Photo: Getty Images | Design: Genevieve Pizzale
We spoke to Dress For Success CEO Joi Gordon and executive director of Dress For Success Toronto, Gabrielle Peacock about how the global organizations aims to help lift women out of poverty
Unemployment and underemployment are two issues that directly impact a person’s ability to get out of poverty. And when you have limited or no income to spare, buying a new interview outfit, or paying a service to look at your resume is completely out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be. With 11 locations across Canada and more on the way, Dress For Success helps to address some of the soft skills and practical requirements of applying for and getting a job. We spoke to CEO Joi Gordon and Gabrielle Peacock, executive director or Dress For Success Toronto, to learn more about how the company does so much more than just dress women (although that is an important part), and why making sure our communities’ women are employed is such an important part of reducing poverty.
Alexandra Donaldson: What is Dress For Success (DFS) trying to address, overall?
Joi Gordon: The issue of poverty as it relates to women and how it relates to DFS, relates to her ability to find employment and become economically independent. At DFS, we’re that organization where she comes because she’s unemployed or underemployed and she needs to find work so she can take care of herself, but also in many instances our women are single moms. So the reality is, she’s not only taking care of one individual but she has an entire family that is relying on her to find employment and lift herself and her children out of poverty. The way we approach poverty is we try to address that employment issue. We do that by helping her find her self-confidence and her self-worth so she can go into an interview both looking and feeling dressed for success. It’s a series of steps, support, coaching and development that happens. It gives her the tools she needs to succeed, to not only find a job, but keep a job.
AD: What are some of the reasons why a woman might come to DFS?
Gabrielle Peacock: Our clients come to us from a diverse set of life circumstances and experiences. The majority are referred to us by one of our many agency partners that may be providing employment, immigration or legal counsel, or support for domestic violence or severe economic hardship and poverty. Many of our clients might have never been in the workforce, or have not worked in a number of years and find themselves the sole supporter of their children for the first time. We also serve a large number of newcomers to Canada—over 47 per cent of our clients have lived here for less than five years.
AD: What’s the DFS process?
JG: Women are referred to us by other non-profit agencies in the community. We are a collaborative organization and we work with hundreds (and on a global scale, thousands) of non-profit organizations. She may be in a culinary program, she may be in a medical assistant program, she may be in a computer and technology training program—but once she completes her program and has mastered the hard skills, she’s referred to DFS not only for the clothing and the interview, but also for soft-skills training. The agencies that refer her to us, the training she’s receiving from those agencies—those programs are free. So throughout the entire phase of support, she’s receiving complimentary services.
We do resume reviews, mock interviewing, we teach her how to find a job using the Internet and we do assessment. It’s a lot of coaching and developing so that she has all the skills. More importantly, she has the confidence she needs to walk into an interview and successfully land a job and of course, we suit her from the head down. We provide everything from makeup to accessories to the suit, shoes and handbag. Everything she needs so she can look in the mirror and see exactly who she wants to be when she walks into that interview. We address the outside, but more importantly we address the inside. It’s all about that self-confidence, lifting her up, and really giving her the boost she needs. Everything to just really be a cheerleader and her fan, and make sure that she understands that she can do this. So that she can leave our office with not just a bag full of clothes, but that she can unpack the other [emotional] baggage that she brought with her, so she’s polished and ready for her interview.
AD: How would you address the thought that the clothes don’t or shouldn’t matter when obviously we know that they do?
GP: While the professional attire we provide is a critical piece—it is only part of the puzzle. We believe that the learning programs we provide to support the development of skills, along with the help of our many generous corporate partners, sets us apart in our work. Together, we are able to offer our clients real-world insights into the hiring practices, interview techniques, leadership attributes and personal branding strategies that companies hiring are looking for.
JG: The reality is, how you look is how you feel. So the clothing does matter and it isn’t that it should matter because you should be judged on the way you look. It’s going to matter to you how you walk into that interview and how you feel when you walk into that interview. What we want is for women to feel confident and the clothing can help build confidence. So when you put on a suit or a beautiful dress or even a pair of heels or great flats and you look in the mirror and you see the person that you want to be, and sometimes you see someone you’ve never seen before–you stand taller, you feel a little bit fearless, you get your courage back. It isn’t just how that person, the interviewer sees you, it’s how you see yourself.
AD: What are the cornerstone ideas behind DFS?
JG: It’s how we treat the women who walk through the door of DFS. Every woman is treated with dignity and respect and that’s key. Especially when you feel at your lowest, it’s important for people to treat you with dignity. Everyone’s entitled to it and that’s just the way people should be treated.
AD: What’s the difference that you think DFS makes?
JG: We’ve been doing this globally for about 20 years and we’ve helped over one million women get back to work. The reality is that most of the women who come to us are moms so you’re talking about approximately 3 million children who have working moms. If you’re really trying to eradicate poverty, the best way is to get a child out poverty. If you remove a child from poverty when a child is still a child, and they grow up out of poverty there’s really so much less likelihood that they’ll be impoverished as an adult and the mom is critical in that process. Our women are fearless and resilient. What’s made them strong and has helped them overcome some of the obstacles in their lives is the same kind of thing that if an employer gave them an opportunity, they would build a company the same way they build themselves.
AD: How do you determine which communities to open up a DFS?
JG: Really, it’s the communities that determine it. We don’t go into it on our own, people reach out to us from various communities and tell us that there should be one where they live. They write a comprehensive business plan and after multiple interviews and looking through their plan, we then decide whether bringing a DFS to that community makes sense. It can be a very laborious process from beginning to end. It could take 8 months of back and forth before we make the decision on whether or not that’s the right community at the right time to bring a DFS. From there, that person is usually working a full-time job someplace else and working a full-time job trying to get DFS off the ground, although not paid. So there’s got to be something burning in your belly as an entrepreneur, as a leader, and as someone who cares about your community deeply, for you to want to do this to make it your passion and your purpose. That’s how we’ve been successful growing DFS.
AD: What has the community response been?
GP: Amazing. Our work resonates with so many people—men and women alike. The struggle of securing work is something that everyone has experienced at one time or another in his or her life. It can be a very alienating experience, and make you feel out of step with the rest of the world. When that’s combined with not having the appropriate clothing to present yourself to a potential employer, it can seriously undermine your confidence and self-esteem. Most people can identify with those emotions, and can recognize that they have the ability to help affect change for someone on a very grassroots level in their community.