By Beth Briggs
Discovery The mission of Dress for Success Triangle is to help unemployed and underemployed women find meaningful employment and economic security. North Carolina has the third largest military population in the country and the nation’s sixth largest female population. Several years ago Charlotte Bridge Home published a report on the status of veterans in the state of North Carolina. The report noted that women veterans have higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts. At the same time a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, stated the unemployment rate among female veterans was 14.8 percent in 2011 and 2012, compared with 6.2 percent for male veterans. The Bridge Home report highlighted the Pentagon findings that an estimated 10% of active-duty women were raped and another 13% subjected to other unwanted sexual contact. A Defense Department report revealed that 23% of active-duty women had experienced a sexual assault. The top five challenges that women veterans face when returning home are invisibility, falling through the cracks, self-isolation, unemployment and homelessness.
Exploration Recognizing that this was a population we wanted to address, yet having very little information on the needs of women veterans, we conducted a focus group to listen and learn how to best serve this particular population. Reaching out to women veterans who had been through our program as well as organizations working with women veterans, thirty-three women participated in the focus group. One of our long-time volunteers and a trained facilitator, Joann Keyton, lead the discussion. The women were honest and opened up to the challenges they faced as they transitioned from military to civilian employment. They shared their experience with PTSD, depression, thoughts of suicide, difficulty in obtaining services and the pressures of returning home, reintegration into family life and difficulties in finding employment. We knew that we had to revise our expectations and plans for the programs to be realistic.
Program Development One of the first action items was to hire a veterans coordinator, Katrina Holley, (SSgt USAF, Veteran). Katrina helped create an advisory committee of female veterans and corporate representatives to develop the strategy for moving forward. Beth Segovia, a member of the Dress for Success Triangle board of directors and an executive at Lenovo led our team in developing a strategy. Lenovo became a corporate sponsor for the program and offered volunteers. The advisory committee created a plan to assist women veterans as they transitioned from military to civilian employment with a resume, a suit, a network, and a mentor. Translating one’s military experience into civilian language was challenging. One woman explained she disassembled and disarmed unexploded devises in the military. This was difficult to translate into an office situation. We recruited retired military women as career coaches to help prepare the resumes in order to capture the skills and talents the individual offered. We spoke with corporations that had military affinity groups to help recruit volunteers. Trained coaches helped the women define their career goals, update their resume, and prepare for interviews. Many of these veterans no longer owned professional clothing so they were grateful for the image coaching and contribution of professional interview attire. Katrina cultivated the Veterans Administration, specifically working within their women’s center. She hosted regular sessions at the VA and attended career fairs and gatherings for military veterans. Dress for Success began to speak with our corporate sponsors about their commitment to hiring veterans. Relationships were forged with critical partners including Fort Bragg, Veterans of America, Volunteers of America, Hire Veterans, Triangle Family Services Veterans Resource Military Coalition Service Providers, NCServes and the USO to deliver our career services to Triangle women veterans.
Corporate Support On Veterans Day, November 11, 2014 at the USO facility at RDU Airport we announced a corporate partnership with Lenovo. Lenovo provided extraordinary leadership in developing strategy, providing volunteers, marketing expertise and financial support. The program would not have been possible without their investment of the company’s time, talent and resources.
Awareness In March 2015 PBS Newshour aired a story about the challenges female veterans face as they transition from the military into the civilian workforce and featured our program. Katrina hosted veteran events at our facilities in Durham and Wake Counties. We launched a social media campaign and Lenovo developed materials, flyers and handouts to describe the program. The News and Observer ran an extensive article on Sunday, September 6, 2015 that discussed challenges faced by women in the military and featured the Dress for Success Veterans program. On September 9, Dress for Success hosted a luncheon for over 125 participants featuring Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of Ashley’s War calling attention to challenges faced by women serving in the military.
Mission Accomplished for 2015 Dress for Success Triangle served 122 veterans in the first year of the program. We have maintained funding for the program and received very positive responses from the women in the program. Our success was predicated upon developing a strategy, securing funding, recruiting staff and board leadership and creating awareness. We look forward to serving 150 additional women veterans in 2016 and helping them find meaningful employment and economic security.
Beth Briggs is the Executive Director of Dress for Success Triangle, and serves on the board of several nonprofits and philanthropic foundations. Dress for Success Triangle’s mission is to support unemployed and underemployed women gain and maintain meaningful employment and find economic sustainability. Since 2008, Dress for Success Triangle has served more than 8,300 women. In 2016 their goal is to serve an additional 2500 women.