Smart Works guides UK women into the workplace
By Sangeeta Waldron — Leading up to International Women’s Day, I spoke with Jane Shepherdson (JS), MBE, a leading figure in fashion retail, former CEO of Whistles and prior to that, Brand Director at Topshop. Shepherdson has supported young designers through the London College of Fashion's Centre of Fashion Enterprise and has helped promote Fair Trade fashion to a wider audience as a Board member of Peopletree until 2013.
Shepherson is also Creative Advisor to Oxfam and a patron of the charity Smart Works, a service that offers free professional clothing and job interview training to women. I spoke with her about her role at Smart Works and what this charity is all about.
This is the first of a two-part conversation.
SW: What attracted you to get involved with Smart Works?
JS: I was approached by Tiffany Darke, Editor of Sunday Times Style, back in 2010, who, unbeknownst to me, was a huge supporter of Smart Works. Tiffany had organised a Christmas Fair to raise money and awareness for the charity, and wanted to know if Whistles would support it. Tiffany was and still is a persuasive character, but it was also the simplicity of the vision that Smart Works had that attracted me.
We immediately decided to both donate and help raise money at the following Christmas fair. A few weeks later, I also got to know Juliet Hughes Hallet, founder of Smart Works, at an event that she hosted at 10 Downing Street.
SW: How have you been involved with the Charity? What advice do you personally offer the women being supported by Smart Works?
JS: In my position of CEO at Whistles, we were able to donate clothes both for their clients and for their annual auction, which helps them to raise funds needed to staff their centres. I was asked to become a patron for the charity a year ago and in that role, I help in any way I can, from talking through problems that the charity is having to giving advice when necessary to introducing people to Smart Works who can help spread the message, give interview advice, mentoring, or raise funds. Smart Works is a simple concept. The results are clear and the clients are wonderful ambassadors; it is an easy charity to promote.
My advice to any of the women who take advantage of the service that Smart Works provides is, to believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will.
SW: What’s the best piece of work advice that you have been given?
JS: I think that early on in my career, I was told to always recruit people who are much brighter than you are! I have since surrounded myself with super intelligent people who are far better at their jobs than I could ever be. The mistake is to be threatened by people like that, as you have to be able to delegate to be successful.
SW: What do you think prospective employers are looking for when recruiting?
JS: They are usually looking for someone who is confident in their abilities, relaxed and self-assured, along with an ability and desire to seek solutions. It’s also important that the person will fit in with the culture of the business and can show that at the interview. It goes without saying that good research of the company goes a long way, and shows respect.
SW: Why do you think the Charity has been so successful in what it does?
JS: I think that what it offers is simple and straightforward, but the reason that it works so well, is the quality of the service on offer.
There are so many women, who, for so many reasons have lost their confidence, having been out of the jobs market for some time, and all they need is someone to care. They are offered a wonderful styling appointment, with a well-qualified, respectful and kind stylist. The clothes are generally premium and in very good condition, from Burberry suits, Whistles dresses and tasteful leather handbags.
The women are given time, kindness and excellent advice on what suits them, to make them look special. In addition, they can have dedicated help in interview techniques by someone who has been in HR, or is currently employed in an HR team—this means the information is current and helpful.
Smart Works’ approach is to be kind, respectful and helpful to everyone that comes through the door. Its success is down to the high standard of delivery—there is such an enthusiasm throughout Smart Works at every level.
SW: What are your tips for dressing for impact? Do you think the ‘suit’ is still the dress code for success?
JS: I think the most important thing is to be yourself, to let your own style and personality shine through, as you will feel more confident if that is the case. A suit can make you feel as though you have the armour to face whoever it is that you need to impress, but equally, if it really isn’t you, it will make you feel awkward and stiff.
I think a dress is perfectly acceptable, as are well-cut trousers and a shirt. The whole outfit, including accessories is important, as people will look at the way you have presented yourself totally.
I really love a good jacket, and if I need to impress I will wear one that makes me feel strong, stylish and very much myself. I won’t wear matching trousers, but will make sure that my shoes are bang on, and I will make sure that the coat I wear on top compliments the whole. I almost never wear dresses or skirts, as I’ve got bandy legs and they feel a little too feminine for me!
SW: What can businesses do to help support Smart Works?
JS: Smart Works now has two centres in London, and one in Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and Reading, but there is a need for the service that they offer all around the country. While they need money, they also need donations of good quality clothing and accessories, plus volunteers to help style, and give advice. They also need to raise awareness, so that they can reach out to more women who need the service.
SW: What would you like to see improve for UK women in the workplace?
JS: I am in favour of quotas to get us to the stage where women represent 50% of main boards and 50% of government, because until that happens, we will always be a minority that is different, instead of the norm. The old boys’ clubs will persist and female success will be dependent upon being assertive enough to stand up to the alpha males that run this country.
SW: What’s next for you?
JS: I’m taking a year out and travelling across the US to recalibrate my life! I haven’t decided what I will do when I return, to go back to fashion in some form, or continue to utilise my skills in other directions. I might even try teaching, if I have enough experience to offer students.
A Smart Work Story
Isra came to Smart Works in July 2016 having been unemployed for five years. During that time, she had applied for over 50 jobs and was naturally feeling very demoralized when she visited Smart Works for the first time. Isra had secured an interview for a job she wanted but she had no self-confidence and says:
“When I got the interview I was very nervous and worried because I hadn’t succeeded in the past but I really wanted the job. I had applied for lots of jobs, but didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have much support and felt very alone.
Smart Works is very friendly. I was so nervous when I arrived and wasn’t really sure what would happen, but everyone was so kind and helpful. The clothes were beautiful and the interview coach gave me the best advice. In an hour, I learnt more than I ever had about interviews."
Like the majority of Smart Works cases, Isra found out she had got the job at Run Housing Group, and says, “After going to Smart Works I thought to myself, ‘yes I can do this, I can really do this’. I never usually feel like I can do anything. I aced my interview and got my perfect job.”
Photo Credit: Jane Shepherdson