Education
14 October 2022

More than an Outfit

By Jenn Wint

Historically and presently, women face substantial barriers in the business world. Many professional careers weren’t designed to favor women. The financial, systematic and organizational structures that lead the workforce and economy were created without women’s consultation. Women climb the maternal wall only to hit the glass ceiling. Challenges can be even greater for women re-entering the workforce after taking years away from their careers to raise families, manage households or take a job that better facilitates the domestic responsibilities expected of them. Securing employment is also challenging for immigrant women. Many, highly qualified and experienced in their home countries, come to Canada or the United States only to find their designations aren’t recognized. These women are often without a support system or an understanding of societal operations and local recruitment practices.

Dress for Success is an international organization, empowering women to secure employment and achieve economic independence. They do this by providing mentors, a support network, development tools, professional growth workshops, community and often, a dress or business suit. The organization strives to see women thrive both in their personal and professional lives.

Dress for Success began in 1997, in Manhattan. Nancy Lublin, a law student at the time, identified the need for professional attire for women and opened a used clothing boutique in the basement of a church. Dress for Success now exists in 144 cities across 23 countries. The organization has helped well over 1.3 million women work towards sustainable employment and independence.

Vancouver, British Columbia is home to the largest international affiliate of Dress for Success which began in 1999. When Amy Robichaud began her role as the Executive Director of Dress for Success Vancouver, in March 2019 she was unprepared for what lay ahead for the organization, and the world, in 2020.

Amy Robichaud

I am thrilled to be joining Dress for Success Vancouver at this critical time of growth. A long time admirer, I have seen the value of its programs and the impact they create.
Robichaud upon her appointment in 2019

“The energy around supporting women in our community is both palpable and critical right now, and Dress for Success Vancouver is well positioned to execute its growth strategy and support the economic inclusion of more women through the career development programs along with its successful professional attire efforts. Growth through new and innovative ideas is an area where I believe I can contribute significantly, and I am delighted to get to work with and become part of the Dress for Success community of champions.” Robichaud took on her new role with growth and prosperity on her mind, unaware of the challenges 2020 would bring.

In Spring 2020 at the onset of a global pandemic, women felt the effects first. Covid-19 pushed women's participation in the labor force down to its lowest level in three decades. Women faced a greater possibility of falling out of the workforce altogether, presenting a grim reality and a true economic risk. As the pandemic impacts amplified, Robichaud and her team moved quickly, creating online resources to support under and unemployed women in Vancouver. While they were unable to provide employment attire, their lean staff, community of volunteers and financial donors responded to the call to support women where they needed it most. In the first year of the pandemic, Dress for Success Vancouver served 1,758 women, changed the lives of thousands and contributed over $52 million to the local economy. This number makes part of the over 34,000 women the organization has served in Greater Vancouver since 1999. These women have contributed over $1 billion in wages to the economy. This is a 13,643.13% return for every charitable dollar donated to Dress for Vancouver over 23 years.

Dress for Success Vancouver survives on the generous donations of individuals and corporate donors. The 10th anniversary of the Success Luncheon will take place November 2022 in Vancouver. The luncheon is the largest annual fundraiser for the organization, with revenue from the event sustaining programs throughout the year. After a successful 2019 luncheon raised $118,00, marking the first time the luncheon raised over $100,000, a virtual luncheon in 2020 had a fundraising total of $84,000. Last year, in 2021, at a hybrid virtual and in-person event, the Luncheon raised a record breaking $181,000.

The Success Luncheon _ Dress for Success Vancouver Ambassador Committee
The Success Luncheon _ Dress for Success Vancouver Ambassador Committee

At the upcoming 2022 Success Luncheon, Dress for Success Vancouver ambassador Silvia Ivanov will be presented the 2022 Inspiration Award. This award acknowledges a client’s journey through Dress for Success Vancouver programming, exemplifying this year’s luncheon theme, full circle. Silvia immigrated to Canada from Brazil in 2017. She arrived with her husband, optimistic about a new life in Vancouver. Unfortunately reality held many unexpected challenges finding professional connections, job opportunities and a social network. After a dress fitting led to securing her first job, Silvia joined the Professional Women’s Group which led her to become an Ambassador for the organization. She is now using her experience with Dress for Success to inspire others and give back to the community with her renewed confidence and support system behind her.

In a corporate climate where physical space and corporate culture can range from inconvenient to hostile to women’s participation, Dress for Success works to understand and address the many ways people are impacted by barriers and discrimination that go beyond gender. By opposing the systems and structures that bolster inequality, Dress for Success Vancouver is starting at a local level, activating progress.

According to the International Labour Organization, when boards are gender-balanced, companies are almost 20% more likely to have enhanced business outcomes. The same organization found inclusive business culture and policies increased profitability and productivity by 63%. Profitable companies grow the economy, creating more opportunities and women play a substantial role.

A resilient and inclusive workforce is also critical to attracting immigrant talent. Much of Canada relies on immigration to sustain and grow our population and economy. In a survey by the Business Council of Canada, two thirds of employers recruit talent through the immigration system, finding immigrants a critical source of skilled talent. According to the Government of Canada, in 2020-2021, approximately 67% of super visas, which allow family to visit for extended periods, were issued to women. For Canada and other countries to see success competing for global talent, it’s vital to ensure women have opportunities to contribute to the economy at their highest level.

By cultivating their skills, facilitating a supportive community, Dress for Success Vancouver prepares women to navigate the current business world, giving them the knowledge and tools to pursue equality and accessibility in the economy and the workplace. The skills and tools acquired through programs like the Professional Women’s Group and mentorship opportunities offer the tools to achieve their highest potential through social and economic mobility.

Referred by community employment and women’s organizations, clients arrive at Dress for Success looking for interview-appropriate attire. Many clients arrive at the downtown Dress for Success Vancouver boutique having faced rejection from potential employers or worse, the empty inbox and sounds of silence after numerous applications. In addition to a dress, a handbag and shoes, women are given the confidence and support structure they need to overcome the hurdles in their way.

Despite the unpredictability Robichaud faced early on in her appointment, she remains steadfast. “It seems that big challenges have piled up over the last few years, public health, racial inequality, gender based-violence, and financial instability.” shares Robichaud. “But the life-changing success we’ve seen across clients, staff and supporters is unending. Our organization is resilient. Clients have demonstrated this as we’ve continued to strive, together, for a better, more inclusive society.”

The strength and resilience of the women that come through Dress for Success’ boutique doors is astounding. Many are mothers, or caring for older family members. Their yearning for employment and economic independence is not for themselves alone. It’s a ripple effect when a woman finds sustainable employment that uses her skills, education and offers her validation, proving her worth.

Through events like the Success Luncheon and Success Donor monthly giving program, Dress for Success Vancouver raises valuable funds to provide support, mentors, dressing appointments and professional growth workshops. Volunteer support then makes it possible. Through every dollar and every hour donated, a woman’s life is changed and the participation of women in the workforce increases locally and around the world. The economy is reliant on women and sometimes, a woman is reliant on an outfit and great shoes to take the first step in. As we approach winter, Dress for Success locations in North America need winter coats, handbags and financial contributions. Find out how you can make a difference at https://dfsvancouver.ca 

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Jenn Wint

Jenn Wint

Contributor (she/her)

Jenn Wint is a writer, communications strategist and a public relations specialist at WINT Communications and a volunteer with Dress for Success Vancouver. She is passionate about sharing exceptional stories and connecting people, communities and brands. Jenn lives in East Vancouver on the unceded lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples with her husband, son and daughter.

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