A Holocaust Survivor and High-tech Entrepreneur Who Wanted to Be Worth Saving Is Born

Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, who rode the Kindertransport to safety in Midlands England, founded a software company staffed by women – in 1962.

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Dame Stephanie Shirley giving a TED talk, March 2015.
Dame Stephanie Shirley giving a TED talk, March 2015. Credit: Dame Stephanie Shirley (Courtesy)
David Green
David B. Green

September 16, 1933, is the birthdate of Dame Stephanie Shirley, better known in Britain as Steve Shirley, the Holocaust survivor who founded her own high-tech company in the 1960s and who, since selling the firm two decades ago, has devoted the proceeds and most of her time to philanthropy. She often says her entire existence has been driven by the impulse “to make sure that mine was a life that had been worth saving.”

Shirley was born Vera Stephanie Buchthal in Dortmund, Germany. Her father, Arnold Buchthal, was a Jewish jurist and judge; his father was a coffee importer and his mother a senior official of their hometown. Vera’s mother, the former Margaret Schick, was a non-Jew from Austria.

Catholic Girls’ School

With the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Arnold Buchthal, as both a Jew and an opponent of the regime, was dismissed from one juridical position after another. In her memoir, Shirley notes that by the time she was 5, the family had lived in seven different European countries.

Finally, in July 1939 her parents arranged for Vera and her older sister Renate to leave for Britain as part of the Kindertransport project that gave asylum to some 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and the countries it had taken over.

Both Vera and Renate were taken in as foster children by a Catholic couple in the English West Midlands, Guy and Ruby Smith, who provided them with love and stability. In the meantime, both their natural parents made their way out of Germany to Britain, but because of circumstantial and personal factors, the family was never reunited permanently. Vera’s parents divorced in 1950.

She attended the Owestry Catholic Girls’ School, which, when she showed aptitude in mathematics, let her study the subject at the nearby boys school. After graduation, she decided to look for work in the field. Later, as a part-time student at Sir John Cass College, she received a degree in math (and physics).

In 1951 she became a naturalized citizen and assumed the name Stephanie Brook, using her preferred middle name and borrowing from the surname of the poet Rupert Brooke, whom she much admired. That year she began working at the Post Office Research Station in the London suburb of Dollis Hill.

Women writing software

During World War II, scientists at the station had built the first programmable computer — the Colossus Mark I — which had been used by the code-crackers at Bletchley Park. Now, at the dawn of the digital era, its employees worked on early software development.

In 1959, when she married a colleague, the physicist Derek Shirley, regulations required Stephanie to resign from the research station. She went to work for a private computer firm, CDL, before deciding in 1962 to start her own company.

With an initial investment of six pounds, she founded Freelance Programmers, which was novel in several ways. It shunned the norm for software to be given away for free with hardware. And she decided to focus on employing women. Her code writers worked from home, many part time. To be taken more seriously by journalists, she began calling herself Steve.

In 1963 Steve and Derek had a son, Giles, who by age 2 it was clear suffered from severe autism. With few therapeutic options available to them, the couple took care of him at home. “On more than one occasion,” she has written, “I felt the three of us should commit suicide.”

In 1975 Giles was institutionalized; he died in 1998 after suffering an epileptic attack.

Freelance Programmers changed names several times before 2007 when, then called Xansa, it was acquired by the French-based IT firm Steria. At the time it had some 8,000 employees and annual revenues of nearly 380 million pounds.

Shirley retired in 1993 and for her stake in the company would receive around 150 million pounds, with which she established a foundation that invests mainly in autism care and research, and in IT education.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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