WHEN Dame Stephanie Shirley lost her only child Giles, it could have torn her life apart.
Instead, she used the tragedy as a turning point to become one of Britain’s greatest philanthropists.
Since her autistic son died, aged 35, in 1998, Dame Stephanie — or “Steve” as she likes to be known — has gone on to invest more than a third of her £150million wealth into charities.
“Philanthropy comes from inside and each of us has some sort of feeling of wanting to make a difference,” she explains.
“When we have some focus, such as a mother who has died of cancer or a son who has autism, you think ‘I understand that area and I can help that — I’m not just going to be a victim’. I object to being a victim because I was a child refugee. If you can survive that then you become a real survivor.”
In 1939, Dame Stephanie, who was born in Dortmund, arrived in England as an unaccompanied kindertransport refugee on a train from Vienna.
She was one of 10,000 Jewish children allowed to flee Nazi Europe for England. She was given a home in the Midlands with foster parents who brought her up “like they would their own”.
Dame Stephanie, who learned English within two months to begin school, realised she liked maths and gained a degree in the subject.
In 1962, she set up F International, which later became Xansa, with £6. It would go on to become a FTSE 250 leading technology group and made its creator a pioneer in computing.
She says: “I was seriously lucky because if I had been 10 years earlier or later in the industry I wouldn’t have made it. But I was hard-working, bright and had a maths degree so I could make an impact. I set up a company to develop software at a time when software was given free with hardware.
“People actually laughed at me saying I couldn’t sell it. They also laughed because they weren’t used to women in business.”
It was her contributions to gender equality as well as philanthropy that have made the self-confessed “workaholic” a respected figure nationally.
Until the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975, Dame Stephanie rode on the cusp of the second feminism wave by employing only women in her company.
She also gave away one-quarter of the company to employees to make them feel part of its success. When starting out in business, she made a cunning ploy to battle gender inequalities and ended up with a nickname that lasts until this day.
Dame Stephanie, who lives off Marlow Road, explains: “When I started, I knew nothing about business at all and my first contracts came from people I already knew.
“I started writing business development letters to people but got no response because I was signing them ‘Stephanie Shirley’, which is two feminine names. My husband came up with the idea of signing off as ‘Steve’ instead and the responses began to come in. They were a bit surprised when I walked through the door, mind.”
Dame Stephanie became the first woman to achieve many things. She was the first female president of the British Computer Society, female master of the IT Livery Company and female board member of an American company and the John Lewis Partnership.
She had initially juggled setting up the business, which was sold to French company Steria in 2007, with caring for Giles but one day collapsed under the strain and was admitted to hospital.
It led to her making the painful decision to voluntarily commit her son, who was 12 at the time, to the old Borocourt Hospital in Kingwood Common. She would bring him home 11 years later having moved from Amersham to Henley in 1995 with her physician husband Derek, now 88. In the Eighties, the couple, who married in 1959, set up the Kingwood Trust, which provided a long-term residential home in Station Road, and made Giles its first resident.
He lived in the town until his unexpected death following a seizure.
Dame Stephanie says: “It was a traumatic shock. I never know whether it’s easier if you know someone’s going to die. He was considered a success story because he was one of the most vulnerable people at Borocourt and when we took him home, the hospital was against it but he lived a dignified life.
“Borocourt was based on Victorian-style warehousing of people and it was eventually closed, which was the best thing that could have happened to it.”
The trust has gone from strength to strength and has now been moved to bigger premises in Reading, where it cares for about 50 adults.
Another of Dame Stephanie’s legacies, Autistica, which was originally based in Fair Mile, Henley, moved to London this year as it continues to grow. The two charities complement each other, with Autistica funding biomedical research into the causes of autism. Dame Stephanie’s commitment to this cause is also highlighted by her decision to donate Giles’ brain to research at Oxford University and she is also a donor.
However, she does not hand out money to any request that comes her way and believes the cause must strike a chord with the individual.
She says: “Generally, I’m committed to the things I know and care about. Seventy per cent of my donations are in the field of autism and the rest is in IT, my professional discipline. I’ve had the most wonderful quality of life because it seems the more money I give away, the richer I feel. I have a full and active life. I’m always doing interesting things and am so lucky to have something worthwhile to get up for each morning.”
Dame Stephanie believes the best way to relate to politicians on the importance of charities is on economic terms.
She says: “A charity’s mission is to support anything that will improve the lives of people with autism, reduce its incidents and reduce its costs. The costs to the nation are £28billion a year. When I talk to politicians they listen a lot more about something costing the nation £28 billion than saying financial aid will improve the lives of people.”
Dame Stephanie travels across the world for keynote speeches on philanthropy, for which she was made national ambassador by Gordon Brown in 2009.
She believes the Baltic states, such as Czech Republic and Romania, are beginning to demonstrate philanthropic aspirations.
“Countries develop in a different way,” she says. “People are the same the world over, they really are. Countries and expectations are different but they are all moving.
“I went to Saudi Arabia for a talk and they are just not used to women in public roles at all. I had to think carefully about covering my hair because that’s how respectable women behave there. To go without that is like going shopping in a bikini here.”
Dame Stephanie, who retired in 1993, has received a number of awards and honours, including the Freedom of the City of London and the Beacon Fellowship prize for her philanthropic work.
She says: “I accept these awards very happily because it’s a recognition of how much of a difference one person can make. I hope it’s inspirational to younger people to say, ‘I could do that’.”
She started writing her memoirs in 2009 because she wanted to share her experiences to help others. Its release coincides with the 50-year anniversary of her company’s launch.
Dame Stephanie says: “Sometimes I think I’ve learned things painfully that someone else could learn so much more easily if only they were told. I think you have to learn, learn, learn because the world’s changing so fast and you need to learn faster than the rate of change, which is quite a struggle.
“When I’m speaking, my aim is not particularly to inform but to inspire others to move and do new things, really developing themselves to the maximum. Each of us has to be helped to develop to our full potential. Giles couldn’t speak clearly and was very learning disabled so what’s his full potential? As it was, he ended up living a dignified life.”