Dress for Success Triangle delivers
by Settle Monroe
photographs by Lissa Gotwals
Stepping through the double doors of Dress for Success Triangle feels like entering a high-end boutique, not a nonprofit. Dresses and suits, many adorned with new tags and labels like Coach and Ralph Lauren, hang on racks. Italian leather shoes line the walls; modern jewelry fills a glass case. Women strut in and out of dressing rooms to oohs and ahhs of personal styling consultants. Their confidence is clear as they see themselves in the mirror for the first time in a sharp suit or a well-fitting dress. And while the clients at Dress for Success may choose from a variety of beautiful clothes, they are all here looking for the same thing: employment and economic security.
Yeshimabet Flanagan is one of the 10,000 clients who has benefited from the powerful work of Dress for Success Triangle. The organization not only dresses women to enter – or re-enter – the workplace, it trains them for it, too. Flanagan turned to the organization about a year ago for help. Like many of the women who walk through its doors, she came eager to re-enter the workplace after years of staying home to raise her children, and was referred to the agency by one of more than 150 nonprofits that refer women who are ready to find employment.
When Flanagan moved to New York City from Jamaica in 1998 at 16, leaving seven siblings and nearly all of her family behind, she was quickly able to secure a job as a file clerk at an insurance company. Highly-motivated and personable, she worked her way up to earning a comfortable salary, even by New York City standards. In 2008, Flanagan moved to Raleigh and left the workforce in order to be at home with her sons. For a year now, she has been looking for a job. But despite her years climbing the corporate ladder to become an insurance broker, the large gap on her resume and her lack of a college degree have made it difficult to secure meaningful employment.
Dress for Success Triangle has been the engine of perseverance for Flanagan in the face of numerous rejections and unreturned phone calls. “Transitioning back to the workplace is really hard,” Flanagan says. “Hearing ‘no’ again and again can be frustrating and disempowering. I’ve always been able to secure jobs by word-of-mouth. I have never had to pound the pavement. But Dress for Success is helping me navigate this new, current world of job searching.” And a new world it is. Unlike her first foray into the workplace, resumes are now submitted online. Computer programs search for specific key words in the resumes and reject those without them. Automated systems respond to job inquiries and cover letters. The result: The modern job search can be discouraging, impersonal, and isolating.
DFS’s ten-week job acquisition class, Going Places Network, is designed to help clients like Flanagan tackle these obstacles. During its skills assessment class, Flanagan learned her personal and professional strengths. “I am adaptable,” she says now. “I am an eager learner. And I like to be a resource of information for other people.” The program taught her how to capitalize on these strengths during job interviews and when crafting cover letters. She says she has also found hope in the friendships she’s made through the program. “We carpool and lean on each other. It is encouraging to see the women in our group find employment.”
Beth Briggs, executive director for Dress for Success Triangle, believes that the Going Places Network is one of Dress for Success Triangle’s most effective client services. “About 75 percent of women who go through GPN get jobs within three months,” she says. “That is a high percentage. It is a confidence-builder and a skill-builder. It teaches the women what it takes to get a job in this world and what is expected by corporations.”
When Flanagan first met with an image coach for her suit fitting, she was taken aback by the amount of care and attention she received. Although she has bought and worn business suits in the past, she says the Dress for Success Triangle boutique experience is like nothing she’d known before. After more than a year looking for a job to support her two sons, she says she felt power when she saw herself in the mirror with a pair of high heels and a tailored suit. “It is transformative. It is a completely different experience for those of us who are not used to that kind of care. The image coach is more than a personal shopper. She listens to what I like and what I want. It is very empowering.”
Briggs nods. She sees the same thing time and time again with the women who come through her organization’s doors. “This is all part of our mission to support unemployed and underemployed women and to help them find economic security. A lot of what we do is about building a woman’s confidence, dignity, and respect. It is easy to feel powerless when you’ve been out of the job market for some time. It is just so hard. We want to help a woman feel good about herself.”
Once a woman finds a job, Dress for Success Triangle continues to support her, providing employment retention training and continued professional development. She also becomes part of the organization’s Professional Women’s Group, a network with mentors and leaders who help women navigate the workplace. They support each other as they tackle new routines and company culture and work-life balance.
Briggs says Dress for Success Triangle is also committed to equipping its women to become strong leaders in their workplaces and communities. This results in a strong network between employers and Dress for Success Triangle.“We have a lot of corporate donors,” Briggs says, “and in addition to supporting us financially, we ask them to hire the women who come from Dress for Success. They flag our women. It lifts them out of the enormous crowd of applicants.”
And while corporations, foundations, inventory sales, and private donors offer the financial means to support the organization’s $1 million annual budget, it relies on a team of more than 365 dedicated volunteers to run effectively. They donate and sort clothes, provide style and career coaching, job training, networking, and employment retention support. Many of these volunteers are women, some of whom have gone through the programs themselves.
Flanagan admits that the road to landing a job has felt long, overwhelming, and frustrating. But she credits Dress for Success Triangle (and a healthy dose of pure grit) with keeping her plowing ahead – now with strong interviewing skills, an impressive resume, and a sharp professional suit. Most importantly, she carries with her a renewed sense of empowerment.