Movers and Shakers: Joi Gordon, CEO, Dress for Success Worldwide

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide, is a strong believer in women helping women – and she’s happy to help dispel some of old stereotypes about female leaders.

“Some twenty years ago, there was a perception that women weren’t nice to each other,” Gordon said. “When I entered the workforce I was prepared to not be supported by women and to have to fight for my place. But that fight is not one I had to fight.”

“That perception was not real, and I’m proud to say that,” she continued. “Where I am today is because of strong women who lifted me up, supported me, and gave me the guidance I needed.”

Gordon’s organization, Dress for Success, is wholly based on the notion of women helping one another advance – when one woman donates a suit, she helps change another woman’s life.

From Law to the Non Profit Space

Gordon came to New York City in 1993 to work as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. “I quickly realized the career path of a career prosecutor was not something I wanted to pursue,” she explained. “Looking at the defendants and the victims, sometimes you questioned who stood on the right side of the table.”

She recalled that around this time she was watching the news, and saw a segment about Dress for Success, an organization that aims to empower disadvantaged women by providing suits for job interviews, as well as professional development training and mentoring. “I had a slew of suits in my closet, so I called Dress for Success and asked if I could donate one of them. I knew the difference a suit could make – a suit made me feel different when I walked into a courtroom, and I just knew how a suit would make women feel different if they didn’t have one.”

“That one suit changed my life,” she said. “My heart became full when I heard about this organization on the news.” Gordon became a volunteer for the organization, then joined the board, then went on to run the New York City office, and, in 2002 she became CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide.

She says she is proud of the way Dress for Success has expanded since it was founded in 1997, and that is due to her team. “We have a really successful team of dynamic leaders and that talent has catapulted us in the last three or four years especially. We want to be a leader in the space for economic independence for women.”

That’s the biggest change the organization has undergone – while it was founded on the basis of providing suits to women who needed them, it has grown to a fully-functional career development organization. “The organization has evolved beyond the suit,” Gordon explained. “Our focus is on helping our client thrive in her life and journey toward success.”

“We provide a whole host of services, not only to help our clients be successful at landing a job, but keeping that job too,” she said. “Success has to be about more than what she wears, although that does have an effect on self worth and confidence. But we want to give her the tools she needs to be successful.”

Most women come through the door of Dress for Success the first time for the suit, she said. “But they leave knowing the organization is going to be with them for a lifetime.”

Gordon says she’s very excited about growing Dress for Success globally, particularly in regions where women don’t yet have a lot of rights. “We want to help her find her voice.”

Advice for Professional Women

Gordon says that it’s up to women in the non-profit space to understand what they need to do to advance to leadership. “There’s an expectation in the non-profit space that if you want to advance, you need to continue your education or get an advanced degree. If you’re aspiring to be a leader, you need to know what you need to do, and you’ve got to be proactive to get it.

She continued, “You also need to know that in the non-profit sector networking is critical. Top-tier level jobs are few. It’s not what you know but who you know. Make sure to network with people who are going to help you into the next part of your career.”

Gordon says she’s often asked by women how to transition into a non-profit career. “The best way to figure out where you want to work is to volunteer first. Find your passion, join a board, and put your toe in the water – then make the transition. You don’t have to run and dive into it. It’s all about getting involved. Find out how you can have your passion meet your purpose in life and move forward.”

There are plenty of ways for women to get involved with Dress for Success as well, she continued. “Usually the first introduction is a suit drive, but if they peel the onion back one layer more they find so many more volunteer opportunities. They can meet our clients, help them select a power suit, review CVs or resumes, coach or mentor, or do mock interviews. The hardest part of getting involved is just doing it.”

She added, “I think women have a natural skill set of multitasking and being a great coach.”

In Her Personal Time

Gordon says that she thinks it’s important to make time for philanthropy. She is active in organizations focused on serving her community and participates in a giving circle. “If you can give three ways – your time, your talent, or your treasure – I think your cup runneth over. I think it’s important to do your giving while you’re living!”

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