Groups team to help women build careers

Julia Vail

RALEIGH, N.C. – Joyce Rothchild holds a brooch up to the lapel of a business suit worn by a client.

“This really works with this suit,” she says. “It really snaps it up.”

Though the Professional Clothing Closet looks like a boutique, Rothchild is not in it for the commission. Instead, she and Pamela Sinclair, president of Soroptimist International of Raleigh, want client Wanda Garrett to look her best on Jan. 6, when she interviews for a medical assistant position.

Soroptimist, an international women’s volunteer organization, is devoted to improving the lives of women and girls worldwide. The Raleigh branch currently has 37 members.

As part of its Professional Clothing Closet program, Soroptimist collects clothing donations for women who may not be able to afford professional suits for job interviews.

The Raleigh branch has outfitted more than 1,000 people for interviews since the program started four and a half years ago.

“So many people say, ‘I can’t go on an interview. I don’t have anything to wear,'” Garrett says, as she models a black suit dress. “If you have a power suit, it eliminates all negative statements.”

To boost effectiveness and make more resources available, Soroptimist plans to partner with the Durham, N.C.-based branch of Dress for Success, an international nonprofit that provides work attire for disadvantaged women as they launch their careers.

The two organizations hope to merge in the spring, turning Soroptimist’s clothing facility into the official Raleigh location of Dress for Success of the Triangle.

The partnership will allow Dress for Success to expand into the state capital, while at the same time offering Soroptimist access to a wide range of resources.

“This gives us an avenue into a lot of support groups that Dress for Success has, such as manufacturers for plus-sized women’s clothing,” says Pamela Sinclair, president of Soroptimist of Raleigh.

Dress for Success gets roughly 20 percent of its interview suits new from Dress Barn.

Spanx has provided $12,000 worth of bras, and Rolodex donated 400 leather planners. Other prominent companies have donated makeup, briefcases and jewelry.

But the help the organization provides goes far beyond pantsuits and handbags. Dress for Success offers workshops, financial-planning services and technical assistance for women trying to build lifelong careers.

“It starts with a suit, and it ends when they’re self-sufficient,” says Pat Nathan, founder of Dress for Success of the Triangle.

For this reason, teaming with Dress for Success will give Soroptimist volunteers, who typically meet with women only once to provide interview and job attire, a chance to form lifelong relationships with their clients, Nathan says.

“Soroptimist has invested a lot of time and effort,” says Nathan, who has been a Soroptimist member since April. “This way, they can ensure that their initial investment pays off long-term.”

Nathan first came in contact with Dress for Success while heading up “Women in Technology International,” a women’s professional networking group based in England.

As a community-service project, the group decided to hold a clothing drive for the Dress for Success branch in London. Nathan says she was impressed by the organization and the effect it had on the lives of women.

When she moved back to North Carolina to take care of her aging parents, she was shocked to find that the Triangle area did not have its own Dress for Success.

She started the Durham affiliate in March 2008, and has been offering services since June. Since that time, the organization has provided job and interview clothing for 140 women, Nathan says.

The Dress for Success branch had a budget of $60,000 during its first year, 70 percent of which came from individual donors. The organization has just begun to apply for grants, and recently received two.

Women come to Dress for Success from housing authorities, domestic-violence and rape-crisis centers, homeless shelters and drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation programs.

Though the clothes come first, Nathan says they are only a first step toward giving women the confidence they need to build successful careers.

“These women have been treated poorly and felt that they were second for a long time,” Nathan says. “That stops the moment they walk through the door.”

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