Dress for Success Indy: Preparing Women for the Modern Workforce



Since May 1999, Dress for Success Indianapolis has been dedicated to increasing the economic independence of disadvantaged women through professional attire, supportive networks and career development tools for work and life. If self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal, then the organization is certainly succeeding. It’s certainly no easy task, and it requires many different working parts. But the organization has discovered that the first step to jumpstarting a career and securing a new job is to simply dress the part.

“Many of our clients have never held a job and have limited education and work experience,” said Barbara Ellsworth, branch executive director. “When [the women] put on professional clothing for the first time, you can see the change in their confidence. It often brings them to tears. They say they feel more prepared. There’s value in that. We recognize they may not be wearing a suit once they begin working, but 95% say simply looking the part added to their confidence.”

Ellsworth says the old phrase still rings true that no one ever gets a second chance to make a good first impression.

“Once they secure a job, we invite them back for actual work attire. We have everything from scrubs to waitress attire, to steel-toed boots. Those things are expensive when someone is starting out, so we try to give them what they will need in the beginning.”

Women aren’t simply handed a gently used dress and a pair of matching pumps and sent on their way. They are adopted into the Dress for Success family and are cared for like dear sisters. The meeting may start with the new dress, but it grows and develops into establishing and fulfilling life goals. Then it develops into leading, mentoring, inspiring and reaching back to help another woman do the same.

A woman who is unfamiliar with the working world faces many obstacles. Something as simple as navigating a company’s application process could be extremely daunting and overwhelming, especially for an individual that has been out of the workforce for a number of years. It’s for this reason that Dress for Success Indianapolis began implementing other programs to address and fill the void.

The women of the network are invited to become a part of a professional women’s group. The women come together once a month and receive vital information on everything from job retention to the written and unwritten rules of the workforce to financial management and work-life balance.

“We recognize there are older women who might have been out of the workforce for a number of years. That’s why we started doing our computer classes. If they went home and raised their children for a number of years, the workforce and process has changed,” Ellsworth said. “Chances are back then that they were typing their resumes on their word processors and mailing them in. They are put at a disadvantage. We will help them build their resume and explain scattered or sparse work history. We just want to make sure they know the basics.”

Dress for Success Indianapolis is proud to partner with over 100 different agencies within Indianapolis and the surrounding area dedicated to positively affecting the lives of women. The need is extensive and financial obligation is even greater. Ellsworth admits it takes volunteerism and financial support and, most times, women giving of their time and attention to make the program succeed.

Every September, the organization hosts Stepping Out In Style at the JW Marriot in downtown Indianapolis. The fundraiser generates at least $200,000 or 35% of the organization’s operating costs. While the selfless monetary gifts are without question sincerely appreciated by the group, the highlight of the night is welcoming a “graduate” of the program back to tell her success story.

The impact is beyond words or value.

Of course financial donations help to sustain the program, and are accepted year-round through the Dress for Success Indianapolis website. However, clothing donations are also a major need. Every year, more than 10,000 items are donated from business owners who graciously allow Dress for Success to receive donations through their offices and facilities. Recently, the program partnered with 19 different Classic Cleaners throughout Indianapolis to be the official donation drop-off and collection sponsors.

The stories of women’s lives that have been transformed through the efforts of Dress for Success Indianapolis are nothing short of amazing. It simply showcases that self-will, determination and a helping hand can make a world of difference.

For more information or to donate, visit Dress for Success Indy.