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Good People, Good Work

Successful Refugees and Immigrants Leading the Way, Part 6: Tech Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley

2020-12-21
Language:English
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Dame Stephanie Shirley was born Vera Buchthal in Dortmund, Germany, in 1933. The turbulent political situation at the time prompted many parents in Central Europe to send their children to safer countries. In July of 1939, Stephanie, aged 5, and her 9-year-old sister Renate, were put on a train headed for England, UK. After a journey of two and a half days, they arrived in Britain as Kindertransport refugees. This rescue effort by the British government saved nearly 10,000 Jewish children. Young Stephanie lived with foster parents in the Midlands town of Sutton Coldfield and was deeply touched by all the assistance she received as an asylum-seeker growing up in England. With a heart full of gratitude, she made up her mind to live a meaningful life. In 1962, she married Derek Shirley and founded a software company called Freelance Programmers that provided coding services to companies. At first, the company’s workers were nearly all women. In 1975, more men were hired in compliance with a new law that required gender equality in the workplace. Her team was responsible for many significant software programs and projects, in particular the programming of the “black box” flight recorder for the supersonic Concorde. The successful enterprise eventually made 70 of her employees millionaires and she was at one point the 11th wealthiest woman in Britain. Since her retirement from the tech sector in 1993, Dame Stephanie has devoted most of her time to philanthropy. Through the Shirley Foundation, she has donated much of her wealth to many institutions and research centers, including the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and the Oxford Internet Institute, which is a part of Oxford University. Owing to her late son suffering from autism, Dame Stephanie actively supports medical investigations of the condition. From May 2009 until May 2010, Shirley served as the UK's first-ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy. She is also a committed refugee advocate. Shirley supports the “Safe Passage” project that seeks to help unaccompanied child refugees who have entered Europe to find safe routes to a place of sanctuary. Dame Stephanie feels that immigrants are more apt to freelance or start their own businesses than others. She once commented, “Immigrants are able to bring ideas from their country of origin and apply them, with a better than average chance of success.” This innovator believes her unflinching determination to defy social rules, start her own firm and conquer numerous challenges are born of her refugee background. This pioneering entrepreneur encourages people to concentrate on what they care about, get the necessary training and experience, then take a risk and go for it. She has set a courageous, compassionate and remarkable example for us all.
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