I’d never heard of Stephanie Shirley until I heard this BBC interview with her. As a five year old she escaped the Nazis in Germany, escaping to Britian in a Kindertransport. She founded a software company in 1962 that only hired women. It allowed employees to work from home, a practise that is much more common now than it was then. At the time women were not always welcome in the workplace, especially after they married or had kids, so this was an exceptional change. Ironically, equality legislation years later forced them to hire men!
In her personal life, her son Giles was autistic. Caring for him caused her to have a nervous breakdown as she tried to run her business too but she has poured huge sums of money into autism research and in her retirement has given away most of her £150m wealth.
To help Giles and others like him, she first established the Kingwood Trust to support young adults with autism, and more recently started the Prior’s Court School in Berkshire. “It is actually the biggest single project,” she says. “It took five years of my life. That’s the one I dreamed about.” It aims to help autistic children into mainstream education or some form of employment by using innovative techniques in art, music and sport.
The Shirley Foundation has spent or allocated around £50m in recent years – putting it among Britain’s top grant-giving foundations – with 70% going to autism-related work, from the first online conference on autism to yet another start-up, the Welsh support network Autism Cymru.
She also spoke at TED which she talked about her life.
If you want to hear about a remarkable woman, listen to this podcast and watch her on the TED stage.