home for autistic adults like Giles, Prior’s Court, a boarding school for young people with complex autism, and Autistica, the UK’s national autism research charity. The latter two were funded via the Shirley Foundation, set up in 1996, which was one of the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK until it “spent out” in 2018 — including helping to establish the Oxford Internet Institute, a leading research outfit studying the impact of technology on society.
Of all her pet projects, Prior’s Court is a clear favourite. “The atmosphere comes from what it does, it looks after these very vulnerable children . . . And there’s so much care that it sort of permeates the whole building. It has a lovely atmosphere,” she sighs. Post-Brexit and the pandemic, staffing has been a challenge. About 14 per cent of the school’s specialist staff were from continental Europe and it’s been a struggle to recruit from there. But despite the difficulties, it’s the one place that gives her a real sense of hope, she says.
I’m curious how she chooses to give her money away — what’s her strategy? “I describe myself as a venture philanthropist . . . I see a problem, I usually do a feasibility study and have a really good think about it. And then set out and try to solve it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t,” she shrugs.
OK, but how to narrow it down? Her rule is to only give to things that she knows and cares about. “So if somebody asks me to give to, say . . . ” she trails off, searching for an example, and names a well-known charity outside her field of expertise. “Wonderful people though I’m sure they are, I don’t give, not even £5. I really concentrate on what I can do. What do I know and care about? Autism and IT.”
Of course, she wasn’t always so intentional. Her very first donation — $20,000 — was to a school debating society in Bermuda, because of a friend who was involved with it. “You know, this obviously isn’t the way to do it,” she says, impishly.
Our main courses arrive. Her interest is piqued by the deep-fried sorrel leaves accompanying her chicken supreme swimming in a beetroot purée. She pronounces the chicken “tough” but the leaves delicious.
In previous conversations, Shirley has stayed away from politics and tells me she is a “floating voter”, but today she has views. “It does seem to me I’m looking for leaders to set a moral tone. And this is what we’re not getting at the moment . . . [Boris Johnson’s] morals just seem to leave a lot to be desired. That’s not really what I want from leadership, nor what I aspire to be as a leader.”
Having been a refugee in Britain, embraced and assimilated by the nation and its people, she is a patriot, she says. “I love this country with a passion that only someone who has lost their human rights can feel.” But she has been disillusioned by the government’s behaviour in this regard too. “I’m disappointed that Britain seems to have lost its moral leadership in the world, the way it is behaving with refugees.”
Last year, she accepted £4,000 in reparations from the German government, paid to the thousand or so remaining Kindertransport children. “I gave the money to a charity, Safe Passage, that looks after today’s refugee children from Europe coming to Britain,” she says. “They tell me ghastly things like there are 11,000 children milling around the streets of Calais, 17 of them disappear every day on average. Just disappear. Killed, trafficked. I mean just horrendous . . . I don’t know why Britain can’t do more.”
So what sort of leader did she aspire to be, I ask. “To think for myself, but not of myself.”
We’re coming up to three hours together and I’m conscious she may be tired, but I ask if she would like dessert. “I’m diabetic, I really shouldn’t be eating pudding,” she says regretfully. I decline too, out of solidarity, and we both decide on black tea — “Indian tea”, as she calls it.
We sit back, digesting. There’s been so much to celebrate in her life, but there’s also been considerable heartache. Derek, whom she was married to for 62 years, died late last year. And in 1998, at the age of 35, her son Giles died while having an epileptic fit in his sleep. “To lose a child is a tragedy,” she tells me quietly. “There’s no name . . . if you’re a child that loses a parent you’re an orphan, but there’s no name for somebody who loses a child.” I want to know how she forced that wretched grief into something positive, how she made it through, but I can’t quite bring myself to ask.
She allows herself a rare moment of vulnerability. “I have lost a lot. I’m conscious of that. I’m conscious I’m losing my youth, I’m losing my energy, very conscious I’m probably in my last decade. That’s not a good feeling either. But I’m conscious that I’m turning into a role model for elderly people, because I’m so busy. There’s much more life left in me. Physically I find it a strain, but mentally it is just a joy . . . ” She trails off.
As we finish our tea, she shakes it off and looks at me. “No, my life has been very good. It’s been a long life, but it’s been a good life.”
Has she found that elusive key to being happy? “You know, I wasn’t always happy. I’m happy now and that comes simply because I spend my life in a compassionate mode. I think I’m just terribly lucky to have something to get up for each morning.” She pauses, smiles. “Most women my age are just thinking about lunch.”
Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European technology correspondent
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