Standing ovation for pioneering tech entrepreneur Dame Stephanie

More than 130 people gathered for an inspirational Robert Oakeshott Lecture by tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley CH.

A rousing standing ovation followed Dame Stephanie’s personal account of her journey as a migrant child drawn to collective work “most likely because of a lack of extended family or long term neighbours”, pioneering new working practices that allowed women to go back to work after a career break, her long journey to employee ownership, being the mother to a severely autistic child and later a philanthropist.

The annual lecture, which this year was hosted Cass Business School and supported by international IT business and EOA Trustee member Sopra Steria, celebrates the life, legacy, and work of the EOAs founder, and employee ownership pioneer, Robert Oakeshott, is attended by his family.

Dame Shirley, who became known as Steve to help win contracts in a male dominated world said: “Philanthropy is all I do now, my cash donations total to £68m to date. I need never worry about getting lost. Several charities would quickly come and find me! But co-ownership was by far the largest of my benefactions – the company became worth £3bn.”

In stark contrast to today where the path of becoming employee owned is more well-trodden and women in tech roles is more common, Dame Shirley took more than 15 year to get her business into employee ownership: “To get past the gender issues of the time, in 1962 I had set up my own hi tech/software company.

“It was a company of women where we pioneered the concept of women going back to work after a career break, a whole lot of new work methods, flexible working, job shares, profit sharing and then co-ownership.

“I wanted the staff who had helped me to build the company to share in its success of what they helped to build. So how long did this all take? From concept to 62% staff control – over 15 years!

Dame Stephanie’s personal circumstances of running the company and having to pay all the scheme’s legal and admin costs personally, as well as to provide for her severely handicapped son Giles, meant that her progress to employee ownership was not as smooth as she had wished, but yet was not deterred as felt it was the right outcome for her business.

She added: “I look back at my several false starts and wonder why I did not have the foresight or courage to transfer control much earlier. Staff saw it as ‘Steve’s company while ‘Steve’ owned the majority of the shares. I often get asked if I would do it again knowing what I know now. The answer would still be yes as co-ownership was the right exit for me.”

CEO of the EOA Deb Oxley said: “Dame Shirley’s EO story is remarkable and truly inspiring – both at a business level but also at a deeply personal level, which is so fitting to honour our founder Robert Oakeshott who too was a pioneer.

“At this time when capitalism is under scrutiny, accused of self-interest and excessive greed, employee ownership is the perfect antidote, and as illustrated by Dame Stephanie’s lecture, offering a different form of capitalism where doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive.”

Dame Stephanie ended her lecture from one pioneer to another saying: “Thank you Robert Oakeshott for your far seeing humanity. With more than 3,000 members and a sector with an aggregate turnover of well over £30bn, the EOA is a wonderful legacy. It has been an honour to present this lecture in his memory.”

Visit our Robert Oakeshott Lecture web page for more about the lecture including a video and photos of the 2018 event.