(Financial Times, 9 October 1999)

An early interview with the future Dame Stephanie Shirley, philanthropist, IT pioneer, champion of women’s rights and workplace revolutionary. By Richard Askwith

Henley-on-Thames is full of ladies dressed with immaculate chic. Stately as swans, they come and go among the hairdressers and boutiques, talking of expensive things and thinking of their lost youth. If one brushed past you on the manicured lawn of a riverside enclave – in Phyllis Court, say – you wouldn’t give her a second thought, save to wonder if she had ever done a day’s work in her life. Which just goes to show how misleading appearances can be.

Most things about Steve Shirley are misleading, starting with her name. She lives and works in Phyllis Court, and is as immaculate as anyone in Henley. But she has done more days’ work than most:frenetic, 12-hour days, seven days a wee, for nigh on 50 years. She’s crammed them with achievement: more, both in terms of making something of herself and of rendering the world a better place – than almost any other contemporary. And, though now retired, she’s still working as hard and, arguably, making even more of a mark than she did merely as a businesswoman. Most remarkable of all, few people under 50 have heard of her.

She was born in 1933, in northern Germany, the youngest daughter of a respectable Jewish family. She came to England, unaccompanied, as a five-year-old refugee, 60 years ago this summer. Her parents also survived the war, but at a price. When the family was re-united, she and her parents “did not bond” – not an uncommon experience among evacuees – and Stephanie, as she then was, spent most of her childhood with foster parents in Sutton Coldfield.

Her adopted family – an industrious middle-class couple by the name of Smith – offered a domestic stability that most children take for granted, but the traumas of the war, and of the failed rapprochements with her parents, helped make Stephanie a driven child, desperate to prove that “my life was worth saving”, and determined “to make things happen rather than have things happen to me”.

She had ambitions to be a mathematician, and worked hard to realise them, but, above all, she wanted “to belong”, and at 18, attracted by the Civil Service pension scheme, she took a job in the Post Office’s research department in Dollis Hill, north London. Here she helped created the first electronic telephone exchanges and the first version of Ernie, the premium bond computer. And, while it soon became clear that her gentler was an obstacle to serious promotion, the steady job gave her a chance to take an honours degree in mathematics at night school, while she busied herself at weekends doing charity work. “I used to serve drinks and coffee on charity barge trips on the Regent’s Canal. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh. you are wonderful’, but it was also a joy, because I was getting a social life.”

It was at the Post Office that she met Derek Shirley, a physicist, whom she married in 1961. It was considered inappropriate for husband and wife to work in the same organisation, so she left to join ICL, “a splendid company”, which also, however, objected to women occupying the corridors of power: “It was quite clear to me that I could not progress far.”

She eventually resigned and, in 1962, founded her own business: Freelancers International (Fl). She had £6 capital, had only her dining-room table to work from, and couldn’t even open a bank account without her husband’s signature; but the three ideas at the heart of the business were, at the time, revolutionary.

First, she had realised, as scarcely anyone else had, that software was a product that could be developed and sold in its own right. (Mostly it was just given away free with hardware.) Second, she could see that the embryonic IT industry would open up almost limitless potential for “dispersed working”, which in those days meant working from home. Third, she could see that there was a large and growing pool of wasted talent among women with IT skills who had stopped work to raise children but still had the ability and desire to work if an employer could be flexible. Her workforce, she decided, could work where and when they pleased.

Her target market — companies seeking software solutions – was vast but uncharted, and business was slow to pick up. Some US companies were familiar with the concept of “out- sourcing” (one of her first clients was Mars), but British companies were suspicious – even more so of doing business with someone called Stephanie. Shirley solved this last problem by changing her name to Steve – after which “I could get through the door.” But success still came slowly. The company was decades ahead of its time.

Her employees would write software in longhand, then post it to data centres to be punched into cards. “Equipment? We used to ask them: ‘Do you have access to a phone?” Yet her assumption that there was wasted female talent out there proved correct.

