Dressing Others for Success: Joi Gordon

Most of us know and believe the theory: If you look good, you feel good. And we can head to our closets to pull out our best suit, which makes us feel good, for the meeting with the board of directors.

The organization Dress for Success makes that experience possible for other women, too. Joi Gordon, CEO of the worldwide division, oversees the marketing and fundraising of the 81 affiliates of this nonprofit organization.

“Dress for Success’ mission is to assist disadvantaged women to obtain professional attire, while also providing them with a network of support and career development tools for work and life,” Gordon said. There’s a “boutique” in nearly every major city, including a few overseas, with hopes for more. More than 50,000 women have been served by the programs.

The organization only sees the women after they have worked with an agency coaching and teaching them how to find a job. So, when they arrive at Dress for Success, they’ve already done the work — they already have a first interview lined up. Therefore, the organization can choose the “power suit” appropriate for the field in which they are interviewing.

These are women who have been unemployed for a long time; their self-esteem is low and they need direction, Gordon said. This is important to recognize because it most likely translates to a poor interview, especially if they show up not looking the part. “These are women who are coming out of prison, shelters, recovery programs — but they want to work,” Gordon said.

They’ve done the skills to land the job, now they need the right outfit,” she said. “But we don’t just dress up the outside, we also dress up the inside, too.” The volunteers who work in the boutiques pump these women up with confidence. Gordon said the job-seeking women try on suits and accessories, and “the light goes on in their eyes.” They begin to see themselves ready on both the outside and the inside.

The women may “come in with their head down, not certain; but they leave with a smile on their face because someone genuinely cared about them. No one asked them questions about why they are unemployed. We only say ‘I believe in you,’ ‘How do you feel?'” Gordon said, adding that it means a great deal to them that someone believes in them and listens to them. “You say to a woman, ‘I know you’ll get a job’ and it is magical to watch the transformation.

“This works because people slow down and care for each other. It’s an exchange between two women who don’t know each other, yet cry together and care about something together. It’s beautiful, it works,” Gordon said.

Gordon said she especially relates because although she had a wonderful father, she was raised by a single mom. “My mom made me her priority, I was the reason she was so driven. I see a lot of my mother in these women; they, too, want to be successful for their children, and for themselves.”

Because of the partnerships with other companies, which are what Gordon works to cultivate and maintain, there are a lot of donations that are able to allow these boutiques to provide attire to these women. Dress Barn alone, for example, will donate 8,000 suits this year; last year, they donated 6,000.
Each woman leaves with one new piece, whether it is the suit itself, or a necklace, a pair of shoes — something is new when she walks out the door. After she lands the job, the newly employed gal is able to return for a week’s worth of clothing.

Gordon said her favorite part of her job is working with these women in the boutique. “There is nothing I don’t love about my job,” she said. “But I wish I could spend less time fundraising and more time with the women. I most love the daily interaction with women to see the transformation within 30 minutes. I feel like I am making a difference.”

Gordon became involved in Dress for Success after seeing the organization on the news several years ago. “I knew I could donate suits,” she said. At the time, the now-CEO was an attorney with nonprofit experience, and practicing in the court system. She practiced law from 1993 to 1997, and then moved to the nonprofit court programs to work with victims of crimes, where she worked for two years.

But donating her suits wasn’t enough for her. She went on to join the organization and in less than five years was working as CEO of the worldwide division. “I wanted to do something,” she said.

And “do something” she has. Gordon is credited with spearheading a re-branding of the organization, which included a new mission statement, tagline and logo. Her leadership has guided the company to expand programs focusing on retention by providing skill workshops. The organization has a full career center, seminars for “101” classes and also more advanced programs for those who graduate from the basic skills classes. There are computers, books, resources and partnerships with major job skill companies to continue to provide support.

Gordon also stays busy by serving on the board of directors of Urban Brands, the parent company of both the Ashley Stewart and Marianne retailers; she also is on the advisory board for the nonprofit organization My Daughter’s Keeper and Westchester Community College Retail Board of Advisors. She also is a member of the national nonprofit organization Leadership America, which annually explores the challenges of effective leadership with 100 women of accomplishment and commitment. One of her most rewarding experiences as a volunteer was serving as Principal for a Day in the New York City Board of Education as part of the PENCIL program.

As for her work with Dress for Success, she said, “I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m helping others to be successful.”

She described the programs and resources for retention as a “safety net” to confirm the women will not fail. “This is more than a closet; we want to keep women employed,” Gordon said.

“But, clothing is an important step,” she added. “Because, if we have great clothing, we smile, we feel different. A suit is a symbol of success, especially if it’s your first suit.”

Find more information about donating your own suits and/or starting a boutique in your area at www.dressforsuccess.org; visit lia sophia jewelry as they are donating a portion of each sale of the mystical necklace to the organization at http://corporate.liasophia.com/cause.html


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