Dame Stephanie Shirley on building a multi-billion pound enterprise and giving her fortune away
Having arrived in the UK via Kindertransport, aged five, Dame Stephanie Shirley CH vowed she would make hers “a life worth saving”. She set up one of Britain’s first tech businesses, grew it into a multi-billion-pound enterprise – then gave away her fortune. She talks to Lysanne Currie about resilience, recessions and her regret at not bringing in an FD for 25 years
Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley CH opens her memoir, Let it Go, with her first memory – her excruciatingly painful feet as she arrived at Liverpool Street station with her nine-year-old sister Renate and a thousand other children, all Jewish, and “all distraught” after their two-and-a-half-day slog.
She was among the last of the 10,000 children of that “great gamble of hope and despair” that became known as the Kindertransport. She recalls the ache of separation. She also remembers losing her favourite doll on that train and “howling” for two days – grief not just for the doll but for “our lives coming to an end when they had scarcely just begun”. It’s a grim reminder of the impact of war and starkly poignant given recent events in Ukraine.
Today she still talks about the two convictions that began to form that day she arrived as a child refugee – convictions that were to shape her extraordinary life: how even in the darkest moments of despair there is hope; and, as “the fortunate recipient of the kindness of others”, her determination to “make sure that mine was a life that had been worth saving”. Her friend Martha Lane Fox says of the multi-award-winning and much-garlanded entrepreneur and philanthropist: “Steve is a role model for how to build your life, not just your company.”
Born Vera Buchthal, in Dortmund in 1933, to Arnold Buchthal, a Jewish judge who was stripped of his post under the Nazi regime, and a non-Jewish Viennese mother, she began her new life in the UK with a new name – Stephanie. After time with foster carers, she moved to Oswestry. The local girls’ school didn’t teach maths, so she sought and received special permission to take lessons at the local boys’ school.
In 1951, she began working for the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, writing code and building computers from scratch, while taking evening classes for six years to earn her maths degree.
In 1962, she founded Freelance Programmers, one of the first hi-tech businesses in Britain – a social enterprise that would eventually go on to programme Concorde’s black box flight recorder. It was a work-from-home programming company, staffed almost exclusively by women until, ironically, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 put an end to that. “I really wanted to provide professional careers for women with children who’d normally left the computer industry on marriage or when expecting their first child,” she says. “It started very much as a crusade.”
The ground-breaking entrepreneur laughs when talking about those early start-up days. “I was an amateur,” she says, “I didn’t know how to run a business! You have no idea how naive women of my generation were. I had a little notebook – money came in and I put it on one side; I turned it upside down for money going out. I tried to keep a record and then got the accountants to sort it out from there. The accountants had to explain to me that the tax refund wasn’t another source of revenue. I learnt everything the hard way.”
There was no funding available, no investors to pitch to, no VCs banging on doors. “In those days people didn’t go around raising money for business,” she says. “You pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Shirley started with £6 (about £135 today) and financed the business with “my own labour – I worked for years for nothing. Later, we took a second mortgage on the family home – an uncomfortable risk, but we didn’t actually raise money until we had been going for 25 years.”
Out of naivety, though, came new ideas. Shirley recalls: “I didn’t know what I was doing so I ended up doing a lot of innovative things, such as moving the payroll to the purchase ledger, a major thing and it’s what makes the gig economy operate. I’m a scientist and when I do something that works, I do more of it; when it doesn’t work, I try something else.”
What's in a name?
It was that culture of experimentation that led to one simple but pivotal change – her name. “I was writing dozens of letters a week to prospective customers to arrange meetings and getting absolutely no response, not one. My husband suggested I use Steve [a family nickname] instead of Stephanie.” Hey, presto! “Doors opened and the work came in.” she laughs. “As entrepreneurs we have to make our mark. When you start small, you have to be memorable.”
