Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie Shirley first arrived in Oswestry as a Kindertransport refugee during the Second World War, giving her much-needed safety, stability and a chance to receive a solid education.

Little more than a decade after leaving the town, she had started her own software business from home, with barely £100 in her pocket.

Dame Stephanie pioneered a new way of working by harnessing and championing the talents of women who, like her, were writing computer code from home.

“While planning to start a family, I hit upon the brilliant idea of offering part-time employment to professional women with dependants and perforce developed new techniques to manage the business on this basis,” she says.

From those humble beginnings, the trailblazer who became known as ‘Steve’ went on to create a global IT business and a huge personal fortune . . . much of which she would later give away.

Oswestry Town Council has now honoured the ground-breaking global IT entrepreneur with a prestigious blue plaque commemorating her outstanding contribution to British life, and her years in Shropshire.

In 1939, at the age of just five, she had arrived in the UK on one of the last Kindertransport trains out of Vienna, Austria, as the Second World War began to escalate.

In 1962, she started her software business Xansa plc, which is now part of the Sopra Steria Group.

Dame Stephanie on the steps at Oakhurst

It earned her a multi-million pound personal fortune, much of which she later gave away as part of her exit into retirement. The shares which she handed over to her loyal staff made 70 of them millionaires in the process!

As she had been busy building her IT empire, sadness beset Dame Stephanie and her husband, Derek, when their only child, Giles was diagnosed with severe autism. Tragically, Giles died in 1998, aged 35.

Dame Stephanie has since devoted her life and much of her fortune to autism research and the provision of specialist care for those suffering the disorder.

In 2009 she was appointed the UK’s first ever Ambassador for Philanthropy, and her charitable Shirley Foundation has funded several pioneering projects, totalling £67 million to date.

In the business world, she has also served on corporate boards such as Tandem Computers Inc from 1992-97, the John Lewis Partnership plc from 1999-2001, and AEA Technology – previously the Atomic Energy Authority – from 1992-2000.

Dame Stephanie boarded at Oakhurst Hall from 1945 to 1951. She has fond memories of her time in Shropshire, and the bond she formed with her fellow ‘Oakies’.

“I had six years of real peace in Oswestry, which I desperately needed after the trauma of the war. I have such affection for the town. To have the town council dedicate a blue plaque in my honour is simply amazing and very humbling.”

So how did that name ‘Steve’ come about? “No-one took women seriously when I started out in 1962. So I would write to people and give my name as Steve Shirley. It worked and the name stuck.

“But Dame Steve Shirley sounds odd so, ever since I was awarded a DBE in 2000, people have tended to call me Steve or Dame Stephanie. And, of course, nowadays women in business don’t have the problem I had.”

She considers herself to have been ‘extraordinarily lucky’ during her life.

“A million Jewish children died in Europe during the war, but I was one of only 10,000 who escaped to the UK. I was born in Germany, but the Quakers found me and my sister in Vienna and brought us as unaccompanied child refugees to England where we were taken in by kindly foster-parents.

“Both our parents survived and we were reunited but, sadly, I never really bonded with them again.”

Does she feel the traumatic upbringing has affected the way she has since approached business?

“It is very clear there is a relationship between trauma and entrepreneurship. You become a survivor, full stop. I think my ‘guilt’ about surviving the holocaust gave me a strong urge to succeed, to prove that my life had been worth saving.

“When I came up against the glass ceiling for women in business, this urge gave me the confidence to start my own business. And after that, the survivor mentality helped me through the difficult times.”

As for the best advice she has to pass on to current-day business owners, she says: “Take a risk more often. Too often managers only pick the obvious experienced person when there might be a youngster who’d be terrific.

“I have been very lucky in my life. My experience as an unaccompanied child refugee gave me the drive to prove that my life had been worth saving.

“My early experience of the ‘glass ceiling’ at work encouraged me to set up my own business which, thanks to my supportive husband, I did in 1962.

“My motivation is to help improve the lives of others less fortunate than ourselves and to encourage those whom fortune has favoured to give generously and with a joyous heart.

“I feel very lucky that I have the health, enthusiasm, experience and resources to do this, and thus enjoy the happiness that philanthropy brings as its reward.”