Dress For Success Central New Jersey

Melissa Tenzer, CEO of Dress for Success Central New Jersey.

Empowering Women on Their Journey to Economic Independence

By Wendy Greenberg | Photography by Weronika A. Plohn

Despite its name, the Dress for Success approach to empowering women doesn’t start or end with a dress, though it does provide professional-style dresses and clothing to women on their journey toward economic independence.

Developing the tools they will need to succeed in life and professionally is the real benefit of the program, but the clothes are important too. The dresses are a confidence booster to women who are going on job interviews and starting work after a life derailment, and the clothes signify getting back on track.

The Mercer County affiliate of the Dress for Success, located at 3131 Princeton Pike in Lawrenceville, was founded in 2007 by local professional women, with $50,000 seed money provided by Bristol Myers Squibb, according to CEO Melissa Tenzer. Since then, it has provided services to more than 10,000 women. The worldwide nonprofit organization started in 1997 in Harlem, New York, and has expanded to almost 150 cities in 25 countries.

Dress for Success client Miriam, who works for a Trenton social services organization, said she still has the clothing she selected from the organization that she wore to her job interview and first week of work. She calls them her “lucky dresses.”

Miriam, a victim of domestic violence, arrived in New Jersey five years ago with her three children to live in a women’s protective shelter. She received training in job skills in order to work at the shelter, but it wasn’t until a social worker referred her to Dress for Success’ “Designing Your Future” program in 2018 that she began to believe she could change her life.

The day she went to Dress for Success, she said she was “completely lost,” — figuratively and literally — as she called for someone to pick her up from the wrong side of Princeton Pike.

The Dress for Success program, she said, motivated her to “step out of the circle” of victimhood, and rebuild her life. “They teach you that you can’t change the world, but you can change the way you react to the world,” said Miriam.

She had applied previously for another job at her place of employment, but this time she got an interview. “They teach you what to say, what not to say,” she said, “and offer emotional support and confidence.”

She selected an outfit to wear, which made her feel “pampered and good,” she said. “After being through domestic violence, we are never the same.”

From starting work as a receptionist, she was promoted to an office manager, and is now a job coach.

Dress for Success taught her that the way you look at yourself is important. She bought her first car, and now lives in a house she purchased that has “four bedrooms and a yard.”

Miriam is still striving to achieve her goals. Dress for Success “helps you build what you want to be, but tells you to always work toward something,” which for her, now, is getting a social work degree.

Her “lucky dresses” are reserved for special events at work, “because they really important in my life,” she said. The outfits were selected at the Dress for Success boutique. Inside the ordinary office park building, a suite of rooms showcases scarves, shoes, purses, belts, and jewelry, as well as more than 800 dresses spanning sizes 2 to 14, larger sizes, and petites. The labels are what you would find in a mall, and some are donated from retail partners and still show tags. There are more than 10,000 items to choose from.

Also on display, on whiteboards, are thoughts that Dress for Success values, including “Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude” and “Stop being scared of failing.”

Dress for Success clients can browse through hundreds of donated shoes, bags, clothing items, and more.

Steady Growth

Providing suiting is a motivation, said Dress for Success Board Chair Elena Cordero-Busch, “but the real value is the training and the support, the skills, and the building self-esteem of women. ‘You look the part,’ now we fill in the gaps, with the capabilities and the confidence.”

Dress for Success has seen its own success under Tenzer’s leadership, as the number of women served in the Mercer County area has steadily grown. In 2015, 593 women were served, growing to 1,020 in 2016, and to 1,057 in 2017. During its 10-year anniversary in 2017, the organization was renamed Dress for Success Central New Jersey as it began serving six additional counties — Burlington, Ocean, Monmouth, Middlesex, Hunterdon, and Somerset. Tenzer said there was also a need in these counties for workforce development programming to help women secure higher-paying jobs to support themselves and their children.

After that it took off, serving 1,496 women in 2018 and 1,622 in 2019. In 2020, the program served 1,169 women, even though the office was totally closed for three months due to state pandemic restrictions. Most Dress for Success clients live under poverty level and include women of diverse ethnic backgrounds, with the average ages 18 to 38. Eighty-five percent are single mothers with two or three children, seeking self-sufficiency.

Tenzer knows the job search field. She owned a staffing agency for 15 years, and worked with Dress for Success when it sought staff. Eventually, the organization asked her to join as executive director. Tenzer was honored by NJBIZ in 2020 as one of top 50 women in business.

Dress for Success Central New Jersey CEO Melissa Tenzer has a warm greeting for client Miriam.

Vital During Pandemic

Dress for Success has been vital in the past year. “With the number of women who have lost jobs and their homes during this pandemic, our programs and services have become more important than ever,” said Tenzer. “The community knows they can turn to Dress for Success Central New Jersey in time of crisis.”

