Joi Gordon

CEO

Location: New York, NY

"When I talked with my mother, she said I should be fearless and follow my dreams."

 

I started my job in the legal profession as an assistant district attorney. The job was the means to an end to gain experience in litigation. While the cases were interesting, I found myself wanting to be more inspired by my daily work.

During that time I was introduced to the idea of Dress for Success, a non-profit organization that provides interview suits and offers career development opportunities to low-income women. I loved the idea because I resonated with the confident feeling of putting on a “suit of armor” in the morning before taking on the world.

I wanted to get involved, so I leaned in and joined the board. I learned more about the organization and what it was all about: confidence and clarity, not just apparel.

The contrast between my legal work and Dress for Success was stark. By day I was dealing with incarceration that typically tore people apart; at night, I educated women, which brought families together.

As I became more and more involved, I realized the experience held a great deal of purpose for me. I knew Dress for Success was where I could create my legacy.

Thankfully, I was young enough to make a transition without debt or other serious concerns stopping me. I hadn’t yet been consumed by the monetary upside of law, so my day-to-day expenses were reasonable. It was a good time to make the leap.

When I told others my plan, people were less than understanding. My parents originally came from the Caribbean, so their experience with nonprofit leaders was non-existence. Seeing one of their children become a lawyer or doctor was considered a huge success. Conversely, my decision to leave the fold caused concern and worry.

When I talked with my mother, she said I should be fearless and follow my dreams; she believed I would be successful no matter what I did. My father felt it was a let down. He was concerned with my decision and didn’t see the rainbow at the end. (He has since watched me grow in this position and came to marvel at what I do.) I soon realized that other people’s perceptions didn’t have to be mine. So I left my legal practice to run Dress for Success.

I’ve now been a nonprofit leader for four times the length of time that I was a lawyer. It always makes me laugh when people ask me about the connection to my former career; it has been such a long time!

In the 15 years that I’ve been with Dress for Success, we’ve gone from 2 employees to 31. We started in the basement of a church on West 4th St. in New York; we currently have more than 130 offices in 15 countries. The women who work with Dress for Success are usually on a journey that starts with incarceration or domestic violence. We become their cheerleaders and their advocates. We teach women what it means to believe in themselves, and show them how to push forward.

I’ve learned so much through this experience. I think it’s important for women to find within themselves their own inner motivations. If you don’t move forward, you’re standing still. I’ve always believed whether it’s joining boards or getting involved in organization—if you don’t try, you’ll never know what winning might feel like.