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Support in All Seasons: Dress for Success – C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald

December 20, 2021

Uplifting others is always in style. That’s what Melony Butler lives and breathes as CEO of Dress for Success Cleveland. This organization provides support in all seasons, meeting women where they are, with the full-range of specialized programs and opportunities. While clothing remains in their name, and how many first experience the organization, services continue to expand through strong leadership, a growing networking of partners and volunteers, and an incredible client base who gives back to the organization who helped them. Check out the interview below to learn everything you might not know – but should know now – about Dress for Success, including how Melony has helped lead the organization through pandemic challenges. Special thanks to Board Member Sarah Majeski, Oswald Financial, Inc. for the connection!





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SCHMITZ: Hi, it’s Christina. We are back with another episode of C to C, the Commitment to Community podcast from Oswald companies. I’m here today with Melony Butler, and she is the CEO of Dress for Success Cleveland, Melony, thanks so much for joining us. I heard you had a pretty successful night last night. How are you doing?

BUTLER: I am tired, but it’s a fun kind of tired. I’m really excited. And like you said, still kind of flying high on the energy that was created last night. I just posted on social media this morning. Dress for Success is not very common to other community agencies. We’ve all gone through some transition since COVID.

Financially being challenged, from having to pivot and turn from most of us in person services to virtual services, most of us learning some skills ourselves to be able to provide that and deliver that and then learning a different world of connection. Providing services all virtually is so much different than in person. And all of the components and moving pieces that go with it change. It’s a whole new ball game and so understanding that internally, and then finding your niche in that, and then finding how to reach people through that, all of that has been a transition.

BUTLER: For our event last night, the tagline this year to “Women Wardrobe and Wine” was to wind down and celebrate the journey. I feel like that’s exactly what we did last night. In doing that, we tried to create a different type of structure to our signature event. We normally have a sit-down dinner, two-hour production program and then the call to action and the give. Even though this was still a signature event and it’s still a fundraiser, and all of those outcomes are still part of it, we wanted to do it where people were more relaxed because the pressure has been on our supporters on our community at large, not just the women that we are serving, not just us staff, but everybody.

The fact that we have not all seen each other in person for what, 18 months…over a year. Our last signature event was in 2019. So that’s two years ago, when you think about the last time that’s when we saw each other. When we come to our signature event, and even internally, as far as connecting to our board, our board meetings have been virtual since 2020, and we’re still on that virtual mode. It was funny last night, some board members are saying, who’s that? Oh, that’s so and so and they’re like, oh, they never have seen their face because a lot of times people are joining, even Zoom meetings without their video on right? So it never dawns on you. A new board member coming aboard since we’ve been in that mode, has never physically seen other board members. So it was very interesting. I classified last night was a relaxed, release, and relate moment, and the energy for not only to do that to our mission, but also with each other. It was fabulous and Topgolf was the perfect setting.

SCHMITZ: Congratulations on such a successful event. And like you’re saying, the emotional and the connection aspect of it, valuable. Well, I have a few questions for you today, and I know we’re meeting virtually today, but I think we met in person just a few years back at an IICF Grants event, and at the time, Dress for Success – your mission is in your name – and that’s how myself and a lot of others in our company come to know your donation drive. When I met you for the first time in person, I got to know a lot more about everything you do in workforce development and career preparation. Can you give a bit more about Dress for Success and all of the services you provide?

BUTLER: This is where even though people think COVID has been an interruption in a negative sense, in a very large sense, it’s given us the opportunity to get where we want it to be all along with our mission. Our name is very deceiving to the scope of what we do. But our name has been around for a long time. We started in New York, and it was just that Nancy Loveland, our founder, thought she was just doing something in New York. She went on The Today Show. She went on Oprah, and she went on 60 Minutes. Bore she knew it, 31 women across the United States called in and said, I want to do what you’re doing in my city. And that’s how Just for Success became a national nonprofit. Our founder, Ricky Weiss, was one of those initial 31 women. So we opened in 1998, and we have impacted over 23,000 women since our inception in 1998. But we only remained a dressing only service for one year… we have been doing more than suiting and providing more than a suit and more than clothing for a long time.

