Can you explain what Smart Works do?
We dress and coach unemployed women for their job interview. They’re usually referred to us, from job centres, the Prince’s Trust, or any charity that supports women getting back into the workplace. We take a woman who is not working and has a confirmed job interview lined up, we give her clothing for the interview and style her in an outfit that is all hers to keep. Then we give her one-to-one interview coaching.
How did the idea for the charity come about?
We became Smart Works just over five years ago. We were previously part of a dressing charity when my board decided they wanted to make it into a national charity that would open in London and other places around the UK. It was the insight that dressing a woman made her feel great – we all loved that bit of the service. We coupled it with coaching so she could sustain her performance in an interview and answer those tough questions.
Are the clothes donated?
They are, yes. We’ve got this beautiful wardrobe full of lovely clothes. There’s nothing there that we wouldn’t wear ourselves. Some of it comes from individuals cleaning out their wardrobe, some people do collections in their office, like a corporate clothing drive, and then retailers also send us clothing direct as well. It’s all carefully screened before it goes in the wardrobe.
What kind of women come to you for help?
It’s women who need support to get back into employment. We see a huge range of ages, from young girls who never really got their careers going, to mums, to people who have taken on caring responsibility and maybe have gaps in their CV, and we’re increasingly seeing a lot of older women too – 50 or 60 plus, who haven’t worked for a long time but now need to get back into it and have no confidence. It’s a real range of women from all different backgrounds.
What are their biggest concerns?
They’re mostly concerned with how they might look, but that’s probably not what they’d say. We often hear our clients say things like, “Clothes aren’t really important to me”. But fashion is a great connecter, and I believe it helps a woman to be her very best – that’s what you need before your interview. We listen to what she has to say, and then pick her an outfit based on that. It’s kind of like personal shopping; our volunteers are amazing women who are all stylists but are also really empathetic and kind. So, they work with each woman, take a brief from her and then pick an edit of clothes from the wardrobe, working with the woman in the dressing room until she has an outfit she feels comfortable in. It’s really wonderful and a very tangible thing, when you see a woman put on a jacket she really loves, you see her shoulders relax in the mirror and a new found confidence wash over her. . So, while it’s not really about the clothes, it’s also entirely about the clothes.
What do women learn in the coaching session?
It’s tailored to each client. The people who do the coaching are senior enough in how they operate to tailor their advice to the client in front of them. They come in for a huge range of jobs – we have bus drivers, beauticians, receptionists, people who work in schools… There’s a huge range. But there are common threads about how to interview well. So, it’s the basics: about turning up on time, maintaining eye contact, the dos and the don’ts. Plus, there are questions that women find particularly hard to answer, so it's just coaching them on those questions until they feel like they can answer it.
What’s your success rate?
Its 60% at the moment. It’s a very tangible service so we can really measure the success rate.
What happens if they get the job?
We say anyone who goes out and gets a job after coming to see us that within six months, they can come back for a second dressing to get a capsule wardrobe. This will see them through to their first pay cheque, so they’re not wearing their one lucky suit they got from us, and instead have a whole wardrobe they can feel comfortable and confident in.
Who do you have working as volunteers for the charity?
We have a huge range of people coming in – some might have had a career and now don’t work anymore so have some time to give, we have senior managers from corporate companies who come in one day a month as part of their volunteering programme, and then individuals who can fit it into their own schedule. Its skilled volunteering, so we have a rota and you sign up to coach in advance. We’re quite picky about who can volunteer – you’ve got to be able to connect with our clients and put them at ease.
How did Meghan Markle become interested in the charity?
When she became part of the Royal Family, she got to know the charity sector and we’re very lucky that she came to visit us privately. Over the course of the last year she’s been to visit and get to know us. Then we were thrilled in January when it was announced she was going to be our royal patron.
Did she get involved when she came to visit?
She’s an incredibly inspiration woman. From the first time she came to Smart Works, she got involved with our clients and wanted to be directly helping. She’s been dressing and coaching our clients, it’s been really amazing. She’s an amazing coach. She was able to sit down with our clients in the coaching room and really connect with them and help them find the best version of themselves. I think she has a deep commitment to women and helping them be their best. She’s very hands on.
What does her role as patron involve?
I think as a patron her role is to shine a light on what we do, so more people are aware of us and that way, we can help more women. She’s certainly helping us do that – we’ve just had our busiest February ever! The phones haven’t stopped ringing since she was announced as our patron.
And finally, how can we help??
There are three ways to get involved: firstly, you can donate your clothes that you might not need anymore – we are always in need of great quality clothing and we rely on donations. Equally, the dressing and the coaching are delivered by volunteers, so if you have time to give then we always welcome amazing people to come and do the volunteering. And then we need funds to power what we do, so we are always grateful for the people who donate the money to make it all possible.
To find out more about Smart Works and how to get involved, visit SmartWorks.org.uk