Dame Stephanie Shirley: From Tragedy to Triumph

“We waste too much time being afraid, when what we should really fear is wasting time”, Dame Stephanie Shirley wrote in her recent book Let It Go. Stephanie burst into the business world of London in the sixties by founding an all-female company, Freelance Programmers, which built IT software and black box flight recorders. Incredibly imaginative and industrious women found their professional voice within the first company to exclusively employ women. 

In the corporate environment that Stephanie was trying to climb, being a woman was viewed as an impediment. The men dominating this world were ignoring her and she needed to find a solution. Stephanie would later go on to rename herself “Steve” in correspondences, so that men could take her more seriously. That did the trick. Her company eventually became internationally renowned with hundreds of millions of pounds in revenue each year. She made her mark for gender equality in Britain, however, this was not an entirely British story.

Stephanie’s story began in Nazi Germany. She was born in 1933 to a Jewish family in Dortmund. Her father, Arnold Buchthal, worked in the Weimar Republic’s judicial system before the Nazis came into power and later worked as a translator during the post-War Nuremberg Trials. Stephanie was five years old when she had to leave her parents behind on her journey to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport. The Kindertransport, a rescue effort that brought approximately ten thousand Jewish children to Britain from Nazi-occupied lands, was a bright light in the smothering darkness of the Second World War. Stephanie, along with her older sister, was lucky enough to be reunited with her parents at the end of the War. 

Stephanie’s lifetime struggle with finding a place at the table had inspired her to devote her life to philanthropy. As a child, she was a second-class citizen because she was Jewish. As an adult, she was a second-class citizen because she was a woman. And as a mother, she struggled with the stigma and hardship of having an Autistic child. While parents with Autistic children may have trouble finding the proper support they require today, it was much harder several decades ago when Stephanie’s son Giles was born. Sadly, his eventual death by an epileptic seizure had mobilized Stephanie to contribute more to society. The Shirley Foundation was founded in 1996 with much of the wealth she earned from her trailblazing business. 

Stephanie later credited her devotion to good causes as a way to justify her life being saved by the Kindertransport. She had carried the burden of guilt for having lived, while many died. While the clock cannot turn back, Stephanie has done her utmost to leave the world a little better than she found it. Undoubtedly, she did just that.

About the Author
Author is an educator in the non-profit world. Volunteers his time leading tours at a variety of local Museums, including the Holocaust Museum.
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