Dress for Success Oregon founders Karen Fishel and Barb Attridge met about 25 years ago through Career Maker workshops they each took to explore new career options. For nearly 15 years they have helped about 17,000 disadvantaged women expand their own career options.
The initial mission of Dress for Success was to provide low-income women with suitable attire for job interviews and the workplace. Now DFS also provides a variety of career development training to those women, and the Sept. 28 opening of their Patricia Whiting Career Center allows more low-income women to participate in DFS’s successful job preparation and retention programs.
“I was a CPA and wanted to explore another career,” says Barb, noting she enjoyed fashion but had no interest in retail. Karen had been working at Nike and also wanted to change her focus. The two became fast friends, but couldn’t find a satisfying career shift for nearly a decade. Barb continued working as a CPA until Karen called to tell her about an article in People magazine about Nancy Lublin and the program she created to give low-income women in New York City a suit for job interviews.
Karen called Nancy to see if she was interested in developing programs in other cities, and in February 1999 Dress for Success Oregon became one of the earliest DFS affiliates. Until 2007 Karen and Barb were co-directors; now Barb is executive director and Karen sits on the board and is “an unpaid employee.” Worldwide, some 130 affiliates now help women find and keep jobs in 15 countries.
“People don’t realize we work with women post-employment to help them sustain and advance in their careers,” says Karen. “The first step is a $10 an hour job, but we help them move forward. The individual attention we provide is critical to their success.”
“People don’t understand the depth of our programs,” agrees Barb, who then explains the variety of help DFS provides.
It all begins when one of 117 agencies refers a woman to DFS when she lands a job interview or is headed for a job fair. A personal shopper helps the woman pick out clothes and accessories for her interview. If there is time, the woman gets a hair and makeup appointment with one of the volunteers in the DFS salon. Women who get a job are invited to return to pick out five more pieces of clothing they can mix and match for a variety of outfits for work. They are also invited to join the Professional Women’s Group and HOPE, a program to help women adapt to the workplace.
“We created HOPE to address the first 90 days on the job,” says Barb. “We help them understand the unwritten rules for the workplace, finances and contingency plans if a child is sick.”
Women who don’t get a job are invited to attend one of two career center programs – Fast Track Tuesdays, which offers two career workshops for four Tuesdays on a rotating basis, or Going Places Network, a nine-week series of workshops offered three times a year. They can also work with a mentor on their resume, interview skills and other job search techniques.
“Sometimes these groups are the only support system they have if they don’t have family support,” says Karen.
To reward women for coming, they are invited to pick out five pieces of casual clothing after each meeting they attend. Women can also receive gas cards, bus passes, shampoo, makeup and other essentials. Additionally, child care and food are provided.
“It’s amazing how much food insecurity there is,” Barb says of the decision to provide meals at meetings.
Karen has long been part of Portland’s Jewish community. She grew up at Congregation Beth Israel; her brother, Brad Fishel, was a long time board member of Cedar Sinai Park and she has been a supporter of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland for a number of years.
“Although I have held a number of jobs in my life, the volunteer work I do with Dress for Success and other local social service agencies is the only work that has enabled me to feel totally connected to my values and beliefs,” says Karen. “Both my brother and I are the fortunate recipients of our parents’ legacy of deep concern and caring for others. Our Jewish heritage is a gift from them that supports our commitment to people in need. It is that rich tradition of giving back that gives me purpose and joy. At the risk of sounding trite, I do believe that you ‘make a living by what you get and make a life by what you give.’ ”
Karen isn’t alone in bringing her Jewish values to DFS. Several volunteers share her views.
“I was inspired to start volunteering after I listened to Nancy Lublin, the young founder of national Dress for Success, speak at a conference,” says volunteer Carol Landsman. “She inherited $5,000 from her grandfather (a peddler who had come to America with nothing and worked hard to create a better life for himself ) and wanted to do something good with it, so she started Dress for Success in NYC and grew it into a national organization. She did this before she was 25 – and she’s Jewish.”
A retired CPA, Neveh Shalom member Jack Birnbach teaches classes on career skills at Dress for Success. “I have a saying, that we get two kinds of paychecks. One that goes into the bank and the other that feeds our souls. When I assist one of our women and they get a job, it is like a large bonus check for my soul.”
Congregation Beth Israel member Ruth Polay worked at Nordstrom “dressing customers” before she retired. Now she volunteers at least once a week to dress the mannequins and to serve as a personal shopper to help women who come to Dress for Success pick out clothes for their job interview.
“I give them as much fashion advice as I can,” says Ruth. “It amazes me how I (we) can transform some of these ladies. It brings tears to their eyes, and mine as well, to see them look better than they imagined they could look. We not only give them confidence, we give them hope and put a smile on their face. Working at Dress for Success is the most reward- ing thing I’ve ever done! … My paycheck goes into my heart instead of my wallet.
Dress for Sucess Upcoming Fundraiser Empowerment Breakfast
When: 7:30 am networking, 8 am program, Oct. 9
Where: The Governor Hotel, 614 SW 11th Ave., Portland
Why: Support important career development programs for low-income women in Oregon and SW Washington.
Tickets: $65; dressforsuccessoregon.org/empowerment-breakfast
ACEY’S CLOSET SALE
WHAT: Not all donations to Dress for Success are suitable business clothing, so those donations of new and gently used women’s designer and sample clothing, shoes and accessories are sold to raise funds to buy items needed for clients.
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 11, noon-7 pm; Saturday, Oct. 12, 10 am-4 pm; Sunday, Oct. 13, 11 am-1 pm (admission to $1/item blowout 2-4 pm Sunday with $30 purchase at earlier hours).
WHERE: dress for Success Oregon, 1532 ne 37th ave., Portland CONTACT: 503-249-7300