How one organisation helps disadvantaged women get back into work

5 min read | Marion Webster | Article | Leadership Recruiting Conducting interviews

Dresses on hangers

Whenever I have started things, I have always done so with a friend. I couldn’t do it on my own; I wouldn’t have the confidence or the courage. I started Fitted for Work in 2005 with Renata Singer, an Australian who lives part of her life in Melbourne and part in New York.

In the US, she was volunteering in a programme called the Bottomless Closet, which helps provide work-appropriate clothing for women trying to get back into the workforce. We thought we could replicate the model in Melbourne.

Fitted for Work was very much about empowering women, particularly those experiencing disadvantage, to get back into the workforce. We knew there was a need, but we didn’t know if Melbourne had the capacity or skills to meet that need. We built a group of women around us that we thought would bring a range of skills that would be useful to build the organisation. Together we gave it a go.

 

Our crossroads moment

We wanted to provide women with the sort of service that we would like to receive if we had a personal shopper in a quality department store. It was meant to be special for them – and it was. For many of them it was absolutely transformational just to see themselves in a mirror looking like someone they couldn’t recognise.

Our crossroads moment came when one particular woman visited us; it was quite late in the afternoon. After she was dressed up, she couldn’t believe the way she looked. Normally we’d package the clothing up nicely after a fitting, but she said, “would you mind if I left it on? I’ve always wanted to be able to stand on a railway platform and look as though I was a worker”.

That was just extraordinary. We were all standing round holding back the tears. For her it was magical to have that sense that she was part of the working world, rather than feel totally disenfranchised.

 

Taking things to the next level

It was moments like this that made us realise that we were doing something really important and that we had to build it from a little start-up to a much more business-like organisation.

Renata started an advisory committee and we were able to attract charitable status and set up a formal board. Then we had to start chasing funds. We had reasonable success getting funds in the short term over the first four years. It’s a really simple concept and I think that’s what appealed to people.

However, it grew into a more sophisticated operation where we were providing transition-into-work programmes and mentoring programmes for women and we also worked with prisons. You could see how giving women confidence, giving them the opportunity to transform their appearance and offering opportunities to improve their general presentation around their CVs, would help them into work. We recognised the need to try and provide a sustainable funding stream, so we set up a vintage clothing store. That lasted three or four years and was a terrific income stream and we were also able to employ some of the women there who came through the programme.

 

Making a difference

We know that when people go to an interview it takes about 90 seconds for the interviewer to determine whether or not they feel positively about proceeding with the interview. In that time, you can’t reveal much about yourself other than how you present visually to the person that is interviewing you. We know it matters, so if we were able to provide that to those women that was fantastic.

Fitted for Work is now an embedded service in the Victoria community and also has an office in New South Wales. When I became chair, Renata stayed on the board and we were involved in that way for six or seven more years, but one of the things I’ve learned is knowing when to step away. Both of us were very conscious we didn’t want to have founder syndrome and stick around for too long.

 

About this author

Marion Webster, Executive Director, Kilfinan Australia

Marion has had a long history working in the philanthropic and not-for-profit sectors. She established the first independent community foundation in Australia, Fitted for Work, and Kilfinan Australia, an organisation that provides free mentoring for not-for-profit CEOs by senior corporate and business leaders.

She has been committed to social justice and programmes that encourage positive social change throughout her career

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