Getting off on the right footing
When clothes make the careerist
(CNN) -- Nancy Lublin was laboring through her first year of law school when she arrived home one day five years ago to discover a $5,000 check in the mailbox.
The money was from the estate of her late great-grandfather, who started his garment business during the Depression by selling clothes from a cart. And it would change the course of her career.
"His work ethic was always held up to me, so I wanted to do something to honor his memory and give back to the community," she says.
So Lublin teamed up with three nuns in New York City's Spanish Harlem to start Dress for Success New York, which encourages businesswomen to donate suits, and then gives them to lower-income women to wear for job interviews.
"We heard all the time there are women who are skipping their job interview because they knew they didn't have anything to wear and weren't appropriately dressed," she says.
Since the program's founding in 1996, its work has spread to more than 60 cities in North America, England and New Zealand. Along the way, it has assisted more than 60,000 women, says Lublin, who works full time as the program's executive director.
Dress for Success isn't a job-placement program. Its clients often are referred to the program by shelters and job training centers once they have interviews lined up.
When clients arrive at the Dress for Success "store," a personal shopper helps them select appropriate suits or dresses. They also may receive jewelry, scarves, hosiery and shoes -- the works.
"Really what we're trying to do is get the emphasis off their clothes so they can concentrate on giving a good interview," says Ricki Weiss, executive director of the Dress for Success program in Cleveland, Ohio.
'Queen for a day'
Two years ago, Melony Butler was a client at Dress for Success Cleveland, eager to get clothing for her first day of work. She later would use the outfit for an interview at a higher-level job.
"They dressed you from head to toe completely with shoes, suit, blouse jewelry, accessories," she says. "I felt like queen for a day, so I was completely satisfied."
Butler, who now is Dress for Success Cleveland's administrative assistant, says she welcomed the personal touch.
"They just make you feel so special and that you can do this, and that you're worthy of the goals you're trying to achieve. And that can just make you shine," she says.
Dress for Success goes beyond providing clothes for its clients. Women who line up jobs are encouraged to join monthly meetings of the Professional Women's Group to help adapt to the new workplace.
"It's lonely. It's isolating," Lublin says of the shift to a new job. "It's a whole new world, and I don't think people stop to think about how hard the transition is."
Meeting topics include communication skills, child care, financial planning and resolving conflict in the workplace.
Among the participants is Franciene McClean, whose self-esteem plummeted after she lost a longtime job three years ago. Now re-employed at an investment firm, she participates in the Professional Women's Group and talks to others about her experience.
"This is my way of giving back, to help people understand you can't always give up when things don't go your way," she says. "There are programs you can always turn to."
Clean Your Closet Week
Dress for Success has some major friends in behind it. Through March 24, Dress for Success and its sponsors are promoting Clean Your Closet Week to encourage more people to donate clothes or money.
Among the sponsors is Andersen (formerly Arthur Andersen), the Chicago-based professional services firm, which is holding a suit drive to inspire employees to donate business clothing. Last year, the firm's offices contributed 8,700 suits.
"We really feel that these suits we're giving are more than just clothing," says Karen Kurek, a managing partner of Andersen's Growth and Retention of Women initiative.
"We feel that we give these women confidence and dignity and really a boost to their self-esteem."
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