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July 20, 2020updated 21 Jul 2020 12:09pm

Dame Steve Shirley CH on Zoom, philanthropy and her upcoming biopic

By Rasika Sittamparam

From IT and feminism pioneer to revered philanthropist, Dame Stephanie Shirley CH describes her eventful, fulfilling life

We think Zoom and Skype are very modern, but most of what is happening now is not as new as you think. We were dreaming about it, we were doing things a long, long time ago.

Virtual reality is certainly 20 years old; artificial intelligence was something we used to call ‘expert systems’. My company’s initial concept of video conference was to have the screens in portrait, because all you wanted was head and shoulders. We soon realised that people felt closer and more comfortable when it was landscape instead.

We discovered that in 1987. It didn’t start with Zoom.

When you ask women what they want in their employment, they come up with two main things: flexibility and work/life balance. My software company Freelance Programmers, which I founded in 1962, set out to provide that in the extreme – it was really set up for women. But we were careful not to be aggressive and would never call ourselves feminists, because it was considered to be anti-men.

Women were very much second-class citizens: you couldn’t work on the stock exchange and you couldn’t hire a car without a male signature.

When I wrote letters as Stephanie Shirley, nobody bothered to reply, so I started using the name Steve. It seems like a different world now; women have become empowered. However, women still suffer from an enormous emphasis on appearance.

Nothing ventured…

I’m a venture philanthropist. I never, ever, just give money. I feel strongly that philanthropy should be businesslike and I should use my entrepreneurial skills along with my wealth to do good things that I’m good at.

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My mission has been to focus on the two things I know and care about: information technology and autism, which was my late son’s condition. I believe you should concentrate on projects that, if successful, make a real difference in the sea of need.

Work ethic

I’m now 86, but I’m still having ideas and want to use them. I’m still finding things I care about. I don’t start ten-year projects because I know I shall run out of energy.

I am currently devoted to raising awareness and funding for three main autism charities I funded and brought to sustainability: Autism at Kingwood, Prior’s Court and Autistica, which is dedicated to understanding the causes of autism and improving its diagnosis.

I donate all proceeds from my speaking engagements and sales of my memoir, Let It Go, to Autistica. I’m preparing for my next book, which will be based on my speeches over the years. There is always more to do!

Moving story

Two years ago, Germany gave out €2.5 million to about 1,000 living Kindertransportees [Jewish children from Germany to Britain in 1938-40]. It was £2,000 for me, so I gave it to a charity called Safe Passage, which looks after today’s child refugees.

The thought that children are desperately struggling for survival today brought back memories of being a five-year-old refugee boarding the Kindertransport.

I was put on a train as weeping parents waved goodbye to about 1,000 children aged five to 16. I was clutching the hand of my nine-year-old sister and embarked on a two-and-a-half-day journey sleeping on corrugated cardboard.

I remember being sort of dumped at Liverpool Street Station… we got off that train in silence. Somebody came and looked at my number and said: ‘Ah yes, you’re mine.’ I was taken away. I didn’t speak English, they didn’t speak German. I was screaming most of the time. It was sheer trauma.

Screen time

The two actresses shortlisted to play me in the film of my life, Let It Go, are Emily Blunt and Claire Foy, who played the Queen in The Crown. The producer is Damian Jones, who did The Iron Lady. I have been described as the iron lady with the velvet glove myself – the way in which I operate is apparently very soft and gentle, but I do have that inner kernel that you especially need in business.

I’m thrilled about the director, the Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, who concentrates on stories about strong women. I’m in good company and hoping to see it when filming is completed, which depends on what happens with the pandemic


Let It Go: My Extraordinary Story from Refugee to Entrepreneur to Philanthropist, by Steve Shirley published by Penguin, is out now

As told to Rasika Sittamparam
Photo credit: Philip Sinden

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