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INSPIRING WOMEN WITH KATE STEPHENS, CEO OF SMART WORKS

INSPIRING WOMEN WITH KATE STEPHENS, CEO OF SMART WORKS

In our new Journal series, we speak to inspiring women and changemakers about their lives and work. 

For International Women’s Day, our founder Genia Mineeva spoke to the CEO of Smart Works Charity Kate Stephens about her journey to get to where she is now, what gets her out of bed in the mornings, the importance of measuring impact, and of course, what’s in her handbag.

This year marks Kate Stephen’s 10th year at the helm of Smart Works– the incredible UK charity that empowers women who need help getting into work by providing them with high-quality clothes and one-to-one interview coaching. “It's very exciting. No, it's not necessarily where I thought I would be. But at the same time, it's exactly where I want to be, which feels like a very privileged position to be in actually,” Kate shares.

Kate Stephens, CEO of Smart Works

 

“I've always enjoyed making things happen and being able to see the tangible results of what I do. I'm quite a practical person, I'm quite a positive person, and I want to achieve things and make a difference. And that can take lots of different routes.”

Starting her career as a graduate trainee at a political consultancy, Kate’s work crossed public affairs, government, and the intersection between business, trade bodies, charity, and the people making the rules. “Bringing those together so that you could achieve understanding and then make change happen– I really enjoyed that. I find it very inspiring and intellectually exciting. I enjoy things where I'm learning– it's important to me to be learning all the time.”

After having children, Kate became the trustee of a childcare charity, campaigning for affordable childcare (“I came late to the charity sector, but it was very exciting and rewarding to be helping a charity making really important changes in something that I felt very passionately about, because I think if you can't get your childcare sorted as a working mum, you can't work”), before joining Smart Works as their first Chief Executive. “All the pieces were here to build up an exciting, yet tangible and important charity. I could see how all the different bits of my skill set would be helpful. I think that's another thing that women need to feel– like they're being helpful. So it all came together. And it's been an amazing journey, ever since!”

Genia met Kate at the Smart Works HQ in North London to discuss the charity’s work, the importance of measuring impact, her favourite haunts in East London and the women who inspire her. Read their conversation below.

 

Genia and Kate at Smart Works HQ

 

Genia: I think it’s incredible what you guys do. For someone who hasn't heard about the charity, how would you summarise your work?

Kate: We dress and coach women for their job interview. But the magic of the charity is why that works. And I think what we really do is connect women to their potential and allow them to feel comfortable in who they are.

The journey they go on before a job interview is really important. And if you didn't feel great for it, you're not going to succeed. And you know, 69% of the clients that come here are going to get the job, and I think that really proves the point, actually, that this makes a difference. That's a huge number.  It's very important as a charity to be able to show what your impact is.

Genia: As a business as well. If you don't measure, you don't know how you are making progress. So I think it's something any impact organisation, but actually any organisation, should be thinking about– what is the impact we're making and how it can improve.

Kate: Exactly. And I think it helps if you take yourself seriously as well, sometimes. We are a lot of mainly women working here with clothes, it could be easy for people not to take this seriously. And it's very important to us that they do. So, we're very focused on our KPIs– on how many women we help, and that those women then go on to get the job. And then we can show that all of these things are not just nice to have or nice to do, they actually make a difference. 

Genia: This is something we share as well, as a brand making handbags and an all female team. I totally agree with you, it is almost more important to make sure that the impact, the numbers, what you measure, how you measure, and the positive impact you're making is really at the centre of everything that you do.

Kate: Exactly, and to really give yourself permission to own that as well. Fashion can be a real force for good. 

Kate Stephens, CEO of Smart Works with BEEN London bag

 

Genia: I want to ask you about your personal motivation. I know there are days when I have to drag myself out of bed, but then I remind myself about the why, and that helps me. What is your why, on a really rainy terrible day, what gets you out of bed? 

Kate: Well, I think it's one of the huge privileges of running this charity, actually, is that fundamentally, we're here because people need us. And that's a really important responsibility that we have. Every single day women come here who need help to succeed at job interviews and get their lives back on track. 