According to the United Nations Economic Development News from January, employment losses for women stand at 5 percent globally, versus 3.9 percent for men. A related CNN business report noted that women will re-enter the workforce more slowly than men. Many women are involved in unpaid caregiving roles or informal jobs, or their women-led businesses are newer, and more fragile.

The Rutgers Center for Women and Work confirms that unemployment among women has increased. By the end of 2019 women held the majority of non-farm jobs in the U.S., reported the center, which is within the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. By the end of 2020 “women’s work lives have been disrupted in profound ways,” many leaving jobs to oversee their children’s remote schooling.

As with the rest of the country, job losses in New Jersey started surging in April 2020 following a host of business closures and workplace lockdowns during the pandemic. According to the N.J. Bureau of Workforce and Development, for the rest of 2020 women accounted for 55 to 57 percent of unemployment claims in the state.

Miriam, a Dress for Success client.

Part of the Family

During this challenging year, Dress for Success Central New Jersey has continued to provide services. Much training has been online, though recently women have been able to come to the office by appointment. New clients are referred all the time, said Tenzer, mostly by area social service agencies such as the Rescue Mission of Trenton and Womanspace. Referrals also come from more than 150 nonprofit organizations including the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK).

“From my perspective, Melissa Tenzer has done an incredible job in building the programs Dress for Success offers, including ones that benefit men,” said Joyce Campbell, executive director of TASK. “This was particularly helpful for TASK as the majority of our patrons are men. We are very proud of our collaboration.”

“We are busy,” said Tenzer, adding, “Once in the program, you are always part of the family.”

Sometimes Dress for Success helps non-clients as well, as it has outfitted victims of several Trenton housefires, and partners with The Father Center in Trenton. With proms canceled in spring 2020, and some this year, it has a small prom dress collection as well. “We are known for being a comfortable boutique, not intimidating,” said Tenzer.

Clients select a full outfit for their interviews, and also are coached on their resume and interview protocol. If they land a job, they may select a work week’s worth of outfits from the boutique. Clients have received training through programs such as Designing Your Future, Latina Empowerment, Financial Literacy, Professional Women’s Group, Youth Initiative, Career Center, various mobile outreach, and other virtual programs. Many of the programs were written by Tenzer.

“The clothing is for the first impression and for the confidence,” Tenzer explained. “You can feel like a completely different person.” But the real value of Dress for Success Central New Jersey, she said, is found in its career development workshops, its ability to identify industry needs, assessing a client’s transferable skills, and basics like creating a resume and cover letter, practicing interview skills, and conducting employment searches. Dress for Success Central New Jersey emphasizes interview follow-ups such as thank-you notes, and life skills such as budgeting. There are weekly programs (now on Zoom) on topics such as mock interviews, stand-out resumes, virtual job searches, and more.

Cordero-Busch noted that economic independence is the overarching goal. She got involved when she worked at Bristol Myers Squibb (she now works at Johnson & Johnson), and supported the organization on the clothing drives and fundraisers. She joined the board as it was seeking outreach to the Trenton Latina community, and became chair last year. The lean organization depends on its board members for professional expertise, fundraising, and guidance.

Volunteers are also critical to the organization. Clothing donation can be a starting point, and volunteers from the community can also help with everything from alterations to resume writing and thank-you notes. Last fall, Good Housekeeping deemed Dress for Success (worldwide) one of the best places to donate clothes.

 

Crucial Fundraising

Dress for Success does not receive government funding, and gets less than 1 percent of its budget from the global organization.

Tenzer and her team raise funds to support the organization through small grants, events, and individual giving. An annual fundraiser, the Women’s Empowerment Breakfast, took place virtually earlier this month. Cocktails For A Cause, to be held on November 11 at 6 p.m., is planned as a virtual event at this point.

These events support clients like the aforementioned Miriam, and also Sandra, who had returned to college “after a series of unfortunate events,” as she put it. As she walked into her campus career services office, she saw a Dress for Success flyer. “One call led to another and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve referred others as well because of my positive experience,” she said.

Sandra said she felt “empowered” when she put on a new outfit for a job interview. “It’s easy to feel discouraged when you’re unemployed or underemployed,” she said. After completing the job readiness program, which included mentorship, mock interviews, elevator speeches, and coaching, “it was surreal to see myself professionally dressed again.”

For Sandra, the support and network of like-minded women in the ongoing Professional Women’s Group has helped her navigate “the often unwritten or unspoken rules of corporate culture,” she said. The group is encouraged as they share “obstacles, trials, and career milestones.”

Tenzer said the organization is “working hard to empower women who are fighting to make a better life for themselves and their families. I am honored to play a significant part in changing the future for other women.”

To learn more about Dress for Success of Central New Jersey, visit centralnj.dressforsuccess.org or call 609.896.4112.