For Jody White, helping to run Des Moines’ Dress for Success organization is a labor of love. Five years ago, White transitioned from working full-time in the corporate world to being a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t plan on wearing her business suits again any time soon, so she started looking for a place to donate them.
She eventually came across Dress for Success, but at the time, the organization didn’t have an affiliate in Des Moines. The more she read about it, however, the more she felt inspired by the concept. “I fell in love with the mission,” she said. “They empower women through their programs, helping them gain and keep work.”
The mission struck a chord with White on a personal level. The organization serves women who are transitioning from a correctional facility to the working world, or who are dealing with homelessness, or women who have been a stay-at-home mom for a while and are re-entering the workforce. She was a single mom at one time, and grew up in a house with domestic violence, so the premise tugged at her heart strings.
White fired off an email to the New York office and asked how she could get the program started in Des Moines, and the rest is history.
As the Executive Director and one of the founding partners, White wears a lot of hats, and no job is too big or too small. Volunteers cover a wide variety of roles, and all are dedicated to ensuring women have a chance to obtain and retain employment.
Suits to Success is by far their most well-known program. Once a client has scheduled a job interview, she can stop by the boutique at an appointed time. Each client works with two to three personal shoppers from the volunteer staff. She’ll describe her size and her favorite colors and fabrics, and the personal shoppers will bring items from their inventory for her to try on. They check for size and fit, and of course, style.
After she’s chosen her interview garments, Dress for Success volunteers help her prepare for the interview by walking her through the process.
“Our clients often have other things on their mind, like what’s going on at home, or whether they can buy food,” explained White. “We try and get them to work through the interview process step by step. It’s not just driving to the door for a meeting at 10 a.m.,” she said.
Dress for Success volunteers prep their clients on common questions and appropriate answers for each interview. They also help the clients identify their skills and practice explaining how they would be a good fit for the job.
White once had a client from Uganda, and ran through a mock interview with her. “She told us, ‘People keep telling me I need to give a firm handshake, and I don’t know what that means,’” explained White. “We probably shook hands five or six times in the hour or two she was here.” The client explained that in Uganda, it was disrespectful to look people in the eye. She learned that not only would she have to look each and every panel member in the eye at her interview, but she would have to smile while doing it.
Finally, each interviewee leaves with a gas card so they can fill their tank and get to the interview. White explained that many of the women who come through their door struggle with the choice of putting gas in their tank or buying food for their family.
“It’s more than just putting a beautiful suit on their back. It’s about the whole process,” said White. When a client gets a job (and they always speak in terms of when, not if), she has the opportunity to return to the boutique for 10-12 pieces that are appropriate for her workplace.
When members of the community think about Dress for Success, they might think about suits and clothes, but it offers even more. The organization’s Going Places Network is an eight-week class that helps clients with resumes and networking. Human resources professionals from different industries within the community contribute, helping clients understand what companies look for in a prospective hire. After they gain employment, they have the option to participate in a professional women’s group designated solely for Dress for Success clients. They have crucial conversations about budgeting and finances and finding a work/life balance.
All kinds of success stories have come out of Dress for Success. In August 2011, a client named Maria transitioned from prison life to the working world. While Maria was in the boutique, she was moved by the help she received and said, “Someday, I want to give back to the women who’ve been in my position. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’ve done my time, and I’m not going back.” That was three years ago, and Maria not only got the job she interviewed for, but has since doubled her salary and worked her way up the career ladder. This past March, they hosted an event and Maria was there, hiring women who were once in her position.
The organization recently moved into a new space at 6000 Grand Avenue in the Iowa School Association building. The move into this space allows them to host all of their programs on-site. Next year will mark their five-year anniversary, and they’re already planning ways to make their annual fundraiser fresh and exciting.
Dress for Success is always fundraising and looking for donations. They look for clothing that is current (within the last five years) and has no rips or stains. There’s always a need for basics in black, like jackets and pants, and black shoes, particularly in size 9W.
Cash donations are also welcomed. They use these donations to buy clothing they don’t have in inventory. Each time a clothing donation is made, they request a $10 cash donation to support the purchase of needed items.
They also welcome anyone who wishes to volunteer. Once a month, they host a volunteer orientation.
For more information about Dress for Success and how you can help, visit their website at: https://desmoines.dressforsuccess.org.