HLN meets…Sara Davies MBE
We spoke with the award-winning entrepreneur, star of BBC One’s Dragons’ Den and North East native about why she’s decided to help local women get back into the workplace
She’s an award-winning entrepreneur, the founder of an international business which, last year, reported a turnover of £34 million, and a regular on our TV screens as one of the stars of BBC One’s Dragons’ Den. But now Sara Davies MBE has teamed up with a North East charity to help unemployed women in the region get back into work.
Smart Works has a team of highly skilled, fully trained volunteer coaches and stylists who work day-in, day-out to help women currently out of work nail their next interview and secure a job. As well as providing free interview coaching and styling, they also have a wealth of clothes and accessories available for use, which have been donated through retail partners including Hobbs, Marks and Spencer, and John Lewis, as well as by the public.
Although Smart Works is a national charity, their Newcastle outpost first opened back in 2018, and it is this specific branch that County Durham-born Sara will be working closely with as regional ambassador. Her task? To spread the word.
We can think of few better candidates for the role. After all, the crafting magnate employs more than 200 staff across the UK, the US, and Europe – we reckon she knows how to get her point across.
Having founded her business – Crafters Companion – 15 years ago while a student at the University of York, Sara has been the recipient of more than 25 business awards and was even recognised for services to the economy with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2016.
In April 2019, she was asked to join the panel of hit BBC One series Dragons Den, where she became the show’s youngest-ever investor. Ever since, Sara has split her time between being at the helm of an international crafting corporation and hearing out pitches from budding entrepreneurs from all over the country (and beyond), alongside fellow dragons Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden, Touker Suleyman, and Tej Lalvani.
You well may be thinking that with all that responsibility, it must be practically impossible to snatch a slot in Sara’s schedule – but that’s what we’re here for, right? We have our ways. And we knew you’d want to hear from the wonder-woman herself about why supporting Smart Works so close to home was such a no-brainer, what really puts her off in a job interview and what advice she’d give to women in any line of work. Don’t say we never treat you.
Congratulations on your appointment as ambassador for Smart Works Newcastle!
Thank you! I wasn’t familiar with the charity before, but when I did my research I just thought: I can’t believe there’s something like this out there. It’s brilliant! Honestly, I was really honoured when they asked. It was a total no-brainer for me, to think that I could help support in that area.
You’re originally from County Durham. Is it even more special to you that you’re an ambassador for the charity here in the North East?
Without a shadow of a doubt. To be honest, had it just been a national charity with no local angle, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to get involved. But the fact that I can directly help other women in the North East into employment is the big draw for me.
What was it that most attracted you to becoming an ambassador for Smart Works Newcastle?
I think the thing for me is that, with Smart Works Newcastle, it’s the whole ‘give a man a fish’ versus ‘teach a man to fish’ kind of thing. They’re addressing the root cause of the problem. And the fact that two-thirds of the women they work with go on to gain employment just shows the success rates that they have.
A lot of charities ask me to get involved and they want me to use my profile to help raise money, but this wasn’t about that. With Smart Works Newcastle, it’s about solving a problem. It’s about being able to see the direct results of your work and make that difference – that’s what made me so desperate to get involved.
What are your plans to help spread the charity’s message?
Like I said earlier, I hadn’t actually heard about the charity before. So when I asked Sophie [Milliken], their Chair, ‘what do you want of me?’, she said: ‘Sara, we just need you to raise awareness. We need it to be at the front of your mind every time you’re talking to people.’ So whether it’s that I’m doing a press interview or I’m on TV on something like This Morning and it becomes relevant, it’s having me as their constant advocate. Because I do get national press exposure, so I can really help raise awareness of what Smart Works Newcastle do. They do what they do really successfully – they don’t need help with execution. They just need more people to know about their work, so that more women can take advantage of what they offer.
Smart Works Newcastle provides interview coaching and clothing to unemployed women looking to get back into work. What would you say is the biggest myth about the interview process?
People think an interview is all about the candidate being right for the role. But I view interviews as a two-way thing. I always want to make sure that the candidate feels like the business is the right fit for them, as well as me feeling like they’re the right fit for the business. So I always try and strip back that mask people tend to wear for an interview and get into who the real person is. Because if they’re not the right fit, they’ll not make it past their three-month probation. You can teach anybody to do anything, but you can’t teach them to be the right person. So I’m always recruiting for fit, as a lot of other organisations will be too.
