The CEO of Smart Works Charity on power dressing and female confidence.
Every woman has the ability to get the job she wants according to Kate Stephens – they just need a good support network and the right outfit.
Something our Real Hedoines all have in common is their passion for championing other women, and in Kate Stephens’ case, she has literally made that her job. After graduating with a degree in Marketing and Management, it was the charity sector that caught Kate’s attention, eventually leading her to Smart Works – a charity that supports women, who are underprivileged and unemployed, to find work. How do they do it? By giving them the tools to unearth the confidence that their life circumstances have buried so deeply inside them.
We catch up about the importance of a good support network, finding career fulfilment and, of course, the art of power dressing...
The majority of your career has been in the charity sector. Can you tell us a bit about that and what inspired you to work in this sector specifically?
I started my career in political consultancy as I’ve always been motivated by bringing about change. I was able to bring these skills to a trustee role at a charity that was doing incredibly important work around childcare (an issue close to my heart as a new mum at the time). I soon realised the charity sector was an inspiring place to be – committed to changing people’s lives for the better but also dynamic and entrepreneurial. When I had the opportunity to move full time into the sector as CEO of Smart Works, I didn’t hesitate.
Helping women to be their best through such a simple yet tangible and profound service is a daily inspiration.
What interested you about Smart Works?
The clarity of purpose, to take this brilliant service to more women across the UK, combined with the opportunity to grow and scale something so important. Over the last 8 years we’ve opened 8 centres and helped 20,000 women and we’ve got big plans for the future. And of course all of this is underpinned by a love for our dressing and coaching service – it’s the golden thread that runs through everything to do with Smart Works.
What is the most interesting/fulfilling part of your job?
Without a doubt when you see a client look in the mirror, dressed for interview success in her new outfit. There is often a smile, and she will look directly at herself and think, “maybe, maybe I can do this.” And of course, more often than not, she does.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
It can vary but in the last twelve months it was those moments when we had to close the centre to in person appointments. The virtual service has been brilliant and it means we’ve been able to continue supporting women throughout the pandemic but there is something incredible about the energy of our centres when they’re full of women, supporting and helping each other to be their best.
We've heard you wanted to be a Blue Peter TV presenter when you were growing up – what was it about them that made you want to do that?
Wow that’s some amazing sleuthing! I guess it was the sense of adventure, one day you’re making Tracy Island out of toilet rolls the next you’re exploring different cultures and learning about other traditions and ways of life. Also, I loved the connection with so many people and the bond between the presenters. At the time, EVERYONE watched Blue Peter, and I wanted in! Although I wouldn’t claim to match the glamour of Blue Peter in its 1980s heyday, I hope we have a similar sense of community, of aspiration and of fun in each Smart Works centre around the UK.
When a woman comes to Smart Works, what is the process that she goes through? Can you talk us through it?
It starts with a referral from someone – it could be her work coach at a job centre or it could be someone from a charity that’s supporting her. Once that referral has been made we’ll book her in for an appointment at a time that suits her.
When the client arrives she is greeted by one of the team who will explain what is going to happen, make sure she feels comfortable and then our dressers will come and chat to her about her upcoming interview and what she wants to wear.
They’ll go and curate a rail of clothes for her and bring her down to our dressing room. From there it’s a case of working with her until we find the perfect outfit.
Once that has happened the client gets an hour of one to one coaching with one of our brilliant volunteer coaches. This can be anything from doing a mock interview to giving advice on how to structure an answer or how to prepare for the interview. She leaves us and we are proud to say that within a month, around two thirds go on to get the job.
Our aim is to make sure that every woman who walks through our door leaves feeling like the best version of herself ahead of her interview.
From working at Smart Works, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges women face when looking for work?
I think confidence is a big barrier for women. Having someone believe in you and believing in yourself makes all the difference.
We know that every woman who walks through our door is strong, capable and independent and it’s our job to create a safe space for them to realise that as well. Once they have that confidence it makes getting the job so much easier.
What would be your key piece of advice to any woman (or anyone in fact) looking for a job and having trouble getting past the first interview stage?
Don’t undersell yourself. As women we sometimes hold back. I met a client the other day who got the job after coming to see us. She talked about how her coach encouraged her to embrace her experience as an immigrant and the strengths that the experience had given her, rather than holding back about it at an interview.
She said it was the best piece of advice she received and she hasn’t had another interview since where she hasn’t been offered the job.
We know that every woman who walks through our door is strong, capable and independent and it’s our job to create a safe space for them to realise that.
What are the key things to know when putting a great interview outfit together?
The key thing is does it make you feel confident. If I ever have a big meeting I have a couple of dresses that I’ll always go for because they make me feel confident and good about myself. That way I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing on the day, I know I’ll be comfortable and I can focus all my energy on making it the best meeting possible.
You've previously said that the career advice to your younger self would be not to panic and to do something that rings true to you. Have you had moments in your career where you felt panicked or lacking direction? And how did you deal with that?
Everyone has had moments like that, I’m no exception. The key is having a good support network around you. People who you can talk to and who are removed from the situation and able to listen and help you find a way through. Often the situation isn’t as bad as it might first seem. By giving yourself space, having someone to talk to and formulate a plan going forward it can make all the difference.
This year, the International Women’s Day theme is #BreakTheBias – how has Smart Works and the work you do helped women overcome inequality, stereotypes and bias?
Everyone has a responsibility to help #breakthebias, but one of the ways we try and help at Smart Works is by encouraging women to find the confidence to be proud of who they are and to own their story. I’ve been lucky enough to witness thousands of women transformed during their appointment and go on to achieve incredible things, beyond what they thought possible.
How do you let your hair down and relax?
I have adopted London as my home and love everything about the city – the great restaurants, galleries, museums, shops, and the fact there is always something new to discover. I love discovering new places with friends and family.
I love to empower, elevate and celebrate women. It’s the foundation of every decision I make at Smart Works.
What do you think makes you a Real Hedoine?
I love to empower, elevate and celebrate women. It’s the foundation of every decision I make at Smart Works. If the world put a little more time and effort into giving a hand-up to women in need we would all be better off for it.
Kate’s interview marks a full year since the launch of Real Hedoines! To support the incredible work that Kate is doing, we are donating a pair of tights to Smart Works charity for every order placed at www.hedoine.com the week commencing International Women’s Day, 8th March, 2023.