By Lauren Sedam
Many women can relate — standing in front of the closet wondering what to wear to an important meeting, event or interview.
For women searching for a job, however, the experience can be that much more intimidating. Without a job, how is she supposed to afford the suit that will make a good impression? Without the suit, how is she supposed to land the job?
It’s deeper than the clothes. It’s about confidence.
While there are many organizations in Central Florida dedicated to providing resources for people while they are unemployed and preparing them for the job hunt, few address how job hunters feel.
Enter Dress for Success.
The local affiliate of the worldwide brand has been doing just that from its Winter Park boutique for 18 years, working with women to make them see beyond the label of unemployed when they look in the mirror. The impact it has on Central Florida goes way beyond fashion.
“At Dress for Success Greater Orlando, we go beyond the suit,” said Renita Hunt, board president of the local affiliate. “When women feel empowered and find success, they take their whole community with them.”
Support for a Career
Dress for Success itself has humble beginnings. The organization was started in 1996 when law student Nancy Lublin received a $5,000 inheritance and founded Dress for Success in the basement of a church in Harlem.
It has since grown into a worldwide force with 150 affiliates in 30 countries, but the mission has remained the same: to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help them thrive in work and in life. Dress for Success Greater Orlando has been carrying out that mission since 2001.
The premise is simple. A woman is referred to Dress for Success Greater Orlando by one of many community partners, such as Jobs Partnership, Harbor House or Goodwill. She makes an appointment. When she arrives at the boutique, she is greeted by a personal shopper who learns what kind of job she is looking for and how she would describe her style.
For the next hour, they work together to pull pieces, trying and adjusting, just like in a high-end department store. Each client leaves armed with a full outfit, including shoes, accessories and often makeup and toiletries.
“Clients almost always come in nervous, but our boutique volunteers work magic,” Hunt said. “They know exactly what pieces to pull for each lady. But more than that, they know how to make her feel seen.”
When a client lands a job, she can come back for a week’s worth of clothing. Dress for Success Greater Orlando is entirely volunteer-run, with the exception of a part-time administrator. The organization operates out of a portable on the Winter Park Campus of Orange Technical College.
While the organization aims to serve 500 women a year, Hunt said that has changed with the job market.
“When unemployment was high a few years ago, we couldn’t get enough donations, and we couldn’t suit women fast enough,” Hunt said. “Now, we’re still suiting ladies, but we’ve shifted our focus.”
Indeed, all of Orlando’s business community feels these effects. As of May 2019, the national unemployment rate was low at just 3.6 percent. Florida’s was even lower at 3.4 percent. Hunt said that means the organization has begun working harder to help women reach the next stage of their careers.
A Powerful Ripple Effect
Victoria Brantley knows what Dress for Success is all about — because she’s a success story.
A single mom finishing up her degree, she had an interview for an internship with Orange County Corrections. She was referred to Dress for Success Greater Orlando, and when she left the boutique, she had a full suit, accessories and shoes.
She landed the position and stayed on, working there for five years before moving on to another community organization. She also earned the title Ms. Orlando Florida in the Ms./Mrs. Corporate America pageant. And she didn’t stop there. Brantley came back to Dress for Success to serve as a client ambassador and later joined the volunteer board for programming.
“I consider Dress for Success the mother of my career,” Brantley said. “I want to be able to give back some of what the organization gave me: confidence, support and the skills to take the next step.”
One way Brantley and Dress for Success Greater Orlando does that is through programming. After the suiting, clients are invited to take part in a number of programming sessions, from speakers on finances and developing a personal brand to partnerships with Microsoft on how to best use LinkedIn.
Clients range from women getting out of prison to single moms to women escaping domestic violence to older women who want to get back into the workforce, Hunt said. Dress for Success Greater Orlando aims to help them in their current situation and stay with them through the next phase in their careers.
The organization hopes to do even more soon. Dress for Success Greater Orlando is looking for more space in Central Florida for an expanded boutique, and the organization would like to add to its board, particularly through a hired executive director, so it can take the next step.
“We want to serve even more women in Central Florida,” Hunt said. “We deal in confidence, and it’s huge. We see it on the faces of our clients every day. We want to be able to provide them career services that are even more impactful and truly build a powerful network. Like our clients, we’re dreaming big.”
It’s important, Hunt said, because statistics show that for every woman empowered, she brings as many as six people along with her — whether that’s sons, daughters, partners or parents. It’s a ripple effect that touches the entire community.
“When we build strong women, we build strong families,” Hunt said. “When we build strong families, we have strong communities. When we have strong communities, we’re all better. That’s success to us.”