WE MEET THE CEO OF SMART WORKS, A REMARKABLE CHARITY THAT HELPS UNEMPLOYED WOMEN PREPARE FOR JOB INTERVIEWS
‘My job is brilliant,’ says Kate Stephens. As the head of Smart Works, a charity supporting women into employment, she helps change people’s lives. ‘Every day, there will be five or six women coming here before their job interview. They walk past my office looking nervously at the ground, then they walk back the other way with their head up, shoulders down, feeling ready for it. It’s such a treat – it’s impossible not to breathe it in.’
The aim of Smart Works is very simple: through careful collaboration, the transformative power of clothes is used to boost self-confidence and propel women back into the workplace. Clients referred to the charity via the Job Centre or a charity such as The Prince’s Trust receive one-to-one interview coaching and a styling consultation to find them a feel-good outfit. The clothes are theirs to keep, and if they get the job, they’re welcome back to pick five additional pieces to see them through to their first pay cheque.
“It’s wonderful to deliver a change and make an impact”
The charity relies on high-quality donations, and John Lewis & Partners has been an official partner since autumn 2018, pledging garments from its womenswear collection as well as the participation of its Partners, who keenly volunteer across its services. ‘What this means to our clients is that a brand like John Lewis & Partners cares about and believes in them,’ says Kate. ‘One of the things we’re so passionate about is harnessing this goodwill to help a woman at a crucial time in her life.’
Since 2013, Smart Works has grown from one London site to seven nationwide, including centres in Edinburgh, Newcastle and Birmingham. Last year it dressed 3,000 clients; more than one in two women using the service will secure a job, pushing its success rate to around 60 per cent.
Kate worked in political consultancy and marketing before becoming CEO five years ago, and notes that some of the challenges faced by the charity are not dissimilar to those she experienced previously. ‘In terms of a growing organisation, some of the issues are the same, but the wonderful thing about Smart Works is that you’re there to deliver a change and make an impact.’
One resounding impact was felt earlier this year, when HRH the Duchess of Sussex was announced as Smart Works’ new royal patron. Since the Duchess was photographed helping with a styling session in London, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. ‘More women are aware of our service and that we’re here to help – it helps get the message out,’ says Kate of the benefits the royal relationship brings, adding: ‘She really connects with the clients, going straight with them into the dressing room and getting involved. She’s very down-to-earth and grounded with people and puts them at their ease – it’s quite a skill to be able to do that.’
“Clothes can unlock the real you – that’s what you need to bring out in an interview”
Volunteers, whether royalty or someone with time to spare, don’t need to come from a fashion background, but need to possess an understanding of clothes and, crucially, have empathy. ‘It’s more sensitive than knowing what the trends are,’ says Kate. ‘Often, if you’ve had a tough time and you’re coming for a job interview, clothes are the last thing on your mind – but they can make a massive difference to how you hold yourself. They can unlock that bit of yourself that is the real you, and that’s what you need to bring out when you’re at an interview.’
The plan for 2019 is to spread the Smart Works magic to Yorkshire with a new location. For Kate, witnessing the sartorial transformation that every Smart Works client enjoys never gets old: ‘It always sends a shiver down my spine.’