Dress For Success was founded in 1997 in New York City to give women the tools and confidence to get a job, and the ongoing support to retain that job. Now, the international organization has 130 charters in 16 different countries, serving nearly 70,000 women per year, according to Dress For Success.
The Indianapolis charter is one of the oldest and strongest, serving an average of 1,400 women annually. This past June, the team at Indy DFS served their 11,000th client.
“It’s huge for us to think we’ve helped 11,000 women,” said Barbara Ellsworth, Executive Director of the Indianapolis charter. “We were built on the shoulders of volunteers, and we couldn’t do it without them.”
Approximately 400 individuals volunteer in different capacities at Indy DFS yearly. These roles include personal shoppers through the Suits for Success program, mentors in the Professional Women’s Program and Career Center, and volunteers for the annual Stepping Out in Style event and donation sorting.
“The Suits for Success program is our original foundation,” Ellsworth said.
DFS partners with 5,000 organizations worldwide that refer women to DFS for suiting when they have an interview set up. Indianapolis’ 110 partners include Ivy Tech, the Julian Center and WorkOne, among others.
Women meet with a personal shopper at the DFS boutique to be outfitted with a suit, matching blouse, shoes, purse, jewelry, cosmetics and resume portfolio for their upcoming interviews. After they land a job, they are invited back to choose a few more outfits for their specific lines of work.
Indy DFS spends $20,000 on clothing annually, and the majority of the suiting program’s items are donated. Companies like Bobbi Brown, who actually sat on the international DFS board, Lia Sophia Jewelry, Thirty-One Handbags, Anne Taylor and Lean Cuisine are international DFS partners. Specifically for Indianapolis’s charter, all Classic Cleaners locations in the state serve as clothing drop-off points. Individuals, companies, and other organizations also hold independent clothing drives.
Kathy Henke, a retired Carmel Schools teacher, has been a personal shopper for three years now.
“The women I’ve met really opened my eyes to a lot of different scenarios of life,” she said. “One client recently told me, ‘I feel like I’m on Rodeo Drive.’ We’re doing the right thing if women feel that special.”
Henke’s client this week has two upcoming interviews.
“So many women need this help,” her client said. “It’s one thing to get the opportunity, but if you aren’t dressed for the part, you don’t have a chance. That’s why this is so amazing.”
Apart from the suiting program, DFS career programs serve clients long-term. It’s one thing to get a job, it’s entirely different to keep it and build a career.
“That’s the heart of the organization—the sisterhood,” Ellsworth said. “We don’t put a suit on somebody and proclaim, ‘Now you’re going to get this job and be self sufficient.’ It’s a real process.”
The Professional Women’s Group meets monthly. Various female professionals from the Indianapolis area are guest speakers for these meetings, speaking on topics like personal finance or the written and unwritten rules of the workforce, among others.
The Career Development Center helps clients with their resumes, job searches, and technological and professional skills. This includes mock interviews with volunteers from different career backgrounds.
“The whole atmosphere is very celebratory,” Ellsworth said. “From beginning to end, we’re helping people who truly don’t want a handout. They just want a leg up, an opportunity to succeed.”