She’s long been an advocate for women’s rights. And now, the Duchess of Sussex is using her role in the Royal Family to empower unemployed women and help them get back to work.
Today, Kensington Palace announced four patronages for Duchess Meghan, including Smart Works, a charity that helps women get jobs by cultivating their interview skills and providing professional clothes to boost their confidence. The palace statement followed months of Meghan secretly visiting the organization’s north London headquarters. During her first trip last March, she took meetings with Smart Works execs and privately coached clients of the program as a volunteer.
The royal patronage is a natural fit for Meghan, who first reached out to the charity through a Kensington Palace aide in January 2018 after conducting research on Britain’s charitable landscape. She’d already witnessed the transformative power of a new look as a Northwestern University student in Chicago, where she worked closely with an initiative that donated prom dresses to teenage girls who couldn’t afford their own.
Smart Works founder and former Vogue UK fashion editor Juliet Hughes-Hallett fondly recalls Meghan’s first visit, telling BAZAAR.com, “Instantly she wanted get stuck in… She’s really good at showing empathy, making the women feel safe and know they’re not going to have anyone’s will imposed upon them.
“She really fits in and it’s always really fun when she comes, which is a wonderful thing to be able to say,” Hallett said.
Just two hours after her January 10 patronage announcements—the other three are the National Theatre, The Association of Commonwealth Universities, and animal welfare organization Mayhew—Meghan paid a surprise visit to Smart Works’ pop-up base at west London’s St. Charles Hospital. Dressed in a black Hatch maternity dress and tailored camel Oscar de la Renta coat, Meghan warmly greeted Hughes-Hullet and CEO Kate Stephens, whom she got to know during five previous visits to the organization’s Islington offices.
Stephens tells BAZAAR, “We’ve welcomed the Duchess on private visits and she’s been amazing right from the start. When you step into Smart Works, everyone feels we’re on you’re side. We’ve taken the weight off your shoulders. We’re women helping other women to succeed, and that is what [Meghan] has always been about.”
“Things go rubbish at times but then little things like this spur you on and make you realize that people do care, see you, value you.” —Smart Works client Sarah Barrett
Due to childrearing responsibilities, women are statistically more likely to have breaks in their employment history than men, Stephens said. A third of Smart Works clients have already interviewed for close to 50 jobs before coming to the charity, which receives referrals from prisons, care services, homeless shelters, employment centers, and refuges for women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds.
Meghan’s appearance at Smart Works took Sarah Barrett, who recently found work in a school reception role through the organization, by total surprise. “I only found out when I got here!” she told BAZAAR.com. “She’s so caring, so welcoming, and understanding. I’m really fortunate to have had Smart Works on my side… Things go rubbish at times but then little things like this spur you on and make you realize that people do care, see you, value you.”
During a conversation with 38-year-old Barrett, who was wearing the same Monsoon coat that helped her land her new job, Meghan spoke about the charity’s effective confidence building. “It’s amazing how you feel when you’re in here,” Barrett said. “It turns it around in a second. You come in feeling so low but you’re reminded of your value.”
Smart Works’ impact is one of the many reasons Meghan was keen to become a patron of the charity, which provides services in six UK cities and has helped thousands of women find jobs since 2013.
“What the Duchess has connected with and what we love about the service is that it’s so tangible,” said CEO Stephens. “Sixty percent of women leave here and go on and get the job, so we can point out that this is making a real difference. It’s the things that you need to succeed.”
Thursday’s visit was also a chance for the Duchess to demonstrate some of the skills that made her so popular with clients on previous visits. The charity provides a “Second Dressing” service for those with job offers, pulling together a free capsule wardrobe of five looks that will carry them until their first pay check.
