On her childhood: I had an outdoorsy childhood among the moors and mills of “Bronte country”, West Yorkshire. We were a big cricket family. We’d be out on the green every weekend; my dad and brother would play, I’d keep score, and my mum would make the teas. I always wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter. Or become a deep-sea diver and find the Mary Rose. I went to a tiny grammar school in a town called Heckmondwike; I was one of a few pupils to get into Cambridge in a decade and the first in my family to go to uni. My father ran his own engineering firm and his advice to me was simply: “Do what you love.” So I read history, a subject which had always fascinated me, then travelled to Sri Lanka and worked as a history teacher in the capital, Colombo. I lived out there for two years during the civil war and put my heart and soul into teaching; it was rewarding but exhausting.
On her early career: I moved from Sri Lanka to London and joined AS Biss, a small political lobbying firm in Westminster which morphed into MHP Communications, one of the country’s largest PR agencies. Over those 16 years, I went from graduate trainee to director – and mum-of-three. I also became a trustee, then vice chair, of a family charity, campaigning for free childcare at a time when it was not the political norm. It got to the point where I was far more interested in that “side job” than my day job, so I quit MHP and went into the charity sector full-time. In 2014, I became chief executive of Smart Works, a UK charity which provides dressing and coaching services for unemployed women.
On her current role: For me, every single day is about helping other women – and that’s a privilege. Clients are referred to us from organisations such as job centres, work programmes, prisons, care homes, homeless shelters and mental health charities. These women walk through our doors feeling anxious and lacking self-esteem; we style them, we encourage them and we make them feel safe. There’s this magic moment when they look in the dressing-room mirror, they smile and think: “I can do this.” Starting out with one centre in London, we’re now in six cities across the country and we help around 3,000 women each year. We were named “Social Action Charity of the Year” in 2017 and HRH The Duchess of Sussex became our Royal Patron earlier this year. It’s amazing to get that kind of acknowledgement, and in part it has been made possible by those brands that have backed us from the outset, such as The Fold and Bobbi Brown. As a charity, I judge our success on the impact we have and it is crucial that we can demonstrate that in a clear and tangible way. Over 95% of our clients say a visit to Smart Works significantly increased their confidence – and crucially 64% get the job within a month of their visit.
On her go-to style: I used to wear suits when I worked in politics as it was so formal, but then switched to dresses when I became pregnant and have never looked back. Dresses are much simpler: one decision, then you can accessorise around it. Add a pair of heels and you’re ready to go. But this also harks back to my childhood – my grandmother was an incredible seamstress with a keen eye and I always had the most immaculate clothes that had been made just for me. There is nothing quite like that feeling. To this day, I tend to over dress rather than under dress and have always found refuge in beautifully thought through, well-made clothes.
On her style icons: Our Smart Works stars are a great place to start. I’d pick Lady Juliet Hughes-Hallett, founder and chair of the charity and former British Vogue fashion editor; she’s comfortable in her own skin and isn’t afraid to mix colours and prints – I never know what outfit she’s going to turn up in. Our ambassadors Samantha Cameron and Isabel Spearman can’t put a foot wrong when it comes to fashion. And our patron and fashion designer Betty Jackson is fabulous. She keeps it simple and always wears black, never failing to look stylish.
On her biggest challenge: Going back to work after maternity leave is really tough. After spending months in a “baby bubble”, you feel vulnerable and exposed walking back into your job. So many amazing women lose their confidence and drop out of work altogether. I started at Smart Works when my kids were three, five and seven years old – and that was when I truly began to feel like “me” again.
On staying sane: I’m happiest hanging out with my family and friends, they are my rocks. I’m in a theatre club with seven pals; we meet up every couple of months to see whatever is showing at The Almeida Theatre in Islington. My favourite production of last year was Richard III staring Ralph Fiennes. He was breath-takingly good. I do pilates at least twice a week too and I love the feeling of inner strength that a good class brings.
On her most powerful piece of advice to other women: Accept that there will be ups and downs in your career and try not to compare yourself too harshly to others. And like my dad said, “Do what you love.”
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