By Christina Verigan
Dress for Success, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting women in the workforce, celebrated its 15th anniversary last month at its Worldwide Gala in Manhattan. Vanessa Williams, Bobbi Brown, Christina Mendez, David Meister, and Chris Canty were just a few of the Dress for Success supporters who turned out to walk the red carpet alongside 15 Success Ambassadors—women who have sparked their professional lives with the charity’s help.
Make-up maven Bobbi Brown has been on the organization’s board for more than 10 years. She spoke excitedly about the success of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics’ “Best of Bobbi” makeup kit, which was sold through Macy’s. Her company donated 100 percent of the proceeds to Dress for Success. She is also working with interior designers to redecorate the Dress for Success dressing room at the New York City suiting boutique. Brown is so impressed with the organization’s work, that she even has a Dress for Success member on her full-time staff.
For the event, Brown worked with fashion designer David Meister to give each of the Success Ambassadors full red-carpet makeovers. They looked stylish and sophisticated, even giving the red-carpet regulars some stiff competition.
Christina Mendez became involved in Dress for Success through its partnership with nonprofit Adelante. Mendez understands the challenges of being a working mother and she knows that the interview process can be daunting. “You’ll be nervous, but if you look the part—feel the part—you’ll feel a thousand times better,” she says.
Singer and actress Vanessa Williams walked the red carpet with her two daughters, Jillian and Sasha, and mother, Helen. Helen Williams and Reverend Shirley Canty, mother of Giants’ Super Bowl champ Chris Canty, were guests of honor. Seventy percent of Dress for Success members are single mothers, and the organization took the gala as an opportunity to recognize the hard work of mothers everywhere. Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success, said of Williams and Canty, “These two exemplary mothers represent mothers everywhere who have made sacrifices and worked tirelessly to ensure the success of their own children.”
Success Ambassador Tiffany Bedford, the gala’s keynote speaker, shared the story of how she turned her life around with the help of Dress for Success. Gordon says, “Tiffany Bedford has lived through circumstances we can’t imagine.” Bedford lost her job and, unable to pay her rent, found herself suddenly homeless. Dress for Success helped her get back on her feet, return to work, and defy the odds. Bedford is now one of only four women to own a private investigation firm in Texas.
Beyond the gala’s flashbulbs and glamour, the country is struggling through the wake of recession. While the United States prides itself on equality for everyone, women still earn less than men—about 23 percent less—and they’ve been hit particularly hard by the weak economy. Single moms and minorities often face even greater challenges on the job market, something that the organization hopes to change by uniting all women in the working world.
Dress for Success started in 1997 by providing interview suits to women who were unable to afford them. Since then, it has grown from a single suiting boutique to an international powerhouse, helping women in 14 countries. To date, 650,000 women have found success with the organization’s help.
Gordon says, “Women come to Dress for Success because they need a suit for the interview. You stand taller.” Bianca Ortiz, one suit recipient with great skills to offer, explains the importance of dressing for an interview, “[The interviewers] won’t view me with prejudice. They’ll see me.”
Now the organization has grown to include networking events, professional support groups, resume assistance, and interview-prep clinics. It also has partnerships with other nonprofits to provide job training for its client-members.
Since 2008, Dress for Success has seen a surge in the number of women it serves. To support this growing member base, Dress for Success has started a Professional Women’s Group (PWG) to help women in white-collar jobs network, find employment, and negotiate fair pay. According to Gordon, Dress for Success started with a welfare-to-work mission, but now it serves more professional women than ever before. “Women who used to donate, now come to us for help,” says Gordon.
Hasiyna Aluns “came [to Dress for Success] at a trying time. I was depressed, down, when I was invited to be suited, and I got an email to join PWG. PWG has all ethnic backgrounds, all cultures, all going through the same thing.” Mary Esther Ahern says the sisterhood has seen her through the rough transition from college to career. “In this economy, you need support, to have perspective, and networking … [Dress for Success] teaches you to look career-wise.”
Desmay Holness calls Dress for Success “a godsend. The suit was just the beginning … The support gave me the courage to get out there and after one and a half months, I got a job.”