Meghan helped two newly-employed ladies put together looks from the charity’s carefully-curated rails, which features donations from supporters including Burberry, Hobbs, Jigsaw, Kate Spade, LK Bennett, Marks & Spencer, and Whistles. “It was so exhilarating to meet the Duchess,” said mom-of-three Patsy Wardally, 55, who had to stop work as a trained plumber to look after her daughter with autism for 16 years. Today, she has a job at Gatwick Airport as a passenger services agent. “She picked out a Hobbs cape, a pair of earrings, a bracelet and a handbag for me,” Wardally said. “She chose things that were fantastic and now I feel much more confident and more beautiful.”
Like all volunteers at the charity, Meghan is careful to never impose and is always respectful of individual tastes. “The last time I was here I suggested a purse to someone,” she laughed, recalling the moment to Hughes-Hallett. “It was one that I donated and she didn’t like it… I was like ‘Okay.’ I thought it was great!”
While a lot of the clothes are gifted by fashion brands, Smart Works also receives many items through individual donations from women around the country. “It’s not just donating your clothes and seeing where they land but really being part of each others’ success stories as women,” Meghan said in a conversation with Hughes-Hallett, Stephens, and Barrett during the visit. “It’s not just hand-me-downs, it’s saying, ‘Okay, this is the blazer I wore that helped me land that interview and I want this to be the piece that helps this woman have that part of her story.’ So to know as a woman coming in that you have so many other women believing in you [for] all the next phases, it’s that piece that makes it so special.”
“It’s not just donating your clothes and seeing where they land but really being part of each others’ success stories as women.” — The Duchess of Sussex
While her style credits are nothing to sniff at, it’s Meghan’s impressive interview coaching skills that really shone during her January 10 visit, where she shared tips she learned during her days auditioning for acting roles with a would-be entrepreneur.
“Doing the interview prep is so key, giving all these women the tools to make eye contact, to remind this company why they would be lucky to have them,” Meghan later said to Barrett. “It’s so key, this kind of training you do, to help them feel confident.”
Interview coach Marina Novis, who has spent time with the Duchess during her many visits, tells BAZAAR.com, “It’s amazing seeing her talking to the candidates because she really listens and asks very pertinent questions.”
“Last year [before her wedding] she was talking to us about confidence, and then we asked, ‘How do you manage with confidence?’ She said ‘I’m about to take on a big role, happening now. The most important thing to do is to just breathe and have that inner confidence about it,'” Novis said. “She’s very in tune with what people are thinking, she’s an amazing listener, and, particularly with the interviewing, she really gets it. The main thing about Smart Works is if someone feels listened to then they feel empowered, and if you get someone to feel just that one inch taller, it makes such a difference to their confidence. It’s all about confidence!”
Adds Hughes-Hallett, “She’s very good [at the interviewing]—a natural coach. I think it’s a natural part of her because what we can’t do is make clients play the game. We can give them the tools but they’re not going to open up if they don’t feel safe, comfortable, and protected, and I’d say Meghan has a natural empathy. It’s part of who she is and everything that comes with her. It’s mighty.”
Since joining the Royal Family in May 2018, Meghan has used fashion to convey important messages and highlight causes she cares about. The Duchess has already helped create jobs at Hiut Denim jeans in Cardiff, Wales, and for seamstresses at Outland Denim in Cambodia. Her clever dressing (she wore responsibly-sourced, lab-grown diamonds by Kimai today!) has also educated people about charities like Turquoise Mountain, a non-profit that trains over 5,000 people in traditional arts and rebuilds community buildings in the old city of Kabul, Afghanistan.
It’s that public attention that Smart Works is hoping will help them empower even more woman in the years ahead. “We want more Smart Works in more cities. We want the women in those cities to know about the service and to find us so they can have this too,” CEO Stephens tells BAZAAR. “You’ve got to be really brave to ask for help… So this is a great opportunity to tell women that we’re here and you just need to be referred to us and we will help you.”
Adds Hughes-Hallett, “These are very bright, brave women who are going again to try and get a job after being rejected so many times… When the women are in the right outfit, they stand in front of the mirror and it still makes the hair on my spine stand up. You see their shoulders go back and them thinking, ‘Actually, it’s possible. I’m going to get that job.’ That’s magic.”
For more information, visit SmartWorks.org.uk.
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