Today's Chicago Woman - March 2012
Volunteer for Success
With an ambitious goal to serve over 1,000 women this year, Dress for Success Worldwide – Central is helping clients reenter the workforce while enabling professional women to put their skills to good use.
By Sarah Osterman
Dress For Success Worldwide – Central (DFS) strives to transform disadvantaged women against a grim economic backdrop, a process involving wardrobe, career and networking assistance. It’s also one that relies heavily on the volunteer help of professional women.
Since opening in December 2010 at 515 North State Street, the Central branch of the national organization has attracted over 100 area professional women to assist with various aspects of the program. Between suit donations, career guidance, mentor support and facilitation opportunities, there’s a wide range of engagement available for women looking to contribute their expertise.
“There’s this interesting exchange that happens peer-to-peer and volunteer- to-client,” says Diane Knoepke, director of operations for the organization. “There’s a universality to all of our experiences. Even though we have different backgrounds and some have better luck than others, when we’re in the room together, there’s empathy and understanding.”
Lending a Helping Hand
Launched in New York in 1997, Dress for Success has helped more than 600,000 women globally from all socio-economic backgrounds master economic independence. The organization is multi-dimensional and involves training on wardrobe, presentation and networking. Women are referred to DFS by employment agencies, homeless and domestic violence shelters, and treatment and recovery centers. Many are unemployed, underemployed or displaced. This mixture constructs a room full of varied experience and education levels.
“A woman who doesn’t know how to turn the computer on but is a fantastic interview can help mentor the person who has fabulous computer skills but is rattled and not succeeding in interviews,” says Ms. Knoepke, who believes this dynamic is part of what makes the DFS mission so tangible. Viewing these exchanges on a regular basis, and seeing the real-time work of volunteers assisting clients, is vital to Ms. Knoepke. “I had done work with healthcare organizations, which is rewarding and important work, yet personally I wasn’t able to see and interact with the beneficiaries of our service.”
This idea of direct contact and unmediated interaction attracts volunteers from companies including Walmart, Walgreens, Starbucks, Accenture and ADP, to name a few. Global Marketing Director for Accenture Products Operating Group Jill Kouri still remembers the first time she attended a DFS gala in New York.
“It was amazing to see how this organization helps women turn their lives around,” says Ms. Kouri, who sent a serendipitous email regarding volunteer opportunities around the same time DFS was formulating its Chicago plan. Ms. Kouri is now a steadfast volunteer who has led professional development and coaching sessions regarding the job search, interviewing process and social networking. “I’m affected now. I’m thinking about the women and really hoping they get jobs!”
Some clients have clear goals in mind, whether it’s catering/hospitality, IT or marketing communications, while others need help excavating their true passion. For Bené Harris, now Chicago branch manager for Dress for Success Worldwide – Central, the Walmart-funded Going Places Network (GPN) caused an epiphany of sorts.
“GPN enabled me to connect parts of my life and be more confident when I’m speaking. It was like a refresher course that pulled everything together,” says Ms. Harris, who has a background in non-profit management and social work, but after years running a natural haircare business found herself underemployed and on the other side of the fence. She was referred to DFS by the YWCA Economic Empowerment program, and the light bulb started to flicker.
Business ownership, budget management and customer service skills were suddenly on her side – she’d had these transferable assets all along and just needed some guidance. One day, during a writing exercise, Ms. Harris was asked to write down her “dream job.” She started to make a list: non-profit, international, established, et cetera. And then it happened: “That’s DFS, but with an office small enough to make an imprint and not feel swallowed up by a big, corporate conglomeration,” she says.
Looking the Part
For many DFS clients, their journey to success begins in the fitting room. The suit has become an iconic symbol of confidence, helping many women feel good, look good and rediscover self-assurance. DFS “personal shoppers” select suit options from designers such as Prada and Escada, all of which come from donations. Accessories and beauty supplies often come from corporate donors.
To house this merchandise, DFS board member and respected interior designer Suzanne Lovell set out to craft “a safe and nurturing corner of the world.” As Ms. Knoepke explains, “We don’t have any mirrors in the [fitting rooms]. They need to come out and work with us.”
Tonia Logan, store manager for Walmart Stores, Inc. and a DFS volunteer, thinks the suiting appointment is transformational for clients and rewarding for volunteers.
“We try to make it as close to a personal shopping experience as possible,” says Ms. Knoepke. “In leaving here, they get a suit, blouse, bra, shoes, bag, jewelry, makeup...whatever they need!”
“If you feel good about the way you look, you’re going to be more confident in the way you respond and interact with people,” says Ms. Logan. With a Bobbi Brown makeup kit in one hand, a Coach bag in the other and some fierce career skills, these women are unleashed upon the world with not only a fresh wardrobe, but also a new perspective.
Dress for Success by the Numbers
600,000 women have been served by DFS since 1997
50,000 were served in 2010 alone
75 percent of women retained jobs after one year, thanks to the Professional Women’s Group, a 12-month job retention program
60 percent of Professional Women’s Group members have improved their credit
57 percent of Professional Women’s Group members have furthered their education by enrolling in or completing a GED or college program
Suzanne Lovell’s sketch for Dress for Success Worldwide - Central’s Chicago office, and photo of the finished space.