Dame Stephanie Shirley: Judge me by my failures

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Entrepreneurs should be judged on how they deal with failures, rather than by their successes, according to British businesswoman and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie Shirley

  • Arrived in Britain as a child refugee in 1939
  • Started Xansa in 1962 with just £6
  • The Shirley Foundation has received £50m grants in the past seven years.
  • Called herself Steve to help her succeed in the male-dominated business world
  • Served on the corporate board of Tandem Computers and John Lewis
  • Served as the UK's Ambassador for Philanthropy from May 2009-10

When Stephanie Shirley - known to friends and colleagues as Steve - arrived in Britain as a child refugee she was "just a weeping five-year-old who had lost everything", including the precious doll who travelled with her.

Born in Dortmund, Germany, in 1933, she was one of the 10,000 Jewish children who fled Nazi Germany as part of the so-called Kindertransport, leaving her parents behind before being fostered by a loving family in the West Midlands.

After joining the Post Office Research Station after leaving school, Dame Stephanie founded her own outsourcing and technology firm in 1962 with just £6.

From the outset, Xansa did much to improve the prospects of its female employees, as well as other women in technology industries and grew to become a world leader in its sector.

Dame Stephanie said that when she started the company "people laughed because women were not in serious business".

Survivor's 'guilt'

She freely recognises that the trials she faced in her early life have driven her on.

"It is very clear there is a relationship between trauma and entrepreneurship," she said.

"You become a survivor, full stop. I think my guilt about surviving the Holocaust gave me a strong urge to succeed, to prove that my life had been worth saving."

She also stresses the link between success and failure. "People remember entrepreneurs because of our successes but... it depends far more on how we deal with failures."

Retirement from Xansa in 1993 allowed Dame Stephanie to use her entrepreneurial flair in another sphere altogether - that of philanthropy.

"It is a matter of justice... it's not a question of generosity or altruism to share that success," she explains.

She has given away much of her £150m fortune to causes close to her heart.

Her son Giles, who had autism, died in 1998 aged 35. Her charitable Shirley Foundation is currently focused on Autistica, an organisation dedicated to fund research into the causes of autism and halve the global cost of the disorder by 2020.

She has also given generously to help the voluntary sector make the best use of IT.

"The more money I give away," says Dame Stephanie, "the happier I am."

Dame Stephanie Shirley was interviewed for Friday Boss by Radio 4 Today programme's Simon Jack.

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