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Birkbeck Fellow awarded Companion of Honour

Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley received the accolade as part of the Queen’s most recent Birthday Honours List. She is the first Birkbeck alumna to receive this honour.

Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, Fellow of Birkbeck, has been awarded the Companion of Honour on the Queen’s most recent Birthday Honours list. The award is given to those who have made a major contribution to the arts, science, medicine or government over a long period of time.

The order, now in its 100th year, is limited to 65 members, 45 from the UK and 20 from the Commonwealth and recipients can use the initials CH after their name. Shirley, who was made a Dame in 2000, is the first Birkbeck alumna to receive this accolade.

Stephanie Shirley came to the UK as a five-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany, and after displaying an exceptional aptitude for mathematics, took a job in the Post Office’s research department at 18. While working at the Post Office, she studied for her BSc in Mathematics at Birkbeck in the evenings and shortly began looking for jobs elsewhere in the technology sector. However, she found there to be a widespread suspicion of women in information technology. It was only when, at the suggestion of her husband, she began to sign her name as Steve rather than Stephanie that she was invited to interviews – but still had to contend with the hiring managers’ surprise on arrival.

Instead, she decided to start a new and different kind of company. Freelancers International (now Xansa plc) aimed to bring flexible working to programming and software design, enabling its then all-woman staff to work from home.

“I had a concept”, she has said, “that you could actually trust people and that people want to do good work, they want to be helped to do good work and that by giving them flexibility they could manage themselves and come up with their own ideas as to how to improve their performance.”

After nearly three decades with Freelancers International, building it into one of the largest companies of its type, she ‘retired’ and dedicated herself to philanthropy, primarily through The Shirley Foundation. The Foundation has given away well over £50 million in grants, and has a particular interest in supporting strategic projects in the fields of autism, which Shirley’s son Giles had, and IT.

She has previously written: “My motivation is to help improve the lives of others less fortunate than ourselves and to encourage those whom fortune has favoured to give generously and with a joyous heart.

I feel very lucky that I have the health, enthusiasm, experience and resources to do this, and thus enjoy the happiness that philanthropy brings as its reward.”

On receiving the Companion of Honour, Shirley said: "As the first Birkbeck alumna to be appointed one of the 65 Companions of Honour, I shall surely not be the last.  Long may the College continue its marvellous work."

We are delighted that Dame Steve Shirley will deliver the 2017 Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial lecture on 20 November 2017. Please note that places are limited - for further information on how to register your interest to attend this exclusive event, please see the website.

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