Not everyone is as lucky as Joi Gordon. She discovered early in her career that she needed to make a change, that job satisfaction and happiness could only result from doing something that propelled her out of bed in the morning. And while Joi may have been lucky in her timing, she says it’s never too late to do what you love, especially if what you love is living a life of community service in the non-profit sphere.
“The best time to explore the possibilities is when you can volunteer. Find out what you’re passionate about, and give your time and your talent. Join boards and get oriented with the operations of an organization. Understand what is required to run a non-profit organization. When the time is right, make the switch. Because there will be a right time. There’s always a right time for a person to refocus, reshift.”
An only child, Gordon grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Oklahoma where she studied radio and TV broadcasting at the University of Oklahoma. Those were the heydays of court TV and Gordon was sure she wanted to be a court reporter, covering scintillating trials and breaking down legalese for the average Joe. Heeding the advice of a professor who recommended she get an institutional understanding of her preferred beat, Gordon opted for a juris doctorate from her Alma Mater.
As a means to an end of a career in legal journalism, Gordon returned to NY to take a position with the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. All was going to plan until the newly minted public prosecutor switched on the local news one morning before work.
Gordon recalls vividly, “It was the usual busy morning, trying to get out the door for work when I was distracted by a story on a not-for-profit that had just opened its doors six months earlier. The organization, Dress for Success, was appealing for donations of women’s business attire to help them in their work of getting disadvantaged women into the workforce.
She left that day for work, planning to contact the organization only about dropping off some items. Speaking with the young founder, Nancy Lublin, Gordon was inspired. The 22-year-old had dropped out of law school to launch Dress for Success with a $5000 inheritance from her grandfather. Teaming up with some nuns from Spanish Harlem and supplementing her income by playing poker in Atlantic City, Lublin was shameless in her pursuit of resources for her non-profit. As soon as she heard Gordon was a lawyer, the entrepreneurial Lublin offered her an unpaid position on the Board of Dress for Success.
Gordon immediately felt a connection with the organization and appreciated Lublin’s passion. She signed on with the Board and provided oversight as Dress for Success began to build out the platform to expand its operations beyond New York. After a little over one year, and only 29-years-old at that time, Gordon knew she had found her passion and signed on full-time to run the Dress for Success New York office as Lublin took on a worldwide role: “I left what I was doing without even questioning it. I cannot say I grew up wanting to be in the helping profession, but I decided this was going to be my path, my journey, and my opportunity to make a difference. My decision was met with mixed reviews from my parents. My mom was always a strong supporter of me, if I was happy, she was happy. My dad, an immigrant from the West Indies, was less sure. Being a lawyer meant having status, he was definitely more concerned about the shift and didn’t understand how his only child, a lawyer, decided not to do that anymore. But he came round and before his death last year told me how proud and happy he was that I made that decision all those years ago.”
Gordon ran the NY Office for three years until Lublin decided to step down from the organization to write the next chapter in her life, inviting Gordon to step into the CEO role in 2002. In addition to suiting up women for job interviews, under Gordon’s leadership, Dress for Success has focused more intently on employment retention and offers resumé-writing support, interview training, and general all-around confidence building. “It’s not unusual for us to work with women who have spent 20 years in the corporate world, lost their job, and then lost their way. They need an organization like ours to pick them up again. We work with non-profit job training agencies offering hard skills training like computer training or a culinary program, for example. They refer a woman 48-72 hours before her interview, and we help get her ready. If she doesn’t land the job, we help her further along the process to help her find employment.”
Dress for Success has helped more than 775,000 women find work and is now in 136 cities in 17 countries around the world. “I never would have imagined to have operations in so many countries and find this common denominator, not only in the women we serve, but the women who serve the women we serve – our volunteers. They are so passionate about helping women overcome obstacles and succeed,” Gordon says proudly.
Gordon acknowledges it was easy for her to make the transition. She was young, with a husband and child, but no debt as she had gone to law school on a scholarship. She was also earning a modest salary as a public prosecutor so her day-to-day expenses were reasonable. But based on her experience with Dress for Success, the 46-year old CEO is adamant in her belief that women must discover their own inner motivations. “If you don’t move forward, you’re standing still. Join a board, do your research, get involved in organizations that you believe in and feel strongly about. Figure out the timing. Look for the right opportunity but it must be strategic, you’ve got to do your homework and you need to get involved. There are so many opportunities for people to get involved in the non-profit sector first as a volunteer, then as a Board member and hopefully then as an employee.”
Being in so many cities worldwide, Dress for Success offers many volunteer opportunities for women looking to get into a new field, learn new skills, or even get a foot in the door. They can serve as image consultants in the boutiques, helping clients getting suited for interviews. Others can work in the career centers, reviewing resumes and doing mock interviews. “Women of a certain age have such wonderful experience in the workforce to offer. We get great use out of retirees to act as speakers for our numerous workshops for example.”
And the best thing about volunteering is that you become a known quantity to a whole group of people previously outside your network. So while you may not have a lot of experience in that new field, your passion and commitment will be proof of your reliability, putting you in serious contention for a job in the organization should one arise, or in similar organizations where others can vouch for you. Volunteering also does wonders for one’s confidence and feeling of fullfilment.
As Joi says, “I’m incredibly fortunate to have a job that combines my commitment to public service with my passion for women’s issues. Volunteering is wonderful in that it offers that opportunity to everyone.”
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer with Dress for Success, information is available here.
Encore is an organization targeting men and women in midlife careers looking not only for continued income but the promise of more meaning – and the chance to do work that means something beyond yourself. Read an earlier Career 2.0 profile on Jere King who did an Encore fellowship.
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