How Dress for Success delivers economic empowerment and independence

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The mission of Dress for Success Indianapolis is to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

“I have been in a position to receive, and now I am in a position to give.” Char Dunlap knows the strain of struggle. Now she offers help and hope to those who are striving to realize their own dreams of economic empowerment. “I have seven children,” she beams.  “And, if my life had not been made different, their lives would not have been made different. There’s a ripple effect to benefitting just one person. Some of the people I help now… Well, I used to be that person.”

A total makeover. That’s what Dunlap discovered when she walked through the doors of Dress For Success (DFS) Indianapolis. She was looking for clothes because she couldn’t afford an interview suit; she ended up clothed in something that suited her much better. 

The mission of Dress for Success Indianapolis is to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life. DFS aims to provide women with the supportive services they need to make life transitions that result in achieving self-sufficiency and socioeconomic advancement. Dress for Success Indianapolis is one of more than 150 Dress for Success affiliates in 30 countries worldwide.

“Confidence,” she emphasizes, “I became clothed in confidence.  I developed as a leader by recognizing that I could be one. (DFS) empowered me to make career changes that I otherwise would not have made were it not for the coaching and the mentoring and the learning I received.” And she’s not the only one.

“Back in 1999, I don’t think people really could have realized when DFS opened in the basement of a church that today we would serve over 18,000 local women with interview, workwear attire and career services,” Julie Petr, Executive Director of DFS Indianapolis reminisces. “That’s a lot of ladies! Some of our clients have been with us for years and years, and a few of them have been with us for two decades. What starts out with a client coming to us for clothing often transitions to her seeking out career services and then joining the Professional Women’s Group, or the PWG, as we call it.”

Services that paved the path to economic empowerment were in demand prior to the pandemic.  Now the need is rising exponentially. “The pandemic has been hard on all of us personally and professionally, especially women,” remarks Indiana Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch. “And women of color have been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. A Berkings Institute survey reveals one in four women who became unemployed during the pandemic reported the job loss was due to a lack of childcare. Another survey confirmed that women’s jobs were almost twice as vulnerable during the pandemic as men’s jobs.”

The Lt. Governor decided to step out of her comfort zone and to walk in the shoes of the women she was reading about. She stepped onto the catwalk as a runway model for the DFS Indy annual fundraiser, Stepping out in Stylealong with the women DFS serves.

The single evening event features 12 women from the community as amateur models. The women represent diverse backgrounds, bodies, and beliefs — what unites them is an indomitable spirit.

“I was going in for an interview about two days after I walked into DFS,” Linda Rousseau, a DFS client and 2021 model recalls: “My spirits were down. I had lost my job six months prior.  When I came in and got the outfit I was going to wear to my interview, the woman that sat across from me told me about the Professional Women’s Group (PWG). I felt really, really confident when I walked out of DFS, and I said to myself, ‘Yes, I will assist others to believe in themselves‘.”

PWG is a place where women go for more than career services. “The PWG is a sisterhood,” DFS Indy Executive Director Petr explains. “It’s a place where women celebrate their successes, they pull each other up, and they also support each other when times aren’t so good. DFS put out a survey in 2020 that indicated that 90% of our female clients were suffering and were impacted by COVID-19. We had to be resourceful and creative and transition so we could help women who needed those jobs. Our career services transitioned to virtual programs, and the clothing transitioned to curbside pick-up and delivery. We rely on a village of volunteers.”

Volunteers like Brandi Davis-Handy, Chief Public Relations Officer for AES, and Karen Mangia, VP of Customer & Market Insights for Salesforce, who co-chaired the 2021 Stepping Out in Style Gala.

“Dress For Success is an organization I’ve supported for a long time due to their mission of helping drive women towards economic independence”, Davis-Handy describes. “I was truly honored to co-chair the Executive Leadership Team during such a pivotal time in our community.  Knowing how much this pandemic has impacted women pushed me to want to raise as much funds as possible. I was beyond thrilled to see organizations and women from across our city show up to support these efforts.”

“Caring is the new couture,” Mangia continues, “One of my favorite quotes is ‘Don’t let your learning lead to knowledge, let your learning lead to action.’ When I read about the widespread job loss among women, I was compelled to do more than learn. I was compelled to act. To contribute. Together we rise.”

The single evening event raised nearly $400,000, and other measures of success are also on the rise. In 2020, 84% of PWG members were employed at the end of the year, with 12% more seeking employment. “DFS helps women find the resources they need and to go out and win at whatever they say they want to win at,” Michelle Jones enthuses.  She’s a DFS client turned PWG mentor and 2021 model. “We create a safe place for women to come to step into who they were destined, created and deserve to be.”

Dara Fletcher another amateur model and client success story, concludes with confidence: “When you are at DFS, you are at home.  You come in as you are and then leave in a different manner.”


This article was co-authored by Karen Mangia, who is vice president, Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce. Her work focuses on strategies for personal and professional success, and she regularly works with executives, managers, and future leaders at companies of all sizes globally. She launched two new books in 2020: Listen Up! How to Tune In To Customers, And Turn Down the Noise and Working From Home:  Making the New Normal Work For You  – both from Wiley. She has been featured in Forbes and regularly writes for Thrive Global and ZDNet, and has been named as one of the Top 20 Thought Leaders in the world by Thinkers 360. Committed to diversity and inclusion, she serves on her company’s Racial Equality and Justice Task Force. She is a TEDx speaker and the author of Success With Less, a book that chronicles her own personal journey through a life-threatening health crisis. Her high-impact keynotes help organizations to access the future of work via innovative insights around the voice of the customer.

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