Everyone loves a sharp career shift — and Joi Gordon knows a thing or two about being sharp. In 1999, she left her legal job and joined Dress for Success, a nonprofit that provides professional attire and networking for disadvantaged women. In 2002, Gordon became CEO of this worldwide organization. We chatted with Gordon about suiting up, making a difference, and traveling across the globe to help ladies conquer.
Why did you decide to work at Dress for Success?
When I graduated college, I began my career in the legal profession as an assistant district attorney in The Bronx. The job was the means to an end to gain experience in litigation and, while the cases were interesting, I found myself wanting to be more inspired by my daily work. During that time, I was introduced to Dress for Success just shortly after it opened its doors. Soon after Dress for Success was founded, I came to realize that finding a job is only one step in a woman's journey towards economic independence; remaining employed and building a rewarding career is essential if a woman is to become self-sufficient. Dress for Success began offering programming relevant to each phase of a woman’s career. I loved the idea of this organization, because I resonated with the confident feeling of putting on a “suit of armor” in the morning before taking on the world.
You are open about your parents’ negative response to your decision to change careers. How important is family and community support in career growth?
When I originally told others my plan to leave my life as a lawyer and enter the world of nonprofit, some were less than understanding. My parents originally came from the Caribbean, their experience with nonprofit leaders was nonexistent, so my change in careers was definitely a cause for concern. That being said, my family is my anchor in life. They have allowed me to see the world in many new and different ways, and it is because of them that I work towards leaving a positive impact on this world every single day. We create this same familial network of support for our women here at Dress for Success. No matter what a woman is going through in her professional journey, she knows that all she has to do is pick up the phone and we’ll be here to answer with the words of encouragement and advice that she needs.
What types of women do you work with?
The economy has had a strong impact on the work of Dress for Success, and we see it most in the way that our clients have changed. When Dress for Success was founded, we were truly a welfare-to-work program. Today, we see women from all walks of life. Over the past few years, we’ve learned that there’s really no one face of the disadvantaged woman — she could really be any of us. While we still serve women who have been on government assistance, we now also see former lawyers, former bankers, former teachers, women with Ph.D.s and master’s degrees. We have women who walk in our doors and say, “I used to give you my clothes; now I’m the one who needs help.” The thing that bonds all of the women who come to Dress for Success is that they are all in a place where they need a little bit of assistance, and we are here to provide it to them.
Why is dressing the part important?
Your wardrobe is important because when you look the part, you feel the part. For many of the women that come through our doors, the suit that we give them is the very first one they’ve ever owned. When they step out of our dressing rooms in that suit, they are able to see themselves in a whole new way — they finally see themselves as that professional with endless potential.
What are some of the most interesting countries you've been to? And what did you learn about women there?
We recently signed our first affiliates in both Africa and Asia, so it has been exciting at Dress for Success! As our organization has grown tremendously over the past 18 years, we have heard the stories of more than 850,000 women and we have realized that these are more than just words. These stories are the experiences, actions and emotions that embody every woman around the world. Despite coming from different locations or speaking different languages, there is a commonality in their experiences.
Which professional women inspire you?
The professional women that inspire me are the women that we serve. They have overcome what most would deem insurmountable obstacles, maybe a little wary, but definitely unbroken. Their commitment to creating a better future for themselves and their families — despite all of the challenges that they have and will face — is what truly motivates me. They give me hope and make me strive to do my best every day.
How does a typical day look for you?
As the CEO, each day is different. Sometimes I’m in all-day strategy meetings, other days I could be flying across the world to meet with one of our 140 affiliates, but what I love most is being able to interact with the women that we serve face-to-face. Whenever I need to regain focus or a little extra inspiration, this time with them serves as the ultimate reminder of why it is that I do what I do and it completely refills my cup. Our women recharge my mind, my heart and my soul.
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Note: All interviews are edited and condensed.