Initially, Shirley would hire only women with children. Then she began to recruit women who cared for other relatives. But not until 1975, when the Sex Discrimination Act banned positive discrimination, did FI start hiring men. By then, her fortune was assured. Fl Group (as it later was) is one of the few companies in the 250 that can genuinely claim to offer equal prospects to women.

Shirley remains a vociferous and indignant campaigner for the empowerment of women in the workplace, especially in the IT industry, and one might have expected her to become an icon of the 60s women’s liberation movement. But FI really wasn’t big enough to cause a stir in those days. “It took an extraordinarily long time to be successful,”she says. “It was 25 years before we paid a dividend.” And she had more pressing concerns than public posturings.

Her son, Giles, was born in 1963, and raising him involved much more than the standard jugglings of the working mother. He was autistic, and needed constant care. At one point, she spent eight-and-a-half months running her company from a mothers’ unit at Giles’s hospital. At other times, a tape-recording of typing noises concealed his cries from phone-callers when mother and child were at home.

“You really have to dredge up reserves from the depths sometimes,” she says now. The pressures of home sometimes seemed to offset the pressures of work. But what helped her most was her fury at the sexual discrimination she saw all around her.

“FI really was a crusade,” she says. “It really made me very angry, the way women were treated in those days, and I just wasn’t prepared to accept defeat. I was going to do it for women.”

The recession of the early 70s brought Fl close to breaking-point, and Shirley was on the point of selling her prize possession, a fur coat, to raise cash. But she decided that it was better for morale to wear it every day, encouraging the impression that “we were more successful and professional than we really were.” A common misunderstanding about what Shirley meant by a “six-figure turnover“ (they took It to mean £1m rather than £100,000) added to the illusion. but by 1975 Illusion was becoming reality.

That year, Giles was taken into hospital, and Shirley decided on a three- month sabbatical, which become a “full-scale nervous breakdown” that disabled her for 10 months. Yet. as has tended to happen throughout her life, good things come out of it. “I realised that, while I’m very good at starting things, I‘m only averagely good at managing them. The woman who’d been deputising for me had been doing perfectly well. Maybe it was time to start managing succession.

This proved harder than expected: the first candidate developed health problems, the next fell out with the board. Eventually, after 10 fraught years,  the current chief executive, Hillary Cropper, took over in 1987, while Shirley became chairman.

Meanwhile, Shirley had been developing yet another innovation: employee ownership. After the 1980s’ recession, she regretted not having shared the crisis more with colleagues. So, gradually, she began to transfer ownership of her shares to her workforce. The gifts were small at first: one per cent one year, two per cent the next. By 1987, however, employee ownership of FI had reached 24 per cent, at no cost to anyone but Shirley. Today, FI Group pic, which was floated in 1996, is 40 per cent-owned by its workforce. 50 of whom are millionaires.

The cost of this generosity was repaid by FI‘s growing success. As the communications revolution gathered pace, the Shirleys found themselves rich. Moreover, they realised that their money could be used for the benefit of of Giles. Derek took early retirement in order to devote more time to him; and in 1987 Shirley sold 10 per cent of her shares in FI to finance the setting-up of a supervised home for Giles. A couple of years later, they realised that this home could accommodate other autistic adults. The Kingwood Trust was born, and Shirley took her first tentative steps as a philanthropist.

These steps were soon to become giant strides. In the 1990s, the foundations on which she built FI have become fashionable themes of modern business: dispersed working; IT innovation; employee stakeholding; employee empowerment; the feminisation of management. And FI has grown into a global group, conservatively valued at £650m, in which Shirley retains 10 per cent.

As a result, though Shirley retired five years ago as Fl chairman for the largely nominal job of life president, her fortune has been increasing faster than ever. Five years ago she wasn’t even on The Sunday Times’s “Rich List”. This year, she came 376th. with an estimated £63m fortune. She is the 22nd richest woman in Britain, and the richest self-made one, apart from Ann Gloag of Stagecoach.

