Giving women the smarts for success

October 2, 2019

Helen Sinclair is chair of Smart Works Newcastle, the charity that supports and empowers women by providing free workwear and job interview coaching. Since establishing in April 2018, the North East charity has helped almost 400 women. Alison Cowie speaks to Helen to find out more

When was Smart Works established and what was its aim?

Smart Works started in London in 2013 to provide a core service that helps women be in the best possible place for a job interview by providing an appropriate interview outfit and being supported with interview techniques. That remains the primary aim today. Smart Works has grown quickly and has since regionalised. We opened the Newcastle charity in April last year. You were instrumental in getting Smart Works to Newcastle.

How did that come about?

I came across Smart Works on the internet and I thought, ‘wow, that’s a brilliant idea’. I kept looking at the website and I could see different regional centres opening. I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t one in Newcastle, so one afternoon I emailed the regional development manager at Smart Works to ask why, and I got an email back saying a Newcastle event was planned and asking if I’d like to arrange a meeting.

What did opening the Newcastle charity entail?

After that initial meeting with Smart Works HQ, four co-founding trustees came together. We formed a board and developed a business plan. We then did everything from locating premises, sourcing stock to recruiting volunteers – all our services are volunteer-delivered. We have since grown to ten trustees and two members of staff.

What are the services you offer women who attend Smart Works?

A woman comes to us for a two-hour appointment at the point they have a confirmed job interview. We welcome them and try and find out as much as we can about them and their interview. The first hour is a styling appointment with two of our volunteer stylists. We ask about the person’s preferences and what they feel comfortable and confident wearing. Our stylists then look to find the ideal outfit – which is theirs to keep. The woman will spend the second hour with one of our volunteer interview coaches, who are experienced HR professionals or senior managers, used to interviewing and recruiting. That hour is bespoke where the coach works through the job specification and can advise them what to expect at the interview and answer any concerns they might have. We know that one of the barriers of taking up a job is having enough clothing to get through a working week, and so if the woman is successful in that interview or any interview within six months, they can come back to us for a second dressing appointment to get four or five key pieces, which gives them a capsule working wardrobe.

What was it about the Smart Works concept that chimed with you?

I was the first person in my family to go to university and when I left I had no idea how to approach a formal job interview. The only job I’d had prior to this was a Saturday job at Woolworths. I didn’t have anyone to ask for advice, and I also found myself in a lot of university debt. I remember being in the changing room of a department store with my mum. We had found a suit that I could wear for the interviews I had lined up, and went through our purses to work out whether we had enough money between us to buy it. We managed that day, but there are lots of women who don’t have people they can ask what happens in an interview or to support them with clothing. When I found out about Smart Works I thought that would have been so useful to me back then. It made perfect sense.

Tell me a bit about your career and how do you balance your current role with Smart Works?

I originally qualified as a pharmacist and spent ten years working across the North East. I then got the opportunity to move into professional pharmacy regulation. I now work for the medical regulator full time. Doing this, along with Smart Works, is a bit of a balancing act. I spend time in the service as often as possible and communicate regularly over email. I also have a hugely supportive board and two fantastic employees – Nathalie Bouleau Chabot and Helen Boyd. Who can access the Smart Works services and what is the process for this? We work with a wide range of referral partners – including the job centres, employability schemes and other charities. People can also self-refer by calling us, and our contact details are on our website. All we ask is that they identify as a woman and that they have a confirmed job interview. In terms of the level of job, it can be anything.

How can people become involved in and support Smart Works?

We have a core pool of about 50 volunteers who are split between stylists and interview coaches. Stock volunteers also look after and curate our dressing room. We’re very proud of the fact that it’s North East women reaching out to lend a helping hand to other North East women. In terms of our stock, it comes from a mixture of places. Centrally, the organisation has some brand relationships with the likes of Hobbs, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Burberry. But people can also donate clothing directly to us. We’re always looking for good quality, appropriate workwear – particularly shoes and handbags. We also run a programme of fundraising events that people can attend – last month we held a lunch at Six at BALTIC with Lulu Guinness as the guest speaker, and in October we are holding our Sustainable Clothing Sale at Newcastle University Student’s Union.

What about companies – can they get involved too?

Definitely. In fact, we are currently in the process of recruiting our 2020 charity of the year partners. There are other ways local businesses can get involved – for example, holding fundraising events. Every March, Smart Works as a whole has a sponsored Spin event across the UK where teams of five people aim to cycle 500 miles in the week leading up to International Women’s Day. We had amazing local support in our first year, and NBS, based in Newcastle, cycled the most miles out of any team in the UK.

What has been the feedback of the women who have used the services?

Feedback so far has been fantastic and overwhelmingly positive. We regularly get thank you cards and personal stories shared with us. Last week, one of our clients who had recently used the service and got a job came back to see us with cake. She was adamant she would not have been successful at interview if it wasn’t for Smart Works Newcastle. Everyone says they feel much more confident and more positive after their appointment.

Are Smart Works’ services available to men?

Smart Works only offers its services to those who identify as women and we don’t stock men’s clothing. But we do know a similar service for men is being established in Tyneside soon. It’s great news because we’ll be able to refer people there and vice versa.

What are your plans for Smart Works Newcastle?

Last year exceeded our expectations, which has meant we’ve been able to move ahead with plans quicker than we imagined. The phones are answered five days a week and we currently see clients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We are looking to introduce a fourth day by the end of the year. We’re also planning our Spin event in 2020 and we’re working on a programme of activities for people to sign up to and get involved in – if anyone would like to become a Smart Supporter, then please get in touch at newcastle@smartworks.org.uk.

Smart Works Newcastle
For more information or to get involved in Smart Works Newcastle, visit: www.smartworks.org.uk/newcastle-smart-works

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