By Janna M Hall
In the African American community, many of us are taught that we’re our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We uplift, inspire, and motivate each other to overcome obstacles and strive for greatness against all odds. The success of one of our community members feels like a success for us all, and the blow from a single failure is also felt widespread. Knowing this, we’ve built coalitions, organizations, and programs that set the community up for far more successes than failures. We’ve made it our duty to equip each and every member with the tools needed to succeed on every level, from early education to entering the workforce.
Dress for Success has made the economic independence of every woman the cornerstone of their mission. Through donated business attire and volunteers who focus on job readiness training, the organization has helped thousands of women in the African American community and beyond build a better, stronger life for themselves through the simple concept of employment.
Established in 1997, Dress for Success quickly became a national organization that helped women become a force to be reckoned with in the workplace. Where many women lacked a proper wardrobe for job interviews, the organization stepped in and provided attire free of charge. If a woman lacked proper interview skills, a host of volunteers provided tools that would allow clients to walk confidently into the office of future employers. By the time its founder, Shantell J. Malachi, brought the organization to Richmond, VA in 2012, its mission of promoting the economic independence of disadvantaged women was in full force, and inner city women felt the impact of a community of volunteers joining together for that common goal.
At the only location in Central Virginia, community members far and wide donate new and gently used business attire which is then used in the styling of clients seeking employment. With their “Suiting” program, job-ready women on referral from various non-profits like Goodwill and The Salvation Army, receive professional help from skilled personal shoppers. It is with those volunteers that they’re styled in business attire, equipped with the proper cosmetics, footwear, and accessories, and provided with encouragement and support for upcoming interviews. What’s even more fulfilling than looking interview-ready is the boost of confidence they receive as they envision themselves in the role they’ll soon interview for.
In addition to providing the interview outfit, the Dress for Success Suiting program celebrates the women who have nailed the interview, gotten the job, and are on their way to economic independence by providing them with a full week’s worth of business attire for their first week on the job, free of charge.
With their Career Center, the organization goes beyond the suit to get clients job-ready. Instead of being an organization that simply has clients look their best externally, their volunteers cultivate the clients’ interview skills with mock interviews, help with resumes and cover letters, and prepare them with one-on-one training that helps them stand out in a competitive market.
Jonathan Copeland, Dress for Success’ Boutique Manager, loves being a part of the organization because it marries his love for the fashion industry with his passion for serving his community.
“I’ve worked in a lot of merchandising and fashion sales positions,” he explains. “Having had all my experience, I was still looking for something that allowed me to give back to the community. When I discovered Dress for Success, I attended various trainings they held for the volunteers, and made it a point to use my fashion knowledge to do personal styling with various clients. I was always there, always volunteering.”
It’s no surprise that his dedication to serving his community landed him the position of Boutique Manager in 2015.
As Boutique Manager of Central Virginia’s only Dress for Success, Copeland is in charge of putting together various fundraising opportunities for the organization. Because their services to clients are 100% free of charge, the monetary support from the public helps fund the robust programming. Every so often, Dress for Success opens its doors to the public, not just for donations, but for the opportunity to purchase new and gently used business attire for themselves. These fundraising events not only put money back into the organization, but they also raise awareness among Richmond residents who may not be familiar with their mission.
What makes this organization special is that Malachi and her staff, which includes Copeland, Shandra Thompson, Director of Programs & Operations, and a host of volunteers, see a specific need in the community and address it head on. Economic dependency stifles many African American households, and systems of poverty affect people of color disproportionately due to a number of factors, including poor education and what is oftentimes a truly unjust justice system. Thanks to Dress for Success, inner city community members can address these problems head on and experience true freedom and financial independence.
“I’d say about 98% of our clientele are African American,” Copeland says. “Most of them are single parents who are looking to improve themselves and may have nowhere else to go. We go out to the jails and correctional facilities, and really work with women who are exiting the system and are ready to gain employment.”
As mentioned in last week’s feature, such opportunities are crucial in the lives of women, particularly women who have served time in a correctional facility. Very few programs seek to prepare women to return to the workforce, so Dress for Success provides the effective job-readiness training that’s more commonly available to men.
So what’s next for the organization? As a program that’s truly for “the people,” it only makes sense to come closer to “the people.” They’re in the process of relocating their boutique, and will transition from a shop directly across from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to a more central location downtown: 2nd and Clay Street.
The new location will be more easily accessible via public transportation and will offer much more street parking. This bodes exceptionally well considering their huge annual fashion shows, which are their largest fundraisers every year. In these shows occurring every April, designers are given a bag of donations that can’t be put into the boutique, and are tasked with recycling them and recreating runway-ready looks. Their biggest supporter of the annual event is Richmond Fashion Week, who they’ll also collaborate with this coming fall.
On August 13, 2016, Glam-R-Us Events will host Ladies’ Night Out, an event that attracts savvy professionals, community leaders, and style-makers throughout Richmond and surrounding areas. During the event, women can shop an array of vendors and indulge in entertainment and beauty products, all geared towards women. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Dress for Success to further their mission to empower women.
As Dress for Success continues to grow and expand, its mission changes the lives of women who might otherwise never see economic independence as something they can have for themselves.
“One of my closest clients wanted to get into nursing, and worked so hard to get jobs in the field,” Copeland remembers. “She went to extra schooling for her Associate’s degree, got a bunch of training, but the one thing that was holding her back—as she was told by a receptionist at an interview—was that she didn’t ‘look the part.’ So she came to Dress for Success, and we gave her everything she needed to look professional for her interview, and she ended up getting the job right after coming to us. She’s been on the upward track ever since, and is moving up in the organization.”
It’s those types of success stories that prove why Dress for Success is so very needed in communities around the country, but specifically in Richmond’s inner city. Countless women have the potential and the know-how to enter or re-enter the workforce and gain economic independence, but oftentimes need the resources, support, and encouragement from people who truly want to see them succeed. And that’s why the organization that’s comprised of the people, for the people, will always make the community stronger.
In a true community, a win for one is a win for all.
To learn how you can donate to or become a client of Central Virginia’s Dress for Success, visit centralvirginia.dressforsuccess.org.
Photos contributed by Jonathan Copeland.