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Silkarmour Boardroom in Conversation with Kate Stephens

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or Kate Stephens, the transformative influence that fashion can have in a professional environment illustrates why it is much more than a multi-billion-pound, aesthetic driven industry. Starting out her career in public-affairs consultancy, Stephens first became aware of the effect of ‘dressing for the job you want’ whilst working her way up to a senior position in Westminster. As is the case with any job, first impressions are made in an instant and Stephens’ experiences in wearing suits five days a week made a huge impact on how she was received by her colleagues. For those who are re-entering the work force after a lengthy absence however, the rules as to what constitutes office-appropriate have often changed and the mistakes made with something as simple as your outfit can have a detrimental effect on that all-important first impression. Enter Smart Works.

Smart Works is a charity that helps out of work women regain their economic independence. Smart Works offers women a two-part service in preparation for their job interview.  The first is a personal styling consultation, in which the client is given a top to toe outfit for the job interview from a bank of high quality donated clothing.  This is followed by a one-to-one session of interview coaching, led by HR professionals, executive coaches or senior managers who volunteer their time to help prepare clients on personal conduct, interview questions and body language.

Smart Works sees over 2,000 women a year and retains a 50% job offer success rate, reiterating the power of offering a helping hand in times of need.

Stephens puts fashion at the heart of Smart Works for two reasons; primarily to illustrate the importance of the professional image but also to use fashion as common ground with clients. Many of the women come to the charity with a disheartened sense of self-belief; a natural side-effect that develops in the banality of job-hunting and time spent out of the workforce.  Fashion can be a great revitalising force, she argues and thus, clients connect with the volunteers and open up about their personal experiences; collaborating with our stylists to cultivate a new image for themselves as they start a fresh chapter in their lives.

Economic independence is the fundamental pillar of female empowerment for Stephens. In order to be self-sustaining and to lead an independent life, women need to be supported to take control of their own earnings and resources; an ethos which is at the heart of Smart Works as nearly half of their clients are lone parents. The other ingredient is to eliminate the assumed ‘female’ habit of apologising. Women are their own worst enemies in focusing on what they can’t do, Stephens says, and only when we confidently advertise our strengths, can we even-out the gender imbalance in the workplace.

In the hopes of expanding Smart Works outside of their current five offices, Stephens is optimistic about the future for women in work. By providing information, training and the perfect outfit for that extra confidence boost, Smart Works enables more women to reclaim their independence and rebuild their lives with a new career; regardless of their previous experiences or personal history, with encouragement, reassurance and a fabulous interview outfit to boot.

On career transition

I started my career in a public affairs consultancy, specialising in government relations. We grew from a boutique firm in Westminster to one of the biggest and most successful firms in the country, in which I worked my way up to a senior position over a ten-year period. It was an incredible experience with a lot of growth.

I had three children towards the end of this time, and whilst being in and out of maternity leave, I felt I wanted to contribute more and use my skills in another sector. The opportunity arose to be a trustee of a charity so I joined the Board of what was then the Day Care Trust; a brilliant campaigning organisation that was the trailblazer for affordable, accessible and high quality child care. It was an eye opening experience and I was blown away by how entrepreneurial and dynamic the charity sector can be.  Essentially, charities are organisations just like any other company, but the bottom line is the impact you have on people’s lives rather than profit.  As I became more involved, I got to a point where I was sure that I wanted to make the charity sector my home, and the move to be CEO of Smart Works was perfect.

On Smart Works’ services

Smart Works is a charity that helps women in need back into the workplace. Training and dressing for the world of work opens a door to regain confidence and gives the power to secure a new job. Women are referred through a charity or a partner organisation; that might be the Princes Trust, Refuge, Crisis or your local Job Centre Plus.

“By the time a woman leaves Smart Works, they’re able to look people in the eye and feel good about themselves. That’s the magic.”

The power of clothing in building confidence is phenomenal. When you put someone in a suit jacket for an interview, we often see a physical reaction.  The client will straighten their back, drop their shoulders and start to look straight in the mirror.  By the time a woman leaves Smart Works, they’re able to look people in the eye and feel good about themselves. That’s the magic.

Silkarmour Boardroom in Conversation with Kate Stephens

Fashion is a strong connector for women.  When you put people in a comfortable situation and win their trust, nearly every woman has an opinion about clothes and her appearance. It’s easy to think that fashion is flippant or frivolous and sometimes I think women over apologise for that; but I’m always very clear that there is nothing to be ashamed about in enjoying fashion.

On the rewards of her job

If I ever need a pick-me-up, I pop into the dressing room and watch what is happening.   We witness some incredible moments.  A couple of months ago we saw a lovely woman in her 50’s who had been out of work for about 10 years. We found her a beautiful black suit and she looked incredible. She left us, aced the interview and came back the week later for a second dressing, so we could give her a full wardrobe to start her return to work.  It turned out that as well as being out of work for over a decade, her short hair was the result of a (successful) battle with cancer.  She was now off to start a new chapter in her life, full of confidence, energy and vigour.

