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Laureation address – Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws

Laureation by Dr Claire Whitehead
School of Modern Languages
Thursday 23 June 2011

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Dame Stephanie Shirley for the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Dame Stephanie was born in Dortmund, Germany in 1933 to a Jewish father and Austrian mother. Just prior to the outbreak of World War Two, thanks to a Quaker organisation, Dame Stephanie and her elder sister, Renate, managed to leave Austria and arrived in the United Kingdom as unaccompanied child refugees. Although she was later reunited with her parents, she felt she never really bonded with them; she remained in the UK and was naturalised British in 1951. Dame Stephanie believes that this early experience of being saved inspired her to make as much of her life as she could; and we are here today to acknowledge how very successfully she has done that. Indeed, surveying Dame Stephanie’s myriad achievements, I am left wondering whether the bestowal of only one honorary degree today is enough.

Firstly, Dame Stephanie deserves recognition for her pioneering entrepreneurial work in the computing and IT sector. She began work in 1951 at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill, where she helped to develop ERNIE – the Premium Bonds computer – and the first electronic telephone exchanges. Simultaneously, she pursued a degree in Mathematics at Sir John Cass College by means of night school and day release. It was whilst working as a software developer for ICL in the early 1960s that Dame Stephanie became aware of the ‘glass ceiling’ which limited women’s professional prospects in the IT sector. So, ever resourceful, she left ICL to found her own company, Freelance Programmers, in her dining room with the princely sum of £6. The company (which later became FI Group and then Xansa) initially employed only women and led the world in pioneering female-friendly employment practices, such as working from home and work-sharing. Dame Stephanie was also a firm believer in common ownership, wishing her staff to be able to share in the success of the company. So, in 1981, using the John Lewis Partnership as a model, Dame Stephanie formed the FI Trust and, by 1987, its staff owned 24% of the company’s equity. Seven years later, majority control of FI Group passed to the staff and they took control of its destiny. Dame Stephanie retired from FI Group in 1993 and became its Honorary Life President. In 2000, Dame Stephanie was awarded a DBE for services to the IT industry.

Arguably more impressive than her work as Chief Executive of the FI Group, however, is the immense energy, talent and financial support that Dame Stephanie has given to the autism sector over the past three decades or so. Dame Stephanie’s only son, Giles, was diagnosed as profoundly autistic at the age of three; he tragically died in 1998 after an epileptic seizure. Although Giles attended a very good primary school, thereafter Dame Stephanie and her husband, Derek, found the support he and they needed to be inadequate. And so it is that she has dedicated much of her life to improving provision for people with autism and to funding medical research into the disorder. In 1994, Dame Stephanie founded the Kingwood Trust which provides housing, care and support to more than fifty vulnerable adults with autism. Four years later, in 1998, she set up the Prior’s Court School in Berkshire which educates pupils with autism and moderate to severe learning difficulties and aims to help them live as independently as possible. Dame Stephanie also founded Autism Cymru in 2001 to provide a more structured approach to the treatment of autism in bilingual Wales. And the charity, Autistica, of which Dame Stephanie is President, is dedicated to raising and investing funds for research into autism in order to improve the quality of life of the people affected. Autistica is currently working to establish a Fellowship in Autism in Scotland.

As all of this no doubt makes clear, a final reason for St Andrews to be honouring Dame Stephanie Shirley today is for her philanthropy. In 1996, realising that she wanted to become a significant donor, Dame Stephanie established the Shirley Foundation as the best means of giving away her money. Since then, the Shirley Foundation has become one of the top 50 grant-giving institutions in the UK, with £50 million worth of grants given over the last few years. In 1998, the Foundation donated £5 million to the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists which works free of charge with charities and schools to help them get the best out of IT. In 2001, the Foundation donated over £10 million to help found the Oxford Internet Institute which is tasked with researching the impact of the internet on our daily lives. Since 2002, the Shirley Foundation has concentrated its philanthropic giving on autism causes and it places particular emphasis on medical research and other projects with strategic impact. In recognition of her status as one of the UK’s foremost philanthropists, in 2009-10, Dame Stephanie served as the first national Ambassador for Philanthropy. In all of this, Dame Stephanie’s belief in philanthropy as a ‘committed act of love’ shines through.

Chancellor, in recognition of her significant contribution to the IT sector, autism support and philanthropy, I invite you to confer on Dame Stephanie Shirley the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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