Also there are more women out there who don't know about us and need to know about us so they can come here, and that's very motivating. And it's a great mix of being both motivating and very grounding as well. Every day we see people here asking for help who never thought they'd be here, but ended up here because a relationship breaks down, a job is lost, there's a death or something happens in the family, and it just destabilises everything. And before you know it, people are in a situation they never thought they would be in. So, we are here, and we see that, and we want to be able to help anyone be their best. 

 

Kate Stephens, CEO of Smart Works


Genia: I love the fact that you're also based in this part of London. We’re based just 10 minutes from here. What are your favourite places around here?

Kate: One of the joys of being here is that you're constantly seeing new things popping up. We were all very excited when the local coffee shop Cooks and Books opened around the corner. When it opened up, it caused a massive rush here because being able to get a nice cup of coffee and come to work, feeling kind of inspired in that way is a really great thing. 

My favourite place to go for cocktails with girlfriends on an evening is called 69 Colebrooke Row, which is just a lovely kind of Prohibition era cocktail bar where the waiters have white suits and they just do really brilliant cocktails in a very understated way with a piano. And it's just a great place to go for drinks. There's no food, you know, it's just perfect for a martini. So that's one of my favourite places to go in the evenings.

 

Kate Stephens, CEO of Smart Works

 

Genia: I’m obviously fascinated by handbags and what they mean to women. They seem to signify so much - the values, the income levels, approach to style… Tell me about yours. What do you always carry in your bag? And how does it change from the week to the weekend?

Kate: I do like a bag that's kind of practical and has space for things. I usually have my laptop, I have makeup essentials, I used to have a pair of very easy slip on little flat shoes as well actually, that I then might switch in and out because I do still wear a heel now and again but I don’t want to run around in them.

I like a bag that has the flexibility to be able to carry things here and there that I slip in and out. And then I'll always have bits and pieces from my life. I'm not super organised actually in that way. So, there will be something related to school, there'll be a timetable or there'll be a bit of someone's pencil case, or things that I have picked up and scooped up from around the house and put in my bag and then just carry around. My kids are teenagers now, but when they were younger, I used to constantly have snacks in my bags as well. 

And then often I might have a crossbody bag as well, which has just got my phone and my keys so I can have those to hand. I love those crossbody phone holdersI think they’re brilliant. You know, that heart stopping feeling you have when you can't find your phone?

Genia: And weekends. Is it this small crossbody?

Kate: Yeah, my kids are older so I tend to not need the giant bag of stuff. Because there is that stage in your life where you've just got a big bag that you carry around. One of the joys of having older children, I think, and having a more grown up weekend, is that you can just go out with a small bag. It's such a luxury. I do think you need lots of different kinds of practical sizes and types of bags to carry you through, and then they stay with you, they're an important part of your identity and who you are. 

Kate Stephens, CEO of Smart Works


Genia: Any women who are really inspiring you right now? 

Kate: I've always found my inspiration pretty close to home. I've been very lucky in my career to have a series of really amazing women that I've worked with. Our founder, Juliet Hughes-Hallett worked at British Vogue and then started the idea of Smart Works as both dressing and coaching and brought me on as the Chief Exec. That was a really special relationship - where you can really work closely with somebody, but also learn from them. And I suppose we had very complementary skills. We worked together for eight years, she's still our honorary president.

Then we've got an amazing board and some fantastic trustees and women– people like Jane Shepherdson, who have seen every bit of retail and bring that expertise to our dressing room. Actually, we think it's amazing that our clients are being dressed by these brilliant people.

Smart Works is a great example of a lot of inspiring female talent. Lots of our volunteers are really impressive, amazing women who give up their time and that is in itself very inspiring. So Smart Works as a community inspires itself.

Our clients are also really inspiring, The women who come here and ask for help – that's really hard to do and needs respect. So we treat that with great respect as well. And that's very inspiring to see. 

I'm very lucky to have great female friends. That's very important to me. I've got two daughters. I've got an amazing mum. All these people have been very important in my life, probably more so than people far away that do brilliant things but I don't necessarily know– I find my inspiration at home.

Kate is modelling our New East Tote in Blood Orange. Photographs by Shona Goolab.

Smart Works Charity No: 1080609

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