“Everybody should be given a chance,” says Joi Gordon, CEO of New York-based international non-profit Dress for Success. “Sometimes, all you have to do is give people an opportunity to change their circumstance and then the world is theirs. We just give everybody an equal playing field and quite frankly it starts with how you look because how you look is how you feel. If a woman doesn’t have the proper attire she’s not going to feel great about going into the interview and maybe even the interviewer is not going to see her as somebody who can work at the job. With Dress for Success, she’s able to shine based on her own merits and that’s when everything else kind of falls into place.”
Founded in 1997, Dress for Success empowers women to attain economic independence by providing professional dress along with training, workshops and a support network. With affiliate offices in dozens of cities around the world, the charity has since given a leg-up to more than one million ladies. I sit down with Joi at the Pullman Hotel ahead of the twentieth anniversary gala of Dress for Success Auckland, for which the CEO is the keynote speaker.
“Our organisation is only 22 years old, so New Zealand was one of the very first countries outside of the US to get involved,” beams Joi. “You guys were way ahead of everybody else wanting to help women get into the workplace. There are now 30 countries, 162 cities worldwide. We watch women grow, watch them get new jobs, go back to college. We cheer them along the way. As soon as a woman walks through the door, she becomes part of the organisation, and our goal is to keep her forever, standing alongside her as she goes.”
Joi worked as a lawyer before joining Dress for Success in 1999, when its only premises was a basement room of a New York church. I ask if she was looking to change careers at the time anyway, and if the discovery of Dress for Success was a serendipitous occurrence.
“Without realising, I think I was looking for something more meaningful to do with my life,” says the CEO. “I always wanted to make a difference and I didn’t think the practice of law was going to get me there. I stumbled on Dress for Success. I went to donate clothing to this charity I had seen on the news and went from donating a suit to being a board member. And then, within a year, I left what I was doing to work in the church basement.”
Joi’s dad, an immigrant to the US from Trinidad, had always dreamt of Joi becoming a professional person. “So for him being a doctor or a lawyer was achieving success,” she says. “He didn’t know anything about non-profit work, so was probably disappointed in the beginning.” Before he passed away, however, he told Joi that she had made him “prouder than I could ever have been in my life”.
“My mom was single mom and worked really hard to put me through private schools and get me to college and law school,” says Joi. “So I see a little bit of my mother in every woman that we serve.”
As a woman of colour in the US Joi says that you have to overcome obstacles and develop a certain resilience. Thanks in part to the recent women’s and gender equality movements, she says that things are definitely improving.
“All of those things are being talked about now which means that the spotlight is on women in the workplace. And so that’s certainly making it better for women to get her foot in the door. Now it’s the responsibility of organisations like ours and other women’s causes to make sure that she has the tools she needs to succeed.”
Men’s attitudes, too, are shifting for the better.
“Many of the men who are the managers and directors and presidents and CEOs of corporations, they also have wives and daughters. And so what they would want for their wives or daughters is exactly what we all want for women. So, I think that men are definitely looking to help empower other women to succeed.”
Joi’s daughter, Sydney, is accompanying her on the trip, having recently graduated from university. I ask Joi what advice she gives to her.
Follow your dream. Don’t worry about what I would want for you. I want you to do what you want to do in life. Take your time. What I really want for all people is for them to find their purpose and their passion and hunger and live it. Sometimes that takes time and you have to pace yourself.”
Every woman that walks through the Dress for Success door is already a success story, states Joi, as she has developed the courage and the confidence to ask for help. Standout success stories include the likes of former prisoners who have gone on to practise law.
“I’m certain that walking up and down the streets of Auckland are many women who have walked through this door,” she says. “They’re probably driving the cab I was in yesterday or working at the airport behind the counter. Every single woman who gets a job and is able to take care of herself and her children, that’s our success.”