Dame Irene Hays DBE, CBE, DL

Owner and Chair Hays Travel. Champion of travelling well, young people, the North East and customer service excellence. Honorary Doctorate of Business Administration award holder (2018)

Through her career, Dame Irene Hays has worked in executive local government positions and for central government. As the owner and chair of Hays Travel, one of the top one hundred companies to work for in the UK, she has been a champion and supporter of young people. The charitable arm of her business, The Hays Travel Foundation, was founded in 2015 to help young people achieve, and be the best they can be in their health, sport, the arts and education.

In recognition of her commitment to advancing the lives of young people, Dame Irene was appointed a CBE in HM Queen Elizabeth’s New Year Honours in 2008 and in 2021 she became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to training, education and young people. Dame Irene was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Business Administration by the University in 2018.

Listen to Dame Irene’s story:

Read the transcript of Dame Irene’s interview:

Dame Irene’s education and career 

“I’ve had a long association with the University because you tend to find that local authorities represent the town and universities represent the gown. And the relationship is incredibly close because the University is such a huge, huge part of the city, it adds to the vibrancy of the city, and it’s part of the tapestry of Sunderland. Insofar as my education at Sunderland is concerned, I did a Bachelor of Science Degree and then I came back twenty-nine years ago and did a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. Then three years ago, I was kindly given an Honorary Doctorate by the University.  

I worked for twenty-five years in Sunderland and from 1977 to 2002 and then moved on to be Chief Executive of the local authority next door. And then I came back to be Chief Executive of Sunderland. I’ve had a long association prior to receiving the Honorary Doctorate, so it meant an awful lot to me because I pretty much worked all of the time alongside the University with various developments. For example, the building we’re in now wasn’t originally part of the University, but the development of the Riverside was, and I was heavily involved in the development of the Riverside when the University wanted to expand”. 

On being awarded an Honorary Doctorate and international recognition of the University 

“So, on the day that I was presented with the Honorary Doctorate, it meant a great deal to me. It was a very emotional day. When you’ve had that long association with an organisation for which you have a huge amount respect, and which does such an enormous amount to impact the lives of other people, it was tremendous to stand up in front of all those young people. And Sir David Bell read out the citation and then handed the award to me. And then for me to try and describe how proud I was of the University- I told them this story: 

I went to Harvard University to do a presentation and as part of the day there were a number of different governments sitting around the table and it was chaired by one of the professors from Harvard University. So, I was there with a couple of civil servants who were looking after me and the governments of America and Canada and Australia were there also. And he started off by doing an icebreaker, asking us which university we went to and the person on his left who was from the American government said, ‘I went to Stanford’ and he said, ‘Oh, good’.  

And then the next American said, ‘I went to M.I.T.’ (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). And he said, ‘Okay’. And then the next one was a different university, I think it was Penn State in Philadelphia. And so it went on around the table. And he got to me and he said, ‘And which university did you go to’? And I said, ‘Sunderland’. 

And then he went on to the Canadian, and the two civil servants. One had gone to Oxford and one had gone to Durham. And then he went to the Canadians, and the Canadian representative said, ‘I also went to Sunderland University’ and then her colleagues named a couple of other universities. Then we got to Australia and two of them named Australian universities. 

And the third one said, ‘I too went to Sunderland University’ and the Harvard Professor said at the end of that ‘Well, I think that Sunderland won that round, don’t you?’ And it was absolutely fantastic. So I told that story about how you should be very, very proud of where you came from and where you were educated and its impact on the world stage. 

So to be sitting in the Kennedy, it was the Kennedy School for Government in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts- to hear that it was great fun. And then, of course, when we were having lunch together afterwards, we were all talking about our experiences in Sunderland, and they were all interested to know how Sunderland developed. So yes, I’m very proud”. 

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