“I CAME in the door crying internally and I went out the door with a big smile on my face for everyone to see.”
This is just one of the many testimonials given by Cork women who have benefited from Dress for Success, which supports women trying to get into the workplace.
The organisation, entirely dependent on fundraisers and donations, is celebrating five years in Cork. Its major fundraiser this year is a fashion show at the Metropole Hotel on March 1.
Dress for Success started in New York in 1997. Each branch is an independent affiliate that has to fund itself. The organisation, run on a voluntary basis, is in 150 cities in 30 countries and it has impacted over one million people.
The CEO of the Cork branch is Carmel O’Keeffe. She is passionate about Dress for Success, having decided to get involved after the sudden death of her husband and the subsequent collapse of the couple’s interior design business, due to the recession.
Initially, when a friend suggested that Carmel get involved in Dress for Success, she wasn’t interested as she needed to earn money.
“But I researched it and I loved the whole concept of women helping women to help themselves. I hit the button and applied to bring Dress for Success to Cork.”
According to the 2011 census, there were 19,228 unemployed women in Cork.
“I wondered why. Unemployment happens for many reasons, not just being unable to get a job. It’s because people want to stay at home and rear their families, or it’s because they can’t physically work because of a disability. Or it can be because women have no role model. So you have multi-generational poverty and unemployment and then recession hits.
“I thought it would be great if I could help women to get work. I hadn’t a cent in the bank, apart from my widow’s pension, as all my savings had gone into trying to save the business. I pulled in every favour and got in €32,000 worth of donations-in-kind to set up.
“We started on Oliver Plunkett Street in a lovely building. The landlord was amazing. He gave us the first eight months rent free. (Dress for Success is now on Patrick Street.) I got flooring, electricity, plumbing and carpentry for free. There is great goodwill.”
Working with volunteers, Dress for Success in Cork has had 800 women coming through the door. “There has been a 68% conversion into employment with a further 21% of women going into further education. We have made an enormous difference, impacting those lives.”
As well as dressing women in nearly new clothes, donated by professional women, for job interviews, Dress for Success also provides one-to-one career coaching by Carmel (a qualified coach) and other career coaches.
“The women get to keep the clothes. Boots are on board as a partner. They give each client €65 worth of free make-up and we have two or three hairdressers who wash and blow dry the women’s hair on the day of their job interviews. We review and amend the women’s CVs. We also have an IT person on board to up-skill the women.”
Carmel says each client receives approximately €1,500 in services free and for every euro that is donated to Dress for Success on the night of the fashion show, €200 circulates in the local economy.
For the first four years with Dress for Success, Carmel said she worked at it 24/7.
“I had no income apart from my widow’s pension. My friends became concerned and said I needed to get my act together. So I pulled back from Dress for Success a bit and got back delivering training and doing my career coaching. But I’m still passionate about Dress for Success. I finish my own work at 7pm and then work at Dress for Success every night and sometimes at the weekend. I’ve given it my best effort. We were the best performing small affiliate two years ago and got an award in 2015.”
Carmel is all about women using their confidence.
“No woman should lose her voice. We give our clients their voices back. We build the women’s confidence and self-esteem. Career coaching is all about not interfering with the potential of someone. It’s about supporting their performance. The career coach asks the questions and the client finds the answers within themselves. They then begin to believe in themselves again.”
Dress for Success has clients from all backgrounds including immigrant women and women who’ve spent time in custody because of offending. The organisation is partnered with social welfare which sends women onto Dress for Success to improve their chances of gaining employment.
The fashion show on March 1 at the Metropole Hotel starts at 7pm. Tickets cost €60. There will be a champagne reception with finger food, goody bags and raffles as well as the fashion show demonstrating spring and summer trends.
Tickets can be bought at Dress for Success at 123, Patrick Street, Tel: 021 4251769, or through eventbrite.com.