Steve Shirley

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For the professional baseball player, see Steve Shirley (baseball).
Dame Stephanie Shirley
Dame steve shirley.jpg
Shirley at the Enterprise Tuesday presentation, Cambridge University, February 2009
Born (1933-09-16) 16 September 1933 (age 81)
Dortmund, Germany
Known for Philanthropy and founding the IT company, F.I. Group (now Xansa)
Medical career
Profession Businesswoman
Institutions F.I. Group (Xansa), Chairperson of Autism Speaks and Shirley Foundation
Specialism autism
Steve Shirley's voice
Recorded May 2010 from the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley (nee Buchthal[1]), DBE, FREng,[2] FRSA, FBCS (born 16 September 1933, Dortmund, Germany) is a British businesswoman and philanthropist.

Early life[edit]

Shirley originally arrived in Britain in July 1939[3] as an unaccompanied Kindertransport Jewish child refugee.[4] (Shirley had a Jewish father, a judge who had lost his post under the Nazi regime,[3] and a Gentile mother). She was placed with foster parents, a Christian married couple living in the English Midlands[1] in Sutton Coldfield and was later re-united with her biological parents, but later claimed she "never really bonded with them".[5]

With her parents she moved to Oswestry, Shropshire and received her secondary education at Oswestry Girls' High School. Wanting to study mathematics which was then not taught at her school, she was given permission after assessment to take lessons at the equivalent boys' school in the town. She later recalled that after her Kindertransport and wartime experience, "In Oswestry I had six wonderful years of peace."[1]

Professional life[edit]

After leaving school Shirley decided not to go to university but instead to go straight into the world of work.

In the 1950s she worked at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill building computers from scratch and writing code.[6]

She studied at evening classes for six years to obtain a Mathematics degree. In 1959 she moved to CDL Ltd, manufacturers of the ICT 1301 computer.

In 1962, Shirley founded, with a capital of £6, the software company F.I. Group (Freelance Programmers),[3] (later Xansa, since acquired by Steria and now part of the Sopra Steria Group). She was concerned with creating work opportunities for women with dependants, and predominantly employed women, with only 3 out of 300-odd programmers being male,[7] until the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made that practice illegal. She adopted the name "Steve" to help her in the male-dominated business world.[8] Her team's projects included programming Concorde's black box flight recorder.[1][9]

In 1993, she officially retired at the age of 60 and has taken up philanthropy since then.


Shirley was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1980 Queen's Birthday Honours,[10] and promoted Dame Commander (DBE) in the New Year Honours, 2000.[11]

In 1987, she gained the Freedom of the City of London. She was President of the British Computer Society from 1989 to 1990. In 1985, she was awarded a Recognition of Information Technology Award. In 1999 she received the Mountbatten Medal.[12]

She was appointed a Fellow[2] of the Royal Academy of Engineering[2] in 2001.

She has reportedly donated most[13] of her £150m wealth (from the internal sale to the company staff and later the flotation of F.I. Group) to charity during her retirement.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

In 1991, Shirley was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Buckingham, since when she has been so honoured by 23 English and 4 Scottish Universities.[citation needed]

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.[17]

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

In April 2015 she was guest of Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4's The Life Scientific.[18]


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 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 96 people with autism and Asperger's to enjoy full and active lives, Prior's Court is the foundation's largest benefaction with a residential school for 70 autistic pupils and Young Adult Centre for 20 autistic students, Autism Cymru, Wales' national charity, Autism99, the first online autism conference attended by 165,000 people from 33 countries. She addresses many conferences and lectures around the world and is in frequent contact with parents, carers and those with autism and the related Asperger's Syndrome.[19] Her autistic son died following an epileptic seizure at the age of 35.[20]

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".[citation needed]

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."[20]


  • Shirley, S. and Askwith, R. (2012), Let IT Go: The Entrepreneur Turned Ardent Philanthropist, Andrews UK Limited, ISBN 1-782-3428-26 [21]


  1. ^ a b c d "Dame Stephanie to return to Oswestry". Shropshire Star. 1 April 2015. p. 23. Report by Sue Austin. She was due to be attending Oswestry Literary Festival to publicise her autobiography.
  2. ^ a b c "List of Fellows". 
  3. ^ a b c "Welcoming home a Dame fine lady". Shropshire Star. 10 April 2015. p. 8. "Comment and Analysis" report by Pam Kingsley.
  4. ^ "Biography – Steve Shirley website". Retrieved 17 April 2007. 
  5. ^ "Growing influence". Guardian. 14 January 2004. Retrieved 2 February 2012. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Shirley, Stephanie (2012). Let IT Go. United Kingdom: Lightning Source UK Ltd. p. 148. ISBN 978-1782342823. 
  8. ^ "Henley Standard article on the Sue Ryder Awards". Retrieved 20 December 2007. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 48212. p. 12. 13 June 1980. Retrieved 16 June 2010.
  11. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 55710. p. 8. 31 December 1999. Retrieved 16 June 2010.
  12. ^ "The Mountbatten Medalists". IET. 29 May 2013. Retrieved 29 May 2013. 
  13. ^ Desert Island Discs, 23 May 2010, BBC Radio 4
  14. ^ Enterprise Tuesday lecture, Cambridge 3 February 2009
  15. ^ "Timeline – Steve Shirley website". Retrieved 4 February 2009. 
  16. ^ "Stephanie Shirley biography". The Beacon Fellowship. Retrieved 2 February 2012. 
  17. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - Woman's Hour, Woman's Hour Power List - Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley". BBC. Retrieved 29 March 2015. 
  18. ^ [1]
  19. ^ "Dame Stephanie Shirley's UKAF Autism Lecture in Redbridge, England (Medical News Today)". Retrieved 20 December 2007. 
  20. ^ a b "Dame Stephanie Shirley". BBC. 27 January 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013. 
  21. ^ Levin, Angela (5 November 2012). "Philanthropist Stephanie Shirley: 'You can only spend so much'". Women's Business. The Telegraph (London: Telegraph Media Group). Retrieved 23 December 2013. 

External links[edit]

Stephanie Shirley