From profiling inspiring figures in this weekly column to placing forward-thinking leaders into career-defining roles, one of the many joys of my job is how regularly I get to celebrate and support women. This week, it brings me great pleasure to be writing about Smart Works – an organisation I first learnt about from a colleague at MBS who was a volunteer there.
I’m sure many readers will already know about Smart Works – but for those who don’t – Smart Works undertakes unparalleled work in helping women back into employment through its coaching and dressing service. The organisation works alongside unemployed women, providing them with a complete outfit of high-quality clothes and accessories for their specific job interview, plus a one-to-one interview preparation session with an experienced HR professional or senior manager.
Juliet Hughes-Hallett, who co-founded the charity in 2013 and is now Honorary President, told me that “Smart Works was conceived out of a passion to help women in need. If a two hour intervention of dressing and interview coaching could help these ladies succeed at interview, get the job they want and change their lives – well I just knew I wanted to make that available to them. That’s how Smart Works was born.”
But the charity is so much more than just a dressing service. Referred from organisations such as job centres, work programmes, prisons, care homes, homeless shelters and mental health charities, many of Smart Works’ clients are suffering from mental health issues or a lack of confidence in their own abilities. Through something as simple as clothes and a confidence-boosting conversation, Smart Works arms women with the self-assurance they need not only to step back into the world of work, but also to believe in themselves. “The fairy dust of confidence,” as Juliet described it to me.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of catching up with Julietta Dexter, co-founder of ScienceMagic.Inc, who has very recently been appointed as the organisation’s new Chair. “I think the idea of dressing and coaching unemployed women for job success is really such a beautiful and simple idea,” she explained, “and it can create magic and be a completely transformative moment in a woman’s life.”
“If a two hour intervention of dressing and interview coaching could help these ladies succeed at interview, get the job they want and change their lives – well I just knew I wanted to make that available to them.” Juliet Hughes-Hallett, co-founder and Honorary President at Smart Works
Thanks to a team of more than 350 volunteers across seven cities, Smart Works has helped more than 18,000 women into work since launching in 2013. The charity also taps into one of today’s most relevant issues: the circular economy. Clothes are donated from the companies including M&S, John Lewis and Hobbs, bringing new life to surplus stock and ensuring nothing goes to waste.
Smart Works’ services have never been more vital than today. The past year has been tough on us all, but the fact remains that women have been disproportionately impacted by the economic effects of Covid-19. Thanks to factors including childcare commitments, the number of women in part-time roles and the prevalence of women in sectors such as hospitality and retail, more women have lost their jobs than men since the outset of the pandemic. In fact, McKinsey research suggests that women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable to the Covid-19 crisis than men’s. Many of Smart Works’ recent clients have been from the aviation sector, for example – women who have worked as airline crew for years, always with a uniform, and are now facing the prospect of their first job interview in an entirely new industry.
Like many organisations, Smart Works has done a brilliant job at adapting during Covid-19, swapping its in-person service for virtual coaching sessions and outfits that are sent to the homes of women who need them. “Developing this will be a key part of our future strategy,” Julietta tells me. “It can often be difficult for women to reach the centres. Being able to have the Smart Works experience from home will hopefully make our service even more accessible, and let us reach even more women. Looking forward, we will be doing lots of thinking about how to make that in-home experience as special as possible.”
Another priority, Julietta explains, is leveraging the Smart Works community. The organisation has developed a close-knit network of clients, volunteers and trustees, and fostering these relationships will be crucial to Smart Works’ opportunity to grow. “The clients will be the greatest advocates,” Julietta tells me, “and it will be fantastic to engage them in a conversation that isn’t restricted to one moment, but that they can take with them throughout their lives and go on to influence and help more women. Building this community is something I’m really excited to focus on.”
“It will be fantastic to engage clients in a conversation that isn’t restricted to one moment, but that they can take with them throughout their lives and go on to influence and help more women.” – Julietta Dexter, Chair at Smart Works
The future certainly looks bright for Smart Works. The charity sits at the intersection of three key issues in today’s world – women supporting women, mental health, and the circular economy – and it has been a privilege to advise on the appointment of Julietta, and play a small part in the incredible work that the organisation is doing. If anyone reading this would like to get involved, either as a volunteer career coach or dresser, or by donating clothes, then please do get in touch.