What are some of your top tips to nail an interview?
My advice would be: come to the interview prepared to be yourself. When the interviewer asks if you’ve got any questions, come armed with genuine questions you have about the business. Nothing puts me off more than when someone comes to an interview and I don’t feel like they’ve done their homework. That tells me that they’re either applying for hundreds of roles and they’re just going for anything, or they can’t be bothered. I’ve given a job to many people in my business who might not necessarily have had the right skills straight away, but who I felt so passionately were the right person because they clearly wanted to work at the business and put loads of work into the interview. I’m prepared to give anyone like that a chance. And I’m sure if I feel like that, a lot of other employers will as well.
So it’s definitely a case of coming in and showing that you really understand the business and the role and that you’re not frightened to ask questions if you don’t understand anything – because that just shows that you’re interested. It’s about being yourself. Also, don’t bullshit! If they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, it’s far better to say: ‘oh, I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about that before’, than to try and blag your way through the answer. Because they’ll sniff it out!
Smart Works Newcastle is all about instilling confidence and self-belief in the women it works with. Where do you draw your confidence from?
I’ve got better and better at feeling confident over time. The more comfortable I’ve felt in my own skin, the more confident I’ve become. Through my 20s, I used to feel out of my comfort zone a lot. I was asked to sit on a few different boards and I used to do a lot of high-profile business meetings, and I used to do what I thought I should do. I’d put on a structured suit and do my hair and makeup in a certain way, and I’d act a certain way…and I always used to describe it as: ‘I’m putting on this hat today’. I used to adjust who I was based on what I felt the situation demanded.
It wasn’t until I got into my 30s that I started to feel comfortable in my own skin. I remember when I first went on Dragons’ Den, I looked at the dragons who had went before me and they’d all worn structured business suits or dresses, and I just thought: that’s not me. That’s not what I’d wear for a business meeting now.
The Sara of five, 10 years earlier would have just conformed. But now, if I’m going into a business meeting, I’d still dress smart but I’d dress in a way that’s reflective of who I am as a person. And I know that how I dress influences how other people feel about me. Going into the Den, I wanted people to feel relaxed pitching to me and feel that I was the approachable, friendly one.
So I try to be more reflective of who I am with what I wear now. It’s so important. But that self-confidence is definitely something that has developed over time. It just took me a little bit longer to realise it was ok to be me.
What would you say to encourage women who are unemployed right now in the North East to reach out to Smart Works Newcastle for help?
Don’t be embarrassed or shy about it. Don’t see it as a charity that is going to give you clothes when you can’t afford to buy your own. That’s just a tiny part of the work they do. To get the job you need or want, you need to be able to sell yourself and be the best version of yourself that you can be on the day. Smart Works Newcastle is going to do everything they can to get you ready for that in every sense.
If you’re in a situation where you’re applying for a lot of jobs, or you’ve been out of work for a little while and you’ve lost your confidence, see Smart Works Newcastle as an opportunity for coaching. This is a charity that is here to help you achieve – why not let them do it?
And are there any myths you’d like to bust about the help Smart Works Newcastle provide?
I do worry that there’s a stigma around the clothing side of their support. Maybe there are women out there who are thinking: well, I can afford to buy my own clothes, so Smart Works Newcastle isn’t for me. But it’s not just about that. Helping choose the appropriate clothing to give the right impression and execute the interview in the best way that you can is what they’re going to help you with. It’s not just about the affordability, it’s about getting the interview right.
And whether recently starting an entry-level job or being the CEO of a successful international business – what would be your advice to all women in the workplace?
Be yourself. Anything else is just an imitation. It was you that got the job, it was you who made that business successful. Whatever line of work you’re in, it’s been because you’ve been you that you’re in the position you’re in. Yes, you can learn from other people, but learn and then put your own spin on it. Don’t try and be somebody else.
Or pop by and say hello: Smart Works Newcastle, MEA House, Ellison Place, Newcastle NE1 8XS