Joi Gordon has spent the last 13 years of her life giving away free suits. And in the pocket of each one is a special gift – that of self esteem.
Born in New York, Joi moved to Connecticut, Oklahoma when she was 13 with her mother. It was in the slower-paced Midwest that Joi first experienced the power of work. Any day she had off from school, Joi would go into the office with her mother and sit at a spare desk. She did the small jobs such as paper-clipping, and was surprised at how grateful everyone was for her help.
Joi continued to work hard throughout high school and university and after graduating with her law degree, she moved back to New York to work as one of 400 Assistant District Attorneys (DAs) in the Bronx criminal court system.
It was while she was working as an Assistant DA that Joi heard Nancy Lublin talking about the Dress for Success initiative on TV.
“I saw the organisation on the news, and thought: what a great concept, I’m going to have to donate a suit. It seemed as though Nancy was talking to me. I was getting ready for work, I was putting on my suit, and I was listening to the news in the background… The purpose of this organisation was to provide suits to women who needed them, so they could go into an interview looking and feeling dressed for success.” Joi phoned Nancy Lublin, the young woman who had started this charity, and in the space of a single phone call went from being a potential suit donor to a member of the board.
Starting out as an unaligned charity in New York, Dress for Success is now a worldwide organisation, helping women who have faced hardship to enter – or re-enter – the workforce. It all starts with the suit. Every client who walks in is dressed in an interview outfit by a team of stylists. She is given a suit, a handbag, and Bobbi Brown makeup, to put her on even footing with other interviewees. But really, the suit is just the beginning.
“So it starts with the suit, but it doesn’t end there. And rightfully so. We could not claim that we are part of our clients’ success if it were all about clothing. What she needs is more than a suit. She needs to feel good about herself, a boost of self-confidence, a dose of self worth. For someone to help her look in the mirror. If you don’t feel good about yourself, looking in the mirror is not something you want to do on any given day.”
So what comes after the suit? The clients receive help with their resumes, interview training and access to computers to help them with their job search. If this proves successful the client can then join the Professional Women’s Group, to help her make the transition from a mere job to a meaningful career.
In 1999 Joi finally resigned from her role as a lawyer, and became the CEO of Dress for Success, New York.
“I said ‘Absolutely’, without hesitation. And without consulting my husband. But I did call my mum, and she thought it was brilliant. My mum told me to call my dad. He thought it was the worst career decision I could ever make. He didn’t get non profit. I said to him, ‘This non profit, it gives suits to women who need it.’ He replied ‘So it’s retail?’ I explained ‘It’s not retail Dad, they don’t pay for them.’ And he said ‘Well that seems even more stupid. Now you’re giving away free clothes, how are you going to get paid?’
“I’m grateful to say my dad is still with me, and he could not be prouder of the choices that I have made in my life. He thinks it’s the best job I will ever have, and I probably agree with him.”
Three years later Joi became the CEO of Dress For Success Worldwide, and has now been in this position for the past 11 years. Working on the floor above the Dress for Success New York boutique means that Joi often gets the chance to talk to their clients in the elevator.
“I ask ‘Did you get something good?’ And I’ll never forget this, one woman said ‘Yes, but what I got isn’t in the bag.’ ‘What’s that?’ I asked. She replied ‘Have you ever met the people in Dress for Success? They are the nicest people in the world. They didn’t judge me, they didn’t ask me about where I came from, they only wanted to know where I was going. I can’t believe that there were people out there who treat you with dignity and respect. So what I got isn’t in the bag.’”
You can help Dress for Success in three different ways: by donating your clothes, your time as a volunteer, or your cash. To find out more visit www.dressforsuccessanz.org.
The Australian branch of Dress for Success also runs a program for men, so you can donate both suits for both men and women.