Meet The Inspirational Woman Chairing This Worthwhile Charity
How did you get involved with Smart Works?
About two years ago I was contacted by Moira Benigson from The MBS Group. MBS had been appointed by Smart Works to find its next chair after the founding chair stepped down from her role. They asked if I wanted to be part of what turned out to be quite a lengthy recruitment process. The reason I said yes is because I’m passionate about women in the workplace. I’ve been fortunate to work with lots of global fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands for many years, so I felt strongly that I had skills, tools and contacts that could help the charity in its mission. I’d also started my career in charity fundraising while I was at university, so I felt just as strongly that business should be a force for good. Getting involved with Smart Works felt like the perfect way to continue that philosophy and action plan.
Tell us more about the Smart Works mission…
Smart Works is a UK-based charity that exists to give women the chance to reach their full potential and secure employment to change the trajectory of their lives. Our service is actually very simple, but it’s also very powerful: we want women to feel as confident as possible in an job interview by dressing them in an outfit they normally wouldn’t have access to and that they can keep – plus, we offer one-to-one interview coaching to give them the best chance at securing that job. At the moment, 72% of our clients get a job within a month of coming to us. Once they have the job, they come back and receive an additional five pieces of clothing to help them build a capsule working wardrobe.
What is it about clothes and interview coaching that go hand in hand?
We feel those two things are crucial when it comes to giving yourself the best chance at success. All of us worry about what we look like when we show up for an interview – over a quarter of our clients have usually applied for more than 50 jobs by the time they come to us, so they have often found it to be quite a soul-destroying process. Most of the time they don’t even get a reply, so many of them are running pretty low on self-belief. Luckily, our 450 volunteers know how to put our clients at ease, make them feel safe and happy when they visit. We want to make them feel like they can do it. Ultimately, first impressions count, and then interview skills are essential – and many women who come to us are either very rusty or haven’t been in an interview setting before.
Why is fashion so powerful at work?
Amid so much chaos and change in the world – not to mention the cost-of-living crisis – making people feel their best is so important. At Smart Works we believe fashion should be a force for good. Having worked in this industry, I know fashion can be perceived as superficial and superfluous, but at the charity we are well aware of the power of clothes and the effect they can have on your confidence. It’s also a very practical consideration for a lot of these women. We think really hard about whether our client needs to walk to a bus stop every morning; will she need an umbrella for example? What time of year is it? Will she need a good raincoat? We are thinking about fashion that makes you feel good, but on a practical basis too.
There’s also a sustainable aspect to the Smart Works mission, isn’t there?
Definitely. We have a host of support from places like Bicester Village and a range of designers and retailers who donate stock for our fashion closet. This inevitably creates circularity in the fashion industry – plus, it introduces women to the quality of different clothes and makes them believe in the power of non-disposable fashion. It’s a magic formula, really, because it benefits the industry as much as our clients.
How have you personally harnessed the power of fashion in your working life?
I’ve been immensely fortunate to work closely with designers and fashion brands through my work at TCS and now ScienceMagic.Inc, so it’s not lost on me what the right outfit can do for your confidence. I’ve learnt to really enjoy clothes in a way I might not have otherwise – and that’s something I love to see our clients appreciating too. It’s motivating to feel your best at work, and that has direct influence on your results.
Post-pandemic, has the Smart Works mission taken on a new importance?
Our numbers are growing across all ten centres in the UK – which probably tells you everything you need to know. While it would be great to think Smart Works wasn’t necessary, that just isn’t the case. The need is growing – even though our team did an amazing job of pivoting to a virtual service during Covid-19 to ensure we could still help our clients. We just opened centres in south London and Glasgow and there are plans to open more, including one in Manchester. Those aren’t random locations, either – we aggregate data that tells us where the need is greatest. We also know that 54% of our clients come from an ethnic minority background, 42% are solo parents and 15% have a disability. Plus, a third have been unemployed for over a year. On a more positive note, I think women are one of this country’s most untapped resources. Given our economy isn’t in great shape, it makes sense to help this demographic get back into work so progress can be made on all fronts.
Are there any particular goals Smarts Works is pursuing at the moment?
Right now, we’re two years into a three-year strategic plan, which is largely focused on growth and development. It’s our aim to be helping 10,000 women a year by 2025 – which feels realistic given that over the course of the last decade we’ve helped a total of 30,000 women find employment. Recently, for our ten-year anniversary, we launched the first Smart Works Female Unemployment Index at the House of Lords. It’s a fairly robust study of the issues surrounding unemployed women in the UK.
What does your role as chair entail?
As national chair, it’s my responsibility to work closely with various boards of trustees – not only in London but across all of our centres up and down the UK. We have regional chairs and each region has its own board, too. It’s my job to bring together that community of trustees and use the skills I have to grow the charity and ensure our governance policies are meeting all the applicable guidelines. I also work closely with Kate Stephens, our chief executive, to help her build the organisation through using my skills and contacts – whether that’s brands or donors. Once a year I visit every Smart Works centre in the country and I regularly attend events to promote the Smart Works mission. I also assist in fundraising in whatever way I can, and I’m regularly reviewing budgets to make sure everything stays on track. It’s different every day, but that’s part of the fun and reward.
How can other women support Smart Works?
As I’ve said, we fundamentally believe in the power of fashion as a force for good, so donating clothes to a Smart Works centre is a brilliant first step. You can also come along to one of our fashion sales or pop-up shops. We also have a partnership with Bobbi Brown – so it’s more than possible to make a difference with your consumer choices. So many brands are working on improving their purpose now, and Bobbi’s Pretty Powerful campaign has supported Smart Works for more than ten years – we’re not far off raising £1m through sales of the Bobbi Brown Pot Rouge cream blush, of which the company gives us 100% of the proceeds. Simply buying one of those will help you change a woman’s life.
And what about volunteering?
We really welcome volunteers. I’ve even volunteered myself outside of my role as chair, dressing clients from Ukraine who have just arrived in the UK and are looking for employment. One of them was applying for a role in the prison service and the other had an opportunity at IKEA. Volunteering covers a myriad of things: you always work in pairs, sorting clothes and looking after the fashion closet, as well as styling clients. It’s so much fun and you meet wonderful people along the way. Ultimately, my best advice for getting involved in any kind of charity work is to start small – there’s no shame in having a busy life, so make the commitment where you can, find out where your skills are most valuable and grow from there.
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