Steve the refugee from Germany

Dame Stephanie Shirley came to England as a refugee

Founder of the first all women Tech company.

Stephanie Shirley (later known as Steve) set up an all woman software company back in 1962 and became a billionaire philanthropist, who has never forgotten that she owed her life to the kinder transport, and the generosity of the country, which took her in. She told Sue McGregor who interviewed her, “Having had my life saved, I thought it was important not to fritter it away.”

I hated the Germans

As late as about 1965 I was still avoiding going on German soil, I hated the Germans.   It took a long time but then in my early 30s I began to mature.    It was precisely  for people like me to reach out and I joined the Anglo German society.

portrait of Stephanie Shirley

photograph by Robert Taylor

I joined my mother in her trip to Vienna, which I had escaped 20 years earlier.    I looked around at the gracious avenues, ancient walls and elegant squares,… and realised in an instant that it meant absolutely nothing to me…… at that moment I felt the weight of my past vanish from my shoulders

The title of my memoir (soon to be made into a film)  is about letting go.   Let IT Go

Letting go of material things, slights in the past.   I didn’t want to be defined by my refugee start.   It really means to let go, letting go of all the hate, realising that Europe could be stronger, peaceful  and happier if we tackled things together.

I don’t think I’ve faced discrimination as a Jew but, my sister, was bullied for being Jewish that was one reason why we moved out of Austria to live with my grandmother.

When we first came to England, there was  a little bit, of that going on, but not really Anti-Semitic,  but more that we were German, they couldn’t distinguish between Germans and Nazis.  We started off as enemy aliens, then we were friendly enemy aliens.

Steve holding a copy of her memoir, soon to be made into a film

Dame Stephanie Shirley



Well I do feel English,  but I do try to behave  as a global citizen.   With the refugee situation at the moment,  it makes you think about whether we need all these fences and barriers.   I try to behave as global citizen I’m so conscious of trying to do that.   I’m giving some testimony for the government  setting up a Holocaust Memorial Museum in Huddersfield.

It’s not just the Holocaust, there’s  Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur, Ethiopia,  you could write an alphabet. 

Dame Stephanie came to England sponsored by  English couple who fostered her and her sister.   They were on the train to England, the kinder-transport.  They arrived speaking no English, but in fact “auntie and uncle” became extremely important to Dame Stephanie.

Partly triggered by my kinder transport trauma, I realised  I had been very lucky all thanks  to my mother.

I needed to justify why I was saved when one million children died,six million over all.

It made me realise I didn’t want to fritter my life away.


statue of kinder transport at Liverpool St. Station

Liverpool St. Station

It really was such a trauma, but having dealt with that nothing else could throw me, in the rest of my life, apart from death.  It certainly toughened me up.

I knew in my teens that I wanted to do mathematics, I had to change schools twice, in order to study it. I still  find  it  beautiful but I soon realised that I didn’t have  it in me to contribute to mathematics.   Then I was again very lucky, because computers came on to the scene.   It was like falling in love, frankly.  I could not believe that I should be paid so well for something that I enjoyed  so much.   Dame Stephanie set up a software company in the early 60, especially employing women who need to work from home, child care, but also vulnerabilities ties such as agrophobia, being in a wheel chair.

Women-Centric, Diverse business.

Dame Stephanie was doing it well before it was fashionable, half century ago.

I love to learn myself.   I love doing new things.

I’m really just interested in ideas and I’ve learnt to implement things, but having had some  financial success, I can now pay other people to do the implementation.   It’s not that I get bored easily,  though I do, I suddenly got this idea as to how technology can help people with Autism.    I was going to be a mathematician, and then I was going to be a computer person  Then  really I moved much more into management. and caring for people.   Having had a son with Autism who died aged 35, I now dedicate my life to Autism.

My most learning, was in the early days of my business, because I was green as green, and I hadn’t sorted myself out, what sort of person I was.   I’d had 6 years of analysis  I  was fairly mixed up.   But now I feel that I am lucky, that I still have something to contribute, not only cash but experience .   I am just starting a three-year project study into  Autism.

Now I’m very happy, not delirious, but content.
I was so lucky with mathematics and computing, that I was there
at the beginning helping to power it up.


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