Dame Stephanie Shirley arrived in Britain from Vienna as a five-year-old, without her parents. It was 1939, and she was one of 10,000 Jewish children brought by train on the Kindertransport to escape the Nazis. She went on to become one of the most successful businesswomen of the 20th century; in 1962, working from home, she founded one of the first tech-start-ups: an all-woman software company, Freelance Programmers, which was ultimately valued at almost $3 billion, making seventy of her staff millionaires.
Since ‘retiring’, her work has been in philanthropy, with a particular focus on IT and autism – in memory of her son, who had autism, and who died at the age of only 35. She estimates that The Shirley Foundation has given away £67 million, not least for the establishment of three autism charities. She is the author of two books and is frequently asked to give motivational speeches about women in business and her own life story. She says, “I decided to make my life one worth saving”.
In conversation with Michael Berkeley, Dame Stephanie Shirley looks back on an extraordinarily dramatic life. She describes the Kindertransport train, with children sleeping on the luggage racks, weeping for their lost families. She tells the story of her early days in business, and how she took on the name “Steve” to be taken more seriously. She also had a tape recording of frantic typing that she used to play during work phone calls, to disguise the fact that she was at home. And she talks movingly about her son’s death and how that changed the direction of her life. Her music choices include Bach, Britten’s ‘Ceremony of Carols’, Dido’s Lament and the ‘Cat Duet’ attributed to Rossini.