As part of the Annual Meeting and Summer Reception, alumna Sharon White, former Chief Executive of Stephenson Harwood LLP, spoke about why she donates to the University of Essex.
I am delighted to join you today and to have been asked to speak about why I have supported the University of Essex and it’s students post graduation.
As I thought about what I wanted to say, it was quite sobering to realise that this year is the 40th anniversary of my own graduation, in the first cohort of students graduating with law degrees at Essex. It was a proud moment, not only for me, but for my family, not least as I was the first in my family to go to university, both my parents having left school at 15.
I qualified as a solicitor in 1986, having done my training contract in a small firm in London, before moving to City law firm, Stephenson Harwood in 1988. There I practised as a corporate lawyer, which I hugely enjoyed, eventually leading on corporate deals with a value of hundreds of millions of pounds. I became a Partner in 1997 and later Head of Corporate Practice. In 2009 I was appointed as the Chief Executive of the firm, having responsibility for managing the firm, including its international offices.
Over my ten years leading the firm, its revenues and size more than doubled to over £200m and over 1,200 employees and its profitability significantly improved. I have had a hugely satisfying and rewarding career and hope that this year’s graduates will gain similar fulfilment from their own future endeavours.
My time at the University of Essex very much set the foundation for my career. It was not the information that I learnt that was important but learning how to think, how to analyse, to argue and debate and express myself and to have the confidence in my abilities to do all that. Without those skills, I could not have gone on to have the successful career I had.
I look back very fondly at my time at Essex and am grateful for my time here. That is one of the reasons that I have chosen to support the University over the past years. When I started at the University 43 years ago, it was a very different place. Many of the buildings and facilities we now see around us were not here and the student body was much smaller.
There was another very significant difference. In my day, British students didn't have to pay tuition fees and in addition, many got a maintenance grant (not a loan) from their local authorities to cover the cost of accommodation and day to day living expenses. It was means tested, but many students qualified for something, even if not the full grant. I qualified for the full maintenance grant and so left university with my degree and no debt. Today’s students are not so fortunate of course.
Coming from a working class family where the only acceptable form of debt was a mortgage, I often wonder whether I would have gone to university if I had had to borrow to pay tuition fees and support myself. I am not sure I would have had the confidence that I would have been able to repay that debt - I certainly never envisaged I would earn what I did – and my parents would have been very concerned about me taking on such a debt. I appreciate how lucky I was to have had that financial support and that is another reason why I have been pleased to be able to give back a little and to help the work the University does to support students.