How Dress for Success CEO Joi Gordon Gives Women Hope
NEW YORK—Every day Joi Gordon sees one woman after another, rising from the ashes like a phoenix. In the elevator of her office building, typically she will see a nervous woman, with her head down, who doesn’t feel like she deserves much, getting off on the sixth floor. Later in the day, Gordon will take the elevator from her office on the seventh floor and see the same woman enter the elevator, looking completely different—as if ready to take flight.
“Now she’s beaming, her head is up, she’s on her cell phone, she’s communicating with someone about her experience. … She not only feels like she’s dressed for success, but she really believes that she can land a job,” Gordon said in her office at the headquarters of Dress for Success, where she serves as the worldwide chief executive officer.
The nonprofit organization helps women who are going through a rough patch—or in many cases a very rough patch—become financially stable and successful. Volunteers help women choose professional attire. Gordon calls it their “power suit” or “life jacket.” The volunteers also coach the women on styling and on how to present themselves professionally for job interviews. But above all, they help the women gain confidence.
“The dressing for success isn’t really just the dressing on the outside, it’s the dressing on the inside,” Gordon said.
Having worked with the organization for 17 years, Gordon has heard thousands of women’s stories of transformation. She has seen many women achieve their goals, beyond any expectations.
“Everybody has a unique nuance that makes them very special. The common thread through all of them is their resilience. They work really hard to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and that strength is palpable throughout our whole organization,” Gordon said with a beautiful big smile.
One of the women that Gordon said she would never forget is Zoe Sheppard. She actually met Sheppard in the elevator that connects the two floors of Dress for Success. Sheppard had lived half her life in and out of prison. She was molested when she was a child, survived several rapes as an adult, and fell into a life of crime and drug abuse. She had no sense of self-worth, and no self-respect. She was homeless and felt hopeless. “But she had this light in her,” Gordon said. She remembers telling her, “Zoe, you are brighter than you know.”
Today Sheppard is a certified substance abuse counselor and a motivational speaker. She wrote and published a page turning memoir, “Life Don’t Rhyme,” describing her journey of recovery. She has been featured on NBC’s “Today” show, CNN, and other TV shows. She credits much of her success to her experience with Dress for Success.
Another woman, Jessica, had to take a medical leave from college when her mental state and her grades deteriorated after her father’s death. She felt crushed by the weight of her own disappointment and feared becoming a statistic. After months of unsuccessful employment she enrolled in a professional training program that referred her to Dress for Success. She said it was one of the best decisions she had ever made.
“The moment I walked in the door I was treated with respect and care,” Jessica said at a “Woman Helping Women” benefit at The Rainbow Room moderated by NBC anchor Erica Hill on Dec. 9, 2015.
“I even remember taking the clothes home in a big private shopping bag. I felt so special that day,” she added. Jessica was happy to announce that she has since graduated from Columbia University and is making more than enough money to send some to her mother. “Dressed for Success changed my life in such a short amount of time that I will likely spend a lifetime thanking them,” she said to a roomful of about 300 women clapping enthusiastically.
Gordon said, “For many of the women, we are their community, their support system, their cheerleader. In some cases we are that one person in their life that believes in them because for many, they have let so many other people down along the way that people are not willing to give them a second chance,” Gordon said.
Over the past 18 years, the organization has helped more than 850,000 women in 20 countries become more self-sufficient. Over 75 percent of them maintained their jobs in their first year and over 50 percent completed their education. The organization is 98 percent corporate funded, providing job training, career advancement, employment retention, and leadership programs. Once women join the program they can become members of Dress for Success for life.
On any given day, Gordon is at her computer responding to hundreds of emails from corporate sponsors, clients saying thank you, volunteers telling her about their experiences—from anywhere from San Antonio, Texas to Sydney, Australia. She’s the central axis, driving the organization as a massive catalyst for self-empowerment. The effectiveness of the organization stems from its bedside manner.
“We treat them with dignity and respect from the time they walk through the door, never asking them about their past,” Gordon said. “All we want to know about the women is their name and where they are going for their interview, so we can style them appropriately.”
Invariably, because the women feel safe, supported, and not judged, they eventually start sharing about their lives and what got them to Dress for Success, usually when they become a member of the professional women’s group and go to monthly meetings; but sometimes it happens sooner. “Sometimes their stories will unfold while we are unfolding their clothes,” Gordon said.
When they go into the dressing rooms of Dress for Success boutiques, they don’t see any mirrors—only words of affirmation. They have to step outside to use the three-way mirror in the middle of the boutique. The volunteers will then talk them through the process of transformation, turning any negative self-talk that might be rummaging around the women’s minds into words of encouragement.
A Legacy of Kindness
Gordon is a joy to be around. She said her mother named her Joi for a reason. Nobody can doubt that she has lived up to her name. “Who can have the name Joi and be an ogre, right?” she said laughing.
“I am a big believer in being kind to everyone,” she said. “I often say to the women, ‘I wish more for you than I wish for myself.’ … The more I give the more I get, and I don’t give to get. That’s just how my life has been—so incredible,” she said.
Gordon’s giving spirit resonated with Dress for Success when she first learned about the organization. It was founded by Nancy Lublin who received a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather in 1996 when she was a two-year law student. Lublin decided to use the $5,000 to found the nonprofit that would help women.
“Certainly as somebody who also went to law school, I could have easily done a million things with $5,000, none of which would have been starting a nonprofit,” Gordon said. “So we need some Nancy Lublins in the world because she’s the visionary.”
Gordon discovered the organization over 18 years ago when she saw Lublin on television. She heard the call to action. “I thought ‘easy, I have a closet full of suits,'” Gordon said. At the time she was a lawyer with the District Attorney’s Office.
“I understood the power of the suit. I knew how confident I felt when I would put on a suit in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, and walk into a courtroom,” she said.
Her call to Dress for Success literally went from donating clothes to becoming a board member. A year later she joined Dress for Success full time.
She knew that if she could help women become financially stable, she wasn’t only helping those particular women, but also their children. And on a broader scale she was breaking a cycle of poverty and helping to create a viable workforce.
“I can see a little bit of my mom in every woman that walks in the door,” she said. Gordon was raised by a single mom. While her dad was also very much present in her life, she saw her mother working very hard to ensure her daughter would have a better life. Gordon graduated from law school without any student loans or debt.
“When I saw Nancy talk about Dress for Success, helping women find jobs and finding their place in the world, I thought a lot about my mom. I knew that if I could help other women succeed that their children’s lives would be better, just as my mom had done for me.” Her mother is her greatest cheerleader, frequently telling people she meets about her daughter Joi and Dress for Success.
“Every single day I’m living out a mission. It’s never felt like I come here to work. I love every aspect of it—everything that exhausts me about it, everything that infuriates me about it. … There’s no greater gift in the world than to have a job that allows me to leave a legacy,” she said with a big smile.
Dress for Success Worldwide is hosting its annual gala at the Grand Hyatt New York in Manhattan on Thursday, April 7, 2016.