What these figures don’t tell you is the extent of her philanthropy during that period. She has now given more than £2m to the Kingwood Trust, £3m to the West Midlands Autistic Society and £15m (with another £5m already earmarked) to her favourite cause, Prior’s Court, a new school for autistic children which opened in September near Newbury, modelled on the celebrated Boston Higashi school.

Then there was the £5m that she gave last year to the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, and the £500,000 she’s spent on setting up Autism99, and unprecedented international virtual conference that opens next month and is expected to attract 100,000 visitors in two weeks.

She has been doling out wisdom, time and influence with an energy that would be impressive in a woman half her age. She’s been involved in numerous DTI and cabinet research committees, and in any number of training innovations, such as Open Tech, NCVQ and Buckingham University, of which she is council member. She was the motor behind the creation of an all-party parliamentary group on autism, and a couple of years ago helped launch the Refugee Training Council. She’s been president of the British Computer Society, master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, patron of the Disablement Income Group and a non-executive director of AEA Technology, the former Atomic Energy Authority.

Her involvement in many smaller projects, in which a little of her money, time or advice can help launch an initiative, is fired by her desire to use IT to create “socially desirable things”. She’s that most fashionable of creatures, a social entrepreneur – so it’s strange that the only recognition she’s received to date has been an OBE. (Shirley Porter got a damehood.)

Most recently, Shirley has become a £25,000-a-year general inspector, or non-executive director, at retailer John Lewis. (The £25,000 goes to the Shirley Foundation, through which most of her philanthropy is now channelled.) Her enthusiasm for employee-ownership was partly inspired by John Lewis, and her response to the partnership’s flirtation with demutualisation is eagerly awaited. Unusually among the super-rich, Shirley commands equal respect for her intellect and integrity.

But one indirect reason for her higher profile in recent months has been the unexpected death, a year ago, of Giles, aged 35. “I have to be very careful what I say,” she murmurs, and it’s not clear if she’s worried about saying the wrong thing or about breaking down in tears. “It’s desperately sad, and we miss him terribly. But he is at peace, and after 35 years of worrying about him every day, now we don’t have to worry any more.”

But her lifelong habit of unrelenting effort will not allow her to sit back. She still feels the need, she says, to “make my life seem worth saving. I don‘t want to fritter it away in shops. I want to till it with meaningful activity.” This restless energy might seem neurotic — fraught, even. But while you wouldn’t describe her as relaxed, she has a warmth and interest in new people and ideas that distances her from the rich who use activity as it distraction from inner emptiness. If she drives herself harder than most, it’s as good a way as any of keeping her intelligence quick and her generous spirit “close to the reality of the world.

She has to keep busy, she says, because she now faces the challenge of disposing of her fortune, now that Giles can no longer benefit from it, before she dies. She‘s giving it away by the million, but there’s a limit to the number of FI shares she can decently dispose of in one go, and the longer she leaves them unsold, the more she finds herself worth. “I really don’t want to become someone who just writes cheques, and I’m not throwing away a penny. Someone like me just doesn’t. It’s all got to work.”

And so she starts each day with an 8.30am swim before settling down to another full day of facilitating and innovating from the office adjoining her apartment, “forcing myself to master new ideas” and applying the lessons of a lifetime in business to-the fuzzier world of charity. “Sometimes I sit down in the  evening and think, ‘this is harder than working used to be’.” But there’s an unexpected contentment about her as she gazes out over the Thames. She has already survived the worst that life can throw at her. In any case, she adds cheerfully, “If I stopped working, I’d probably be dead in six months.”

© Financial Times 1999

[NOTE: I’ve included this slightly dry example of 1990s business journalism because it is an early snapshot of a story that was far from over. Steve Shirley became richer, and more influential, and more generous, eventually being appointed Britain’s Ambassador for Philanthropy – and becoming a Dame – while giving away so much of her fortune that she dropped out of the Rich List altogether. Meanwhile, I came to know her and her story much better, and eventually collaborated with her on her memoirs, Let IT Go, which tell her story far more authoritatively (and, I hope, entertainingly) than this short article.]

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