Dress For Success, it's encouraging
Since 2003, Dress For Success has been an invaluable and reliable resource to job seeking women in Austin. Mia Johns, Director of Programs, has delightfully seen it change and grow over the years. Growing up in Houston with a marketing and communication background, Mia realized that she enjoyed her freelance opportunities with nonprofits much more than some of her other roles. “I felt like I wanted to focus on nonprofit work and use all the different skills that I have to help a great cause. Marketing is so intangible sometimes, it’s hard to see the results,” says Mia. “Being here is such an immediate gratification because you can see the women being helped and just how grateful they are when they leave.”
Dress For Success’s main goal is to empower and inspire women to feel confident in themselves, especially economically. It is free to all women searching for employment and need extra help going through the process. “The women are all different, all ages, all backgrounds, the one thing that they do have in common is that they hit a bump in the road. There are so many different challenges or barriers, homelessness, an ill family member, a domestic violence situation, a mental health issue, and affordable housing. I feel like the two biggest things for our clients are affordable housing and some sort of emotional or mental issue, and they’re unable to get affordable help for that.”
The nonprofit has seen steady growth in clients, volunteers, and services over the past 15 years. Competing for funding with over 5000 other nonprofits in the Austin area has made them laser-focused on what makes their career development program different from others. “We help women so that is a nice niche but I think what distinguishes us from other nonprofits that help with career development is, we are more of a holistic service. We help with the professional image in so many different ways and then once clients become employed, we continue helping them retain employment. We also help them become economically independent through our financial education and clients can keep coming back to us as much as they want,” says Mia.
Currently, they retain most of their clients through referrals from agencies like Caritas of Austin, The Safe Alliance, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Workforce Solutions, etc. One of their new objectives is to reach women who don’t necessarily qualify to be referred by these organizations but still need help. Under the guidance of the new executive director Lisa Starr, they are working on a marketing strategy to attract these specific women. Another ambitious goal they hope to reach is to change the employee pay rate statistic that most of their clients fall within, which is very important to Mia. “We still have 74% of our clients making less than $15 per hour. And studies are showing that you need $20 per hour in Austin to sustain yourself. I feel like maybe if you go in at $15 and a company offers you health benefits and some upward mobility, then you can get to that $20. But so many clients are not going in at that level and they can’t live like that. So that would be my goal is to figure out what we can do with our programming to really elevate the types of jobs that they are getting.”
As a worldwide organization, women in various countries can benefit from the services that Dress For Success has to offer, even if she moves to a new location. “We are a worldwide organization, there’s 165 in 30 different countries so there is a good chance that if she does move, she can find another location to welcome her. I think after women come here and see how comfortable they are, they just want to come back. And I’m not sure that they’re able to gain that comfortable environment elsewhere.” Currently, there are five offices in the state of Texas: one in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Permian Basin. This comfortable environment cultivated and created the 13 ambassadors that have initially walked through their doors for help. These successful women have had a job for at least one year, take advantage of all the different learning opportunities, mentor new members and are leaders within the Professional Women’s Group program. They also learn how to tell their own unique stories and feel confidently prepared to talk to the community about the generous support they receive through the nonprofit.
Out of all of the programs offered, Mia believes that the Financial Education program is one of the most impactful. The 4-6 week program can leave women feeling more powerful, optimistic, and teach them to embrace their own economic autonomy. “A lot of times when clients come in, they feel hopeless. Most of them, when they leave, they are hopeful and that just makes all the difference,“ says Mia. Dress For Success not only offers financial resources, interview coaching, and a network of support, they also help women feel confident with their appearance. Their well run boutique is filled with sorted donated clothes that are appropriate for the business and business casual workplace. They have everything from apparel to accessories to shoes to handbags, in order to physically prepare any woman for an interview. After finding employment, clients can even return for more garments and accessories to help continuously project a professional image in their new position.
Along with the foundations, grants, and businesses in town who support Dress For Success, they also have an impressive 300 volunteer staff that serve as the backbone of the organization. “We are so lucky, we have so many different people in the community who want to help us. Obviously, just a portion of those are coming in to help but there are so many others who are mentoring clients offsite. We have life coaches, speakers who come in, and different women's groups who will perform donation drives or have clients at their place of business for interview practice… It’s just a huge, huge volunteer workforce. And they’re the ones who actually do the one-on-one work with the clients. So we obviously could not do it without the volunteers.”
Mia spends most of her day conducting client and volunteer outreach, collaborating with staff, training new volunteers, and program planning. She also values the importance of hearing any new ideas about the current programs in order to make positive improvements. “We do have some guidelines from our worldwide organization on programming but every group is different, right? I mean women in London are going to be different than here. So now we have a planning meeting each year where we welcome input from the members on what type of programming they want to see and what they feel like they need. We really take that to heart and we try to find speakers who will inspire them. Because they evolve too, the programming becomes different and more advanced over the years.” As Mia and I talk further about her time here, she lights up with fulfillment. It is clear she wouldn’t want to be employed anywhere else.