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Steve Shirley

Steve Shirley British businesswoman and philanthropist

British businesswoman and philanthropist
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro British businesswoman and philanthropist
A.K.A. Stephanie Shirley
Is Activist Computer scientist Feminist
From Germany United Kingdom
Type Activism Science Technology
Gender female
Birth 16 September 1933, Dortmund
Age: 86 years
Star sign VirgoVirgo
The details

Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley (née Buchthal), DBE, FREng, FBCS (born 16 September 1933, in Dortmund, Germany) is a British information technology pioneer, businesswoman and philanthropist.

Early life

Shirley was born as Vera Buchthal to a Jewish father, a judge in Dortmund who lost his post to the Nazi regime, and a non-Jewish Viennese mother. In July 1939, at the age of five, Shirley arrived, together with her nine-year-old sister Renate, to Britain as a Kindertransport child refugee. She was placed in the care of foster parents living in the Midlands town of Sutton Coldfield. She was later re-united with her biological parents, but said she "never really bonded with them".

After attending a convent school, she moved to Oswestry, near the Welsh border, where she attended the Oswestry Girls' High School. In order to study mathematics which was not taught at the school, she received permission after assessment to take lessons at the local boys school. She would later recall that, after her Kindertransport and wartime experiences, "in Oswestry I had six wonderful years of peace".

Professional life

After leaving school, Shirley decided not to go to university (botany was the "only science then available to my gender") but sought employment in a mathematics/technical environment. At the age of 18, she became a British citizen and changed her name to Stephanie Brook.

In the 1950s, Stephanie worked at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, building computers from scratch and writing code in machine language. She took evening classes for six years to obtain an honours degree in mathematics. In 1959, she moved to CDL Ltd, designers of the ICT 1301 computer.

After marriage to a physicist, Derek Shirley, in 1962, Shirley founded, with a capital of £6, the software company Freelance Programmers, (later FI, then Xansa since acquired by Steria and now part of the Sopra Steria Group). She wanted to create job opportunities for women with dependents, and predominantly employed women, with only 3 male programmers in the first 300 staff, until the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made that practice illegal. She adopted the name, Steve, to help her in the male-dominated business world. Her team's projects included programming Concorde's black box flight recorder.

She served as an independent non-executive director for Tandem Computers Inc., The Atomic Energy Authority (later AEA Technology) and The John Lewis Partnership.

Shirley retired in 1993 at the age of 60 and has since focused on her philanthropy.


Shirley was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1980 Queen's Birthday Honours, for services to industry and promoted Dame Commander (DBE) in the New Year Honours, 2000 for services to Information Technology.

In 1987, she gained the Freedom of the City of London. She was President of the British Computer Society from 1989 to 1990 and Master of the IT livery company 1992/93. In 1985, she was awarded a Recognition of Information Technology Award. In 1999 she received the Mountbatten Medal.

She was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and of Birkbeck College in 2001.

She has donated most of her wealth (from the internal sale to the company staff and later the flotation of FI Group) to charity. Beneficiaries include the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the Oxford University, through the Shirley Foundation. Her late son Giles (1963–1998) was autistic and she became an early member of the National Autistic Society. She has instigated and funded research in this field, for example through the Autism Research Centre led by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen.

In 2003, Shirley received the Beacon Fellowship Prize for her contribution to countering autism and for her pioneering work in harnessing information technology for the public good.

In 1991, Shirley was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Buckingham, since then she has been so honoured by 24 English and 4 Scottish Universities.

In February 2013, she was assessed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4.

In January 2014, the Science Council named Dame Stephanie as one of the "Top 100 practising scientists" in the UK.


The Shirley Foundation, based in the UK was set up by Dame Stephanie Shirley in 1986 with a substantial gift to establish a charitable trust fund. Its current mission is facilitation and support of pioneering projects with strategic impact in the field of autism spectrum disorders with particular emphasis on medical research. The fund has supported many projects through grants and loans including: Kingwood which supports people with autism and Asperger's to enjoy full and active lives; Prior's Court, the foundation's largest benefaction, with a residential school for 70 autistic pupils and Young Adult Centre for 20 autistic students; Autism99, the first online autism conference attended by 165,000 people from 33 countries. She addresses conferences around the world (many remotely) and is in frequent contact with parents, carers and those with autism and the related Asperger's Syndrome. Her autistic son Giles died following an epileptic seizure at the age of 35.

In July 2008, she gave a biographical talk about her life and her ideals which is available online from Gresham College titled "Give and Take".

From May 2009 until May 2010, Dame Stephanie served as the UK's Ambassador for Philanthropy, a government appointment aimed at giving philanthropists a "voice".

In 2013, appearing on BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday with Clare Balding, Dame Stephanie discussed why she had given away more than £67 million of her personal wealth to different projects. In her 2012 memoirs Let IT Go, she writes "I do it because of my personal history; I need to justify the fact that my life was saved."

  • Design for Disability
  • The Art of Prior's Court School
  • The History of Autism - Conversations with the Pioneers
  • (in development) Employment and Autism


Let IT Go memoir (2012) - being made into a film (date tbc)

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