Being given a job is the gateway to acceptance in society. As one of our clients said, “I look like a member of the public, getting on the tube and going to work” and that’s so true. Anyone’s life could fall apart through the loss of a job or relationship or illness.  Unemployment doesn’t discriminate and everyone needs support in those moments. We’ve had clients come full circle; they’ve donated us clothes when they were working and then they’ve come in as a client to prepare for a job interview.

On importance of fashion in the workplace

Dressing for work is undoubtedly more complicated for women than men.  We are constantly balancing a desire to look and feel great, with a need to be taken seriously.  Great clothes and styling allows you to combine the two, navigate a potential minefield and make you feel powerful and authentic.  And don’t ever pretend it doesn’t matter.  I think it’s really important for women to get it right and realise they are judged for their professional appearance. Investing time in knowing what makes you feel comfortable and powerful makes a huge difference.

“When you put people in a comfortable situation and win their trust, nearly every woman has an opinion about clothes and her appearance.”

My mantra for dressing is simple, and comes from my Chair, who learnt it from her mother.  Get dressed in the morning and don’t think about it again for the rest of the day. If you’re pulling at your dress or your trousers don’t fit properly, that distraction has a detrimental effect on the quality of your work and how people perceive you.

I used to dress far more formally in my twenties, suited and booted in the corridors of power in Westminster. Now I don’t own a suit.  Workwear has changed for women; the aesthetic hasn’t necessarily relaxed but it has evolved beyond a classic two piece.  Now it is a standing joke at Smart Works that my work wardrobe consists entirely of smart day dresses, which along with being my signature style also makes dressing simple in the morning – vital in a busy household with three under 10s to also get dressed and out of the house. 

On empowering women

Nearly 50% of the women who come here are single mothers and their focus on getting a job is to regain their economic independence and support their family. It’s a tough balance though, as providing child care whilst working will always be a challenge and not everyone wants to outsource it.

“Being given a job is the gateway to acceptance in society. As one of our clients said, “I look like a member of the public, getting on the tube and going to work” and that’s so true. Anyone’s life could fall apart through the loss of a job or relationship or illness.  Unemployment doesn’t discriminate and everyone needs support in those moments.”

The other thing essential for empowering women is to break the habit of apologising. When I was applying for this job, I met up with my old boss for some advice.  Without realising it, I was focusing on the parts of the role I hadn’t done before.  He looked at me in amazement and said, “Kate, stop it.  This is why women don’t get the top jobs”.  It was an incredibly important moment for me. Women can empower themselves by having confidence in what they can do and ignoring the inner critic that says otherwise.  

On the future

It’s an exciting time for Smart Works. We saw over 2,000 women last year and one in two of those we are able to contact go on to succeed at interview.  We want to take that model and bring it to life in other cities around the UK but we don’t want to do it at a rate that would make us implode or compromise the quality of the service we offer. We want to open in a maximum of two cities a year for the next three years; at the moment we’re at five cities, London, Birmingham, Reading, Manchester and Edinburgh and the dream is to expand that to a total of ten.

 “We are constantly balancing a desire to look and feel great, with a need to be taken seriously.  Great clothes and styling allows you to combine the two, navigate a potential minefield and make you feel powerful and authentic.”

Getting personal

I have always believed in aspirational dressing - dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Dress in the clothes that you feel send a positive message and don’t let others judge that for you. One of my favourite pieces of clothing to wear is a bright green Goat dress. I love colour and wearing it puts a smile on my face and makes me feel full of energy. Everyone should own something that makes them feel fantastic; something that is beautifully cut, fits perfectly and ensures you feel special. The Goat dress is my power piece, I always go to it when I need a boost. 

Silkarmour Boardroom in Conversation with Kate StephensMy vice is heels, and I am never without them in the workplace.  I would never impose this folly on others, but for me, heels complete an outfit.  I always carry flats too, which can cause issues.  Stepping onto a train to the Smart Works Greater Manchester board meeting last year I discovered I had two left feet with me.  Thankfully we were also visiting our partners Hobbs at their new store in Manchester and I was able to put the matter right without too much damage being done.

The best advice I’ve ever received is don’t try to be perfect. I think women try to be everything at once, but that’s just not possible. When you are with your kids, be with your kids and when you’re at work, be at work; give each aspect of your life your complete focus. Your career won’t be a straight line and neither will having a family; you will have plateau moments but don’t panic.

If I were Queen for a day? I’d do something fun like give everyone another bank holiday and annual leave on your birthday.  I believe in working hard, it is the common thread which underpins all successful organisations, but it is also crucial to take the time to celebrate with and enjoy the company of our friends and family. 

“Kate Stephens is CEO of Smart Works, a UK charity that provides high quality interview clothes, styling advice and interview training to out-of-work women on low incomes.  Smart Works help women to feel confident, look fabulous, succeed at their job interview and move on with their life; one in two of the women they support get the job. If you would like to know more about how you can get involved please contact the main office at london@smartworks.org.uk or on 0207 288 1770, and visit the website www.smartworks.org.uk to find out how to donate clothing or to view the current volunteer opportunities.”

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