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Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley: Holocaust Survivor, Computer Programming Pioneer

Stephanie ShirleyThis fact might seem surprising, but in the early days, computing was a “women’s” business. It involved the monotonous task of coding with computers as large as rooms and dealt with t he decidedly unsexy, day to day business of making things run, from air traffic control to banking systems and train signalling.

However, in the 1960s, there were some computers small enough to actually fit in a home. Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, a Holocaust survivor who came to England on the Kindertransport, decided she would create a career that would enable her to work at home while raising her children. She told the Guardian, “I think my ‘guilt’ about surviving the Holocaust gave me a strong urge to succeed, to prove that my life had been worth saving.” After completing a degree in math, she founded her company, “Freelance Programming” on her dining room table in 1962. She only employed women until England’s Equal Opportunities Act made it necessary to hire men as well. She renamed the company to Xansa and sold software to telecoms, transport and banking industries.

Since retiring, she devotes her time to philanthropies, particularly autism-related charities, in honor of one of her children who has the condition. “I had a lot of fun making money, ” she said, “and now I’m having a lot of fun giving it away.”

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