Tuesday, 28 September 2021

IT ENTREPRENEUR and philanthropist Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley was made a Companion of Honour in June. The three autism charities she founded all started in Henley, where she has lived with her husband Derek since their late son Giles was a patient at the old Borocourt Hospital (now the Wyfold Court flats).

Describe your business

I am an IT entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist focused on large and small charitable projects much like a venture capitalist.

What did you do previously?

All my wealth stems from the software house Freelance Programmers which I started as a company of women and a company for women. It was a social business
co-owned by the 8,500 staff that eventually was worth nearly $3billion.

When did you start your business?

Freelance Programmers started in 1962 with all of £6, which was worth a bit more in those days! The charitable Shirley Foundation started shortly after I retired in 1993 and (to date) has given away some £68million to not-for-profit projects. My three autism charities were started in 1994 (Autism at Kingwood — long-term support), 1997 (Prior’s Court School — education) and 2006
(Autistica — medical research).

What was your objective?

The Shirley Foundation’s mission is facilitation and support of pioneering projects with strategic impact in the field of autism spectrum disorders with particular emphasis on medical research.

What or who influenced you?

My start as a child refugee in 1939 was, and remains, the driving influence of my life. I am inspired by people of moral courage: Madiba for his example of forgiveness; Saint Teresa for her love; and Winston Churchill for his dogged leadership.

What was the best thing about running your own business?

The flexibility it gave to work from home and combine a vigorous professional career with nurturing the family.

What was the most challenging aspect?

The technology which I loved so much soon got
delegated to other people, leaving me with tax, insurance, legal issues and — over and over again — people problems.

How do you market your business/service?

Word-of-mouth and promotional publicity, business to business. My TED Talk has been viewed nearly two million times (www.steveshirley.com). My memoir Let IT Go — note the pun on IT — is being made into a film (www.let-it-go.co.uk)

How important is online to the business and why?

What isn’t online these days? Where would we be without email and e-commerce? Each of us has an online identity which has to be protected against cybercrime.

Where is your business headed?

I am planning to concentrate on Autistica, which funds medical research.

Where will the business be in five/ten years’ time?

Driverless cars are already being trialled on public roads. The next five years will see robots becoming routine and in ten years’ time drone transportation will be everyday.

What’s the most valuable thing you have learned?

To focus ever tighter.

What’s your biggest mistake?

The classic one of going international by trying to replicate the UK’s success in other countries. Only the fourth subsidiary (in India) took off and eventually employed more than 4,000 staff.

What would you do differently?

I’d bring in financial skills and step back from the operational side much, much earlier.

What advice would you offer to anybody considering starting a business?

Find something that you enjoy and know about. Get yourself trained, then more trained. And, finally, GO FOR IT!

What’s the secret of your success?

Concentration on strategy — long-term values, not short-term success.

How do you dress for work?

I’ve worked from home for more than 50 years, wearing jeans and T-shirt in the main. But I dress in formal suits — usually trousered — for external meetings. My high
profile, especially on the web, gives me the excuse to
follow fashion a bit!

How organised are you?

Like many entrepreneurs, I’m a messy worker, dashing off in all directions. I’ve learnt to tidy my desk at the end of each day and, more importantly, also take time to organise my thoughts into some semblance of order.

Do you set goals?

Yes, I set time and quality goals for pretty well everything I do. Simple ones such as: is this better than last year? Some goals vary over a lifetime: aged 84, I’ve learnt to develop exit strategies even as I start a new enterprise.

What do you read?

I scarcely read fiction but devour business reports and papers.

What can’t you do without every day?

Numerous cups of tea keep me going.

What is it like being a Companion of Honour and have you met any other companions?

Most people do not know what a Companion of Honour is. They just know it is special! But it is not as helpful as a knighthood or dameship in getting a table in a restaurant. Many of the Companions in the UK are politicians; I know Sir John Major, Baroness (Shirley) Williams and the Lord Young of Graffham. I also know the economist Lord Stein of Brentford and author J K Rowling. I look forward to perhaps meeting Sir Paul McCartney at my investiture on October 31.

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