Stephanie Shirley has had a remarkable life. She came to Britain as a five-year-old refugee from Nazi persecution in 1939; she had a nervous breakdown and considered suicide after her only son was diagnosed with severe autism — and now she has donated 90 per cent of her multi-million pound technology empire to more than 100 charitable projects.
Dame Stephanie, who was honoured in 2000 for her philanthropic work, tells her “very difficult” story in a frank and direct manner.
She believes that each experience strengthened her resolve to succeed in business and give something back to Britain, the country that saved her from the Shoah.
Born in Dortmund, Germany, Dame Stephanie was one of 10,000 children who boarded the Kindertransport.
She was sheltered by the Smiths, a childless couple who lived in the West Midlands. They raised her and her elder sister, Renate, as Christians. Unlike so many others, she was reunited with her biological parents after the Holocaust — but she never bonded with her Jewish father or Christian mother, Arnold and Margaret Buchtal.
A person who loved to learn - that's the Jewish in me
“My mother was cold and my father was very talented, but I had very little time with him,” she says.
Speaking from her home in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, the 80-year-old is open about her personal struggle with Judaism and Israel — which she visited twice in 2011, for events surrounding IT and charity, both of which she considers of prime importance. She says: “I hadn’t been before simply because I didn’t feel Jewish — I was raised as a Christian.
“I spent a lot of time searching for religion. I learnt about my Jewish background and went to a Roman Catholic convent.
“I decided to go to Israel as a tourist, but once I was there I thought, ‘I don’t want to go as a tourist, I’m a Jew’.
“I did very traditional things, I went to the Wailing Wall and the Old City. It sent shivers up and down my spine.”
This year, Dame Stephanie was recognised by Jewish Care’s Women of Distinction committee, where she met Zehava Taub, the wife of the Israeli ambassador and received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dame Stephanie, who studied mathematics at Sir John Cass College, says she is “disappointed” by the reluctance of many women to fight for their place in the workplace, when she was able to launch a multi-million pound IT company from a £6 bank loan at a time when gender discrimination was “very normal”.
She says: “The trauma of the Kindertransport gave me drive and made me able to cope with change. I learnt to understand that tomorrow can be different.
“I thought, ‘I must not fritter my life away. I must make my life worthwhile’.”
In 1962, Dame Stephanie launched her IT company, rebranded as Xansa, of which she is the life president. She ran it as a social business, mainly employing women under flexible hours.
She even adopted the masculine name ‘Steve’ when pitching for contracts at companies, in a bid to overcome entrenched sexism in the
She says: “Women today are not facing the things I was battling with.
“Men would rush around, put their arms around you and pinch your bottom. I always shouted ‘take your hands off me’.
“I would write letters to companies, but had no responses — they all ended up in the wastepaper basket.
“In 1964, my husband (physicist Derek Shirley) suggested I change my name to Steve — and it worked. I got there.”
Steve, as she is still known by those closest to her, adds: “All the legal obstacles that held women back then have now been removed.
“I’m really disappointed that women today are still talking about doing what I was doing 50 years ago. When things are easy, perhaps we don’t value them as much.
“Many people don’t want to pay the cost of success — the cost to your health, family and life.
“They don’t want to go there; but either you believe in equality or you don’t. I certainly do.”
In 1993, Dame Stephanie retired and devoted her life to charity.
It was the loss of her only child Giles — who died aged 35 in 1998 from a fit connected to his autism — that drove the philanthropist to back medical research for autism, technology grants and work projects.
To date, she has “disseminated” her fortune, having donated £135m to charitable initiatives across the globe.
“I focus on the two things I know and care about: IT and autism,” says the founder of Autistica, a research
Dame Stephanie, who tells her story in her autobiography Let It Go, wants to be remembered for her philanthropy.
She says: “My body is going to medical research, but if I had a gravestone, it would say: ‘she was worth saving’.
“I would always like to be remembered as a philanthropist.
“I would like to be remembered a worthy person who was conscious of having been saved by strangers.
“And I would like to be remembered as a person who loved to learn — that is the Jewish in me.”