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Mobtown Beat

Dressing for Success

Group Prepares Women to Enter the Working World

By D.C. Culbertson | Posted 10/18/2000

I'm not ready for this," Ava says, laughing nervously.

But sporting a dark gray pinstriped pantsuit, white blouse, and black heels, the woman in her mid-20s seems every bit ready for the job interview she's rehearsing. Having just changed out of a purple sweatshirt, pants, and sneakers, Ava's now sitting opposite job coach Jackie Henderson and, after some initial faltering, speaks with the assurance of a corporate veteran. When asked where she sees herself in five years, Ava doesn't hesitate. "Vice president of a company," she says firmly.

It's just the answer Henderson wants to hear. Ava (who asked that her last name be withheld) has had odd jobs here and there and is now hoping to land a clerical job in a Baltimore hospital, something she says is hard to do without the high school degree she never obtained. But Henderson assures her that hole in her résumé isn't necessarily a disadvantage. Employers want to see a "drive for growth"--job skills can be taught, she says, but people can't be trained to have a good attitude.

"I can't train you to be punctual. I'm going to look for personality traits first," she says. And she gives Ava high marks for ambition.

Ava is one of 12 women participating in a recent interview workshop sponsored by Suited to Succeed, a Baltimore-based nonprofit at which Henderson is still settling in as the new executive director. The organization was founded in 1998 and modeled after the international group Dress for Success, which outfits lower-income women with high-quality hand-me-downs. The local organization expanded its offerings earlier this fall; it now provides interpersonal-skills training as well as business attire to help women move from welfare to employment. Henderson launched the training component to "provide a little boost" to women who use the organization's clothing services.

"It's not up to us to give [women] skills," she says. "We're wanting to give them the edge so that if they go into a job interview and there's a choice between them and one or two other applicants, [they have] that extra look or little bit of poise, anything else that is going to give them the extra edge to get the job."

Henderson hopes the skills tutoring will attract new clients and help Suited to Succeed reach its goal of suiting 1,000 women by year's end--a goal she acknowledges is "possible but not probable," given that it's taken two years to outfit 600. But the expanded program offerings mark only a fraction of the changes afoot at this fledgling nonprofit. Until Henderson arrived in May, Suited to Succeed had been run by a volunteer board of directors. With Henderson now on-board, two staffers in place, and several fund-raisers and a capital campaign in the works, the organization is, two years into its existence, finally taking off. And the direction it's moving in is both a natural extension of Henderson's own past and a response to a growing need in Baltimore, where nearly 60 percent of Maryland's welfare recipients live.

Having previously spent eight years in Harford County as coordinator of a federal job-training program and a career counselor at a nonprofit group, Henderson knows well the shortcomings of welfare-to-work programs. Because job-training programs tend to focus more on employment than skills, there "seemed to be a need" for some additional instruction, she says. "[Women] are gonna get hit with job-interview questions--some for the very first time and some for the first time in a very long time--and the more practice they have with a greater variety of people, the better they'll do," she says.

But if the program is to succeed in bettering welfare recipients' chances of securing and keeping good jobs, its profile will have to rise above the basement level where it operates in relative obscurity.

Located in the bowels of the Bank of America building at 10 Light St. downtown, the program is all but invisible to passers-by. And despite some funding from Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland for the two staffers' salaries, Suited to Succeed relies mostly on charitable donations to cover its roughly $40,000 in annual costs. Local companies such as McCormick and Co. and Verizon hold clothing drives on its behalf; Schroedl Custom Cleaners in Reisterstown cleans up to 10 suits a week for free; T. Rowe Price recently fronted a grant for the program's new computer system; and Bank of America gives it a break on rent. (The program relies just as heavily on clients' volunteer efforts--in exchange for the two outfits they receive, the women must volunteer at least an hour to sort, press, or hang donated clothes.)

Henderson hopes the skills workshops will help attract more women to the program, and already the plan seems to be working; several welfare-to-work agencies in Baltimore County have begun referring women to Suited to Succeed.

The program's workshops, which cover everything from interviewing to budget-planning and building self-esteem, draw women of all ages, Henderson says. Some are already employed and looking to obtain additional skills; others, such as Ava and Felicia, have interviews lined up and are trying to improve their odds of simply getting employed. Most, however, are dependent on social services, and many are encountering the job market for the first time. So the program's workshops walk clients through the entire job process, from how to dress appropriately to how to respond to personal queries about marital status and children. (Though these questions are illegal, Henderson says employers often ask them as a way of "checking attitude.")

It's a brisk October morning, and about 10 women have turned out for the interview workshop. One at a time, they choose suitable outfits--right down to the shoes--and sit for mock interviews. Felicia (who also asked that her last name be withheld) offers to go first. She sits straight as a rod and answers Henderson's questions with a quiet voice and direct eye contact, while Henderson comments on her responses and appearance. No detail escapes the veteran job-development specialist. "She could be just a little more relaxed," Henderson tells the others, but compliments Felicia for crossing her ankles instead of her legs. And she reminds Felicia to "shake hands firmly" at the interview's completion.

When the workshop ends, the women crowd the clothing room to choose additional outfits for upcoming interviews. One woman, dressed in black jeans and top, dons a blazer on the spot for a same-day job fair at Camden Yards. And as all of the women leave, new clothes and interviewing skills in tow, they exude a newfound sense of determination and purpose.

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