Starting was one thing; scaling was a sharp learning curve for the young tech entrepreneur. “I started a company for me and people like me,” she says. “I thought I would be able to work writing software, but you very quickly find that you have to delegate the interesting part of the work while you get landed with the mishmash of running a business. I had to learn to be a CEO: everything from controlling budgets to dealing with HR crises.
“People talk about my overnight success but really it was a slow burn, so I had the time to learn. I was earning £2,000 a year, a goodly salary, before I started the company, and in the first trading year we turned over £700, then it went to £1,700, then £2,700, then £3,700 – very, very painful. It was 25 years before we paid a dividend and if that sounds long, remember even Microsoft took 10 years.
“We enjoyed simple growth that was appropriate for a family company, which is what it was for many years. I don’t find money terribly important and it wasn’t the motivator for the company at all, but by god, you have to be cashflow positive and you’ve got to make the money if you want to pay people good salaries.
“I was a bit scared of the finance team,” she smiles. “But I do wish I had brought an FD in earlier – we obviously had accountants, but it was 25 years before we had a finance person. There was nobody doing that function, critiquing me as a CEO.”
And it wasn’t all plain sailing. Shirley recalls the recession of the early 1970s – “the first one I managed through. I can see myself now, sitting in our lounge, rocking back and forwards, saying, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’ Eventually you learn to sell yourself out of problems. There are always solutions and it’s up to you, the leader, to make sure you open up the opportunities.”
Inspired by John Lewis Partnership’s employee-owned model, Shirley “managed to get a quarter of the company in the hands of the staff”, eventually making 70 of them into millionaires. In 1996 it went public and, by the year 2000, the company was valued at almost $3bn (£2.3bn). Having rebranded as F International in 1974, it now changed its name again, this time to Xansa. And, in 2007, it was acquired by the French company Sopra Steria.
Shirley, however, retired at 60 in 1993 to focus on philanthropy. She has since given much of her £150m fortune to different projects, via her Shirley Foundation – for many years one of the UK’s top-50 grant-giving foundations. “We all approach wealth in different ways,” she says. “For aristocrats, it means something to hand onto their children. To me, wealth means choice. I find that the wealth that creates the greatest happiness is the wealth you give away. Of course, I went through a stage of buying my husband gold cufflinks and a gold watch, but I soon stopped. It wasn’t the way we wanted to go.”
Around three-quarters of her philanthropy is focused on autism. Her late son Giles, who had autism and epilepsy, and died aged 35, would become the inspiration behind her wide-ranging work. In 1994, she founded Autism at Kingwood, a residential service for people with the condition, and has since gone on to establish two further charities in this field: Prior’s Court School for young people aged five to 25 with complex autism; and Autistica, Britain’s national autism research charity. Autistica’s employment programme, Dare (Discover Autism Research Employment) helps companies recruit and retain autistic employees.
Her life is dedicated to raising the profile and funds of her charities – most pressingly, she says, for research: “We are wasting a lot of energy and effort on things that are not going to help the autistic community. Autistica is the most strategic of my charities – it’s lobbying the NHS, the government and the National Institute for Health Research to have people with autism integrated into society, not seen as people who can’t do things but as people who do things differently.”
And there has been some progress, with businesses gradually starting to embrace neurodiversity: “Autistica likes to work in partnership with corporates, and it can turn into some long-term relationships which are very valuable and very effective; working together, swapping staff and undertaking joint projects.”
As well as donating all proceeds from her books Let it Go and So to Speak to Autistica, Shirley also backs the charity Safe Passage, which helps child refugees. She is, naturally, moved by the crisis following the invasion of Ukraine. Did she ever think she’d see such a situation again? “Sadly, we’ve had child refugees almost continuously, from Syrian refugees onwards,” she points out gently.
She doesn’t dwell on the crisis, focusing instead on hope. “People think entrepreneurs take a lot of risks, that we’re very clever and do innovative things. Some of that is true, but the main thing about us is that we have resilience. We make a lot of mistakes, we pick ourselves up and brush ourselves down and move on, and that means we survive. We have hope. Even in the blackest moment, there is always hope. We have to remember that.”