With the Duchess of Sussex as its patron, Smart Works opens in Leeds this year to help vulnerable women find work. Stephanie Smith reports.
Give a woman the right shoes and she can conquer the world, or so the saying goes. Imagine, then, what the right outfit could do, a working wardrobe created to give a woman the confidence to show the world that she means business.
Founded in 2013, Smart Works is a national charity that helps unemployed women find work by providing them with professional clothing and coaching for job interviews. A Leeds branch opens in November and awareness events are garnering a growing army of volunteers, especially from the legal and banking sector.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, raised Smart Work’s profile massively last week when she launched her new fashion collection of five workwear staples – a white shirt created with her friend, the designer Misha Nonoo; a suit available at Jigsaw; a dress in either blue or black at Marks & Spencer, and a tote bag at John Lewis & Partners.
On sale for at least two weeks (although expected to fly), for every piece bought, another is donated to Smart Works. “Not only does this allow us to be part of each other’s story, it reminds us we are in it together,” said the Duchess, who devised the range to ensure “the right stylistic choices” are available for all Smart Works clients.
Smart Works Leeds will be the eighth centre, joining North London, West London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and Reading. A group of Leeds founding trustees has been working with Smart Works HQ and premises have been found in the city centre.
Helen Oldham, chair of Smart Works Leeds, runs her own consultancy designing diversity and growth strategies. Former chief publishing officer for Johnston Press (owner of The Yorkshire Post), she is also a founding board director of NorthInvest, a not-for-profit investor connector for tech start-ups. “We’re going through a period of great optimism in Leeds,” she says. “While Leeds and Bradford have one of the youngest and fastest-growing labour markets in the UK, a factor in attracting Channel 4, there is a significant need to support women in this region who find it more challenging to enter the job market.”
Helen highlights research published this year by Women’s Lives Leeds, finding that 23 per cent of the female population in Leeds live in the most deprived areas of the city and the mortality rate of women in these areas is 40 per cent higher than in the wealthiest areas.
“We need to find a way to capture some of the really positive momentum in the regional economy, to increase job opportunities for all and make sure that growth is inclusive,” she says.
Over a two-hour appointment, Smart Works helps vulnerable women, many of whom are long-term unemployed and have been unsuccessful with many job applications, to feel and look confident As well as a dressing, each client receives a one-to-one interview preparation and coaching session with an experienced HR professional or senior manager. More than 64 per cent of Smart Works clients win a job within one month of their session.
Smart Works Leeds will help job-seeking women from across the region, provided they have a job interview and they come through one of the referral partners. An event held at Burberry’s Leeds office this week brought together volunteers, corporate sector supporters and referral partners, which include job centres, homeless charities, local prisons, women’s refuges and refugee organisations. There will be another similar event at PwC in Leeds on October 4, 3-5pm.
It’s Helen’s job to ensure Smart Works Leeds meets the highest standards of service and benefits the maximum number of women. “I’m working with a team of seven other trustees who are all really amazing women who have already donated a significant amount of time,” she says.
Two staff members have been appointed, primarily to fundraise and organise day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, volunteer dressers and coaches are being identified and workwear donations are coming in from local businesswomen and from brands including Hobbs and Burberry, which has a long-standing partnership with Smart Works and offers clothing to all the branches, recently kitting out seven clients in new outfits.
Donated clothes must be high quality (if you would still wear it yourself, it’s probably suitable) and there is already an extensive wardrobe of donations waiting in storage. Many of the volunteer dressers are from the corporate sector and there will be training events in October. Helen says: “The key thing that we are looking out for is somebody who has good listening skills and good empathy, because we are talking about potentially vulnerable clients who have come through some quite difficult situations.”
People skills, she adds, are far more important than knowledge of the fashion sector. Volunteers should ideally be able to offer a regular time slot, once a week or a minimum of once a month.
The first important task, however, is to raise funds, whether that happens to be companies of all sizes adopting the charity or individuals and organisations holding cake bakes, clothing swaps and so on. Smart Works Leeds itself will have a programme of fundraising events including fashion sales and corporate photo sessions.
Thrive Law will be supporting Smart Works through its Thrive Women events as its chosen charity. “We will be focusing on incentives for our members to get involved, arranging coffee mornings and clothes drops, and also introducing other local business owners to the Smart Works team which invariably will provide further support for the charities fundraising activities,” says managing director and solicitor Jodie Hill.
Smart Works support continues post interview. Once a client has secured a job, she comes back to receive five additional pieces of clothing so she can start her new role with a capsule working wardrobe. In this way, Smart Works has already helped more than 15,000 unemployed women in the UK. The right outfit is about more than clothes. As Meghan Markle said, it is “not a hand-me-down, but rather a hand being held”.
Smart Works Leeds opens on November 5. Visit www.smartworks.org.uk/leeds, email email@example.com