Q&A with our Charity Partner: Smart Works Reading by Emily Mead

Donating Bags to Smart Works Reading

This International Women’s Day, we pledged to donate one bag to Smart Works Reading for every five bags sold. As a business, we wanted to be able to give back to the community within the surrounding Thames Valley area and make a difference on such an important day. We have been partners with Smart Works since 2015, and we are proud a donator to their Reading centre.

Smart Works Reading Client With Knomo Black Barlow Backpack

Q&A with Smart Works Development and Fundraising Manager

We interviewed Anna Fowler, Development and Fundraising Manager at Smart Works Reading to get her opinions on International Women’s Day, equality and to hear more about the brilliant work our charity partner carries out on a daily basis.

 

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself -what’s your job role within Smart Works and what drew you to the role there?

A: I am the Development and Fundraising Manager for Smart Works in Reading. I am responsible for raising and managing all funds through events and grants, as well as developing partnerships across the Thames Valley with corporate entities, retailers and supporters. My work ensures that Smart Works Reading is able to offer much-needed clothing and one-to-one coaching for women in need of support on their journey into the workplace.

I joined Smart Works Reading in November 2019. I already knew about the charity as I had donated clothes and attended several of fundraising Sustainable Fashion sales. When I saw the job advertised I jumped at the chance to apply. This really is a dream role – working with inspiring and motivated women in supporting our clients into the workplace. We all share the same goal: to believe in an equal future.

Q: How did the idea for Smart Works charity come into being?

A: Smart Works started in North London, which remains our HQ and busiest location. In November 2013, we opened our second centre in West London. We then set up the Smart Works model so that we could support more women across the UK.

The Smart Works service now operates across eight locations in the UK: North London, West London, Edinburgh, Greater Manchester, Reading, Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds. Smart Works Reading opened in October 2015 with a vision of bringing the dressing and interview coaching service to women within the Thames Valley.

Q: This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Each for Equal’. How does this fit in to Smart Works’ philosophy and the work you carry out with women in need?

A: We believe that every woman should have an equal chance to excel at job interviews and progress into the workforce. Unemployment is associated with a number of social ills including poverty, increased risk of physical and mental health issues, reduced emotional wellbeing, and greater likelihood of family problems. Research shows us that the chances of leaving unemployment reduces the longer it goes on and that women face challenges.

Those who experience long-term unemployment also experience numerous job rejections which, in turn, can impact negatively on their confidence and attitude. However, employers look for a positive attitude when hiring. So, you find yourself in a catch 22 situation.

We know that the right attitude and a professional appearance are important for most jobs. Smart Works takes this into account in the way it helps its clients, many of whom are disadvantaged, to prepare effectively for a job interview. It ensures that financial constraints do not prevent a woman from projecting a professional image and that past negative life experiences do not get in the way of her realising her future potential.

Q: Do Smart Works have any special events planned for International Women’s Day?

A: I feel that International Women’s Day is a bit like the Smart Works Reading Christmas! We’ve had lots of invitations to amazing, celebratory events and so many lovely people raising funds for us through raffles, our Spin for Smart Works cycling challenge and more. Our staff and volunteers are speaking at events ranging from a women’s SME networking group at Fora in Reading, to larger corporate audiences at Avis, Reckitt Benckiser and Freeths, to name a few. It’s also a busy time with people dropping off donations of quality interview-ready clothing for our clients. It really is an exciting time of year.

Q: How has your partnership with KNOMO benefitted your clients?

A: Knomo has been incredibly supportive of Smart Works Reading. The minute we receive a Knomo delivery, the bags are put on display in the dressing room and fly out the door with our clients. Every client is given a bag, which is such an important factor in completing a professional, interview-ready outfit. As the Knomo bags are large enough to store a pair of shoes, our clients know that they can travel to their interview in comfortable footwear and change before the interview if they need to. Thank you, Knomo, for your continuing support.

Q: How many women have you helped to date?

A: We have supported over 1500 women in four years and have helped over 600 clients to get the job. That translates as almost £9.5m of salaries going into disadvantaged households in the Thames Valley, based on the minimum wage.

Q: Apart from giving them smart new clothes, how else do you prepare women for the world of work?

A: We give women the confidence, the self-belief and the practical tools they require to succeed at interview and start a new chapter of their life. We offer practical non-judgemental advice and a welcoming safe environment.

Crucially, there are no barriers to access, and the Smart Works service is open to all women in need who have a job interview confirmed.

We want to ensure that every single woman who comes to see us leaves with a renewed sense of self-worth, inclusion, belief in her own abilities, empowerment, looking and feeling great, and ready to succeed at their job interview. We do this by working together on:

Behaviour - Role playing interview scenarios to improve our client’s communication skills, from basics like smiling and eye contact, to answering questions with relevant examples.

Aptitude - we help our clients to identify their abilities and unlock their potential, e.g. all the skills needed to be carer. This can include management of personal budgets, negotiation and influencing skills when requesting social care assistance and spatial visualization when living or helping someone with a disability like wheelchair access.

Personality – Helping our clients to rebuild their emotional resilience by open listening. We offer an open, non-judgmental, safe environment to explore self. We assess their needs very quickly and provide recommendations as to how to best present themselves in an interview situation.

Objective – helping women into employment and to gain financial independence, giving their families and children a positive role model.

Q: What is the long-term impact of getting more women back into work?

A: For many women, the ability to get work and prosper in paid employment is vital for economic independence. Women being able to work is also important to the economy and for the living standards of women and their families.

Additionally, by reintroducing more women to the workforce, we are helping to provide a pipeline of talent and support local businesses to recruit the staff they need to thrive and grow.

Q: What are your top tips for interviewing well?

A:

1. Look the interviewer in the eye and keep looking at him or her – if there is more than one interviewer, try to include all of them in your eye contact.

2. Remain alert and look interested in what the interviewer is saying

3. Switch off your mobile phone

4. If you are nervous, hold your hands firmly in your lap

5. Speak clearly and slowly

6. Take time to think about your answers, and use specific examples

7. Be yourself, but stay professional

Q: What is your advice on how women can be more confident in the workplace and achieve more at work?

A: I’ll leave this to my colleague to answer: Claire Lawley is our Service Delivery Manager at Smart Works Reading. She says:

“I’ve certainly been challenged as a woman working in male-dominated environments in the past. I quickly realised that being one of a few women in that space was an actually an advantage and turned what could’ve been an intimidating and negative experience into a positive one. I was bold enough to believe that I could bring something different to the team and by changing my mindset. I’m now inspired through the work I do at Smart Works and I feel empowered on a daily basis. I get to help women overcome their personal challenges and see our wonderful volunteers help to clients reach their full potential every single day. What could be more empowering?”

Q: What equality issues would you like to see resolved in 2020?

A: Speaking personally rather than on behalf of Smart Works, I would like to see better social mobility so that more people have the chance to study and work at a more equal level.

Read more about our ongoing support with Smart Works Reading here