Faith, hope and charity

9th December 2013

News, Alumni news

Alumnus Maurice Ostro discusses his brilliant career which has taken him from gemstones to philanthropy.

  • Maurice Ostro

    Maurice Ostro (Law, 1985)

Entrepreneur, philanthropist and inter-faith advocate Maurice Ostro (Law, 1985) never intended to come to Oxford.

“I was in London, en route to Harvard, when I bumped into a colleague who told me that if I read law in Oxford first, I could get two law degrees in four years rather than just one in three years. I had done my undergraduate degree in the US and thought that this was a very attractive proposition so I went straight up to the University offices in Little Clarendon Street and asked them to recommend the best college to read law,” recounts Maurice.

“They were very specific that Wadham held the highest standing in Oxford for law, with three top law tutors being based at Wadham as well as half the graduate lawyers in Oxford. Wadham was clearly head and shoulders above the other colleges!”

Whilst the interview with Jeffrey Hackney, John Bell and Peter Carter was gruelling, even more daunting was having to call the Head of the Harvard Chinese Legal Studies Department.  Instead of saying he was on his way to see him, Maurice had to ask the eminent Professor would he mind terribly writing a letter of recommendation for another academic institution instead...Wadham College.

When he came to Wadham, Maurice (a graduate gemmologist) was working in a gemstone business, so the first thing he needed was a phone in his room in Holywell Court. The Domestic Bursar at the time was not overly impressed, as students who indulged in paid work when they should have been studying, were frowned upon. “It was a challenge getting a phone installed but eventually we did and I was able to carry on the business –with a bit of time left over for my studies,” he laughs.

Wadham held the highest standing in Oxford for law, with three top law tutors being based at Wadham as well as half the graduate lawyers in Oxford. Wadham was clearly head and shoulders above the other colleges!

Maurice Ostro

Having grown up in 16 cities and attended 35 schools, Maurice joked that he had something in common with many of the students at Wadham, whatever their nationality.  He recalls fondly how he met many interesting people during his time in Oxford including his best friend and most importantly, his wife-to-be Katy who was reading law at St John’s College, at that time.

Even to this day he works with his contemporaries from Oxford such as Boris Johnson, now Mayor of London.  “We met in the Union and I had my first debate against him.  Whereas I may have had the American accent, I was quick to point out that I was English, whereas Boris with all his British pretensions was actually born in New York!”  Now working regularly together on inter-faith activities in London, Maurice says resignedly there is no way he can make a speech after Boris: “No one would listen!”

After graduating from Oxford, Maurice  went back to visit the same Harvard Law Professor, who was also the consultant of a top New York law firm, that had just been instructed to defend Michael Milken, the ‘junk bond’ king. “He dissuaded me from pursuing a further law degree and offered me a massive salary to work on the Milken case. I was really proud of myself and rushed back to Katy, who was working as an articled clerk at Slaughter & May in London. I told her I had accepted a fantastic job and asked her to come with me to New York…and she said ‘no’! It was love or money and once again there was the awkward conversation with the Professor, this time to ask him to release me from my contract, so that I could remain in England,” said Maurice.

After a very successful career, which took Maurice from mergers and acquisitions into a variety of different businesses including frozen yoghurt, airline catering, media distribution and logistics, he sold all his companies in 2007 just prior to the economic downturn. This allowed him to turn his attentions more fully to philanthropy and in 2008 he began to work with Boris as the new Mayor of London, on a project to get business, government and charities to work together across London’s diverse communities.

Whereas I may have had the American accent, I was quick to point out that I was English, whereas Boris [Johnson] with all his British pretensions was actually born in New York!

Maurice Ostro

This led to the establishment of the Faiths Forum for London, which facilitates the religious communities working together effectively for a better London. Its main functions include providing a platform and channel for communication between the nine faith communities and London’s regional authorities and businesses, while highlighting the positive contribution of religious groups in London.

Maurice is a trustee of a number of charitable foundations including the Fayre Share Foundation, which he founded, Vice-Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews and has also been involved in advising several UK Governmental bodies, as well as being a mentor for Scotland Yard.
Maurice recently accepted an invitation to join the Prime Ministers’ (David Cameron, also being a contemporary at Oxford) recently announced Commission on Holocaust education.

Charitable giving is an important part of Maurice’s philosophy, based upon the Judeo/Christian principle of tithing... Maurice sets aside 10% of the companies that he has founded for charity, both in terms of their shares and their dividends. He is currently exploring how to inculcate such values in young entrepreneurs throughout the country.

His time at Wadham was formative for his outlook on charity. The former Warden, Claus Moser, introduced Maurice to a prominent philanthropist who inspired him with his philosophy-  “If you are going to get involved in charity you have got to start young. It is not about how much you give, but about your commitment to giving back whatever you can.”

His engagement with charity has been very personally rewarding and he was delighted to have the privilege to present Her Majesty the Queen, Patron of the Council of Christians and Jews, with a specially made necklace engraved with symbols from the nine recognised faiths of the United Kingdom; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Baha'i and Zoroastrian.  This necklace is doubly symbolic, as it features nine precious gems, which had been collected by his late father, a Holocaust Survivor. This was Maurice’s gesture of personal thanks for the welcome that this country has given to him and his family.

Maurice and Katy live in London and have three children.

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