But because of our name, people always just kind of assume that’s the need and that’s the height of what we do. But it’s always been there. So our struggle internally has always been that changing that narrative of Dress for Success and getting people to understand that there’s more than just the suit. But at the same token, that does still, even today, begin the journey. Our services are kind of tiered, or they used to be tiered. And now today they’re kind of more like, come and get what you need and get as much as you need! We have grown from a tiered and from just becoming a suiting program, to then becoming a suiting program and a retention programming. Then we went from a suiting program retention to also job readiness. So now we have, and we stand upon, a continuum support platform, meaning all-around. if you have your job and you’re excelling, and you’re coming back from the development retention workshops…the continual development, and you lost a job again, we now have a job readiness that you can come back and get started all over again.

That continual, most supportive services started in 2003 and really got built out very firmly in 2011 when we started a full-fledged job readiness and all-the-way-through placement service. So now and we’ve always stood upon five pillars that not only promoted growth in your career, but also just growth as a woman, as a person, as a mother, as a wife, as a community partner. And it’s holistic. That’s our strategy because you can’t grow one way without growing in the other…

We’ve always stood on these five platforms, which are our five pillars, which are career development and advancement, but also leadership and civic responsibility, financial planning, work, life balance and health and wellness. Without your health, you cannot do any of those things and you cannot begin to help anyone else, including your family, your children, without your health. So we really promote that. And I think COVID has allowed some of our pillars to be very much understood why they’re so important; self care. We are all learning about the sensitivity and the impact of mental health, and we’re not all so far removed from that subject matter anymore.

After going through COVID, we understand about depression. We understand about anxiety. We understand about how that then plays into your physical health. We understand the need to stay balanced, that’s that work life balance. We got to get away… I say, “it became a Zoom run on sentence.”

SCHMITZ: Great way to put it.

BUTLER: Working from home… that works for somebody. But that takes discipline. You still have to have degrees of separation to really remove yourself from certain components of your life. All of that became very evident and vibrant to all of us in COVID, and I think that was an opportunity for people to see the five pillars that we stand upon and value them a little bit more as being part of our mission. So in a way, COVID has helped change the narrative of Dress for Success.

SCHMITZ: As you’re describing this, it sounds like there’s an ecosystem of support around each client, and that may be a combination of your board members, your volunteers, your staff members, corporations or other organizations that partner to provide their niche area of support. Is that an accurate way to describe how clients have that experience? But do you ever see clients that come back to also provide support in the future?

BUTLER: Yes. One of the things that I have experienced this year is kind of going back and bringing transitioning programs that worked and transitioning to a virtual platform. One of the programs that absolutely we used to do, and we hadn’t done for a few years that we revitalized since the Pandemic, is our mentorship program. That’s a one-on-one relationship for a year with a mentor to help guide and help you elevate whether it’s within a career path in the traditional nine to five corporate America career, or it could be today to help you transition out of that corporate America because you’re going on to retirement and need to transition to an entrepreneurial type of existence and engagement with the community, or it’s to expand. Like, I still want to work nine to five in corporate America, but I kind of want another stream of revenue for protection. And so how do I do that? And how do I balance and finding women who have done that all along? Or it could be retooling and finding a new path because COVID shut down some pathways, right? Some career pathways or some career pathways that were viable, meaning I could earn a good living and support my family, because 66% of the women we serve are single heads of household with two to three children.

So there is a reality that work life balance includes having a job or occupation that pays enough to take care of the family, and you still have time to spend with your family. So finding viable career paths that help women have that work life balance and not have to work two and three jobs to just have the revenue to cover the bills and pay the mortgage. That’s another purpose of mentorship program. Bringing that program back, we reached back to women and mentors that we had matched back in 2011, twelve and 13. They came back into the program not only gave testimony to where their mentor, our relationship with, but also what it helped them to do. And then some of them became mentors. Now two women coming through today. So that is one way. Even last night at the event, I had a couple of women that have been through the program, and they’re now supporters and supporters come in many different fashions. There’s the person that’s able to give financially. There’s the person that can give up their time. There’s the person now today with some of our what we call ambassador members that can be advocates and can speak to the importance of the mission. So they often want to come to our signature event to kind of just be in the audience to kind of say, yes, this is what it does. Yes, this is what helped me. A couple of women reached out and said, hey, it’s a signature event tonight. Can I come in? And so that was great. You need people that can tell the story.

You need people that can help undergird and finance the story and the mission. You need all of that. And that’s how women are coming back. We also have a new initiative this year, actually, at the end of the when we returned, which was only half year in 2020, we did have an interruption to our services. When we came back, we found that what we needed to do to reach women that could be utilizing our mission and services, is we had to go out into the community because everybody’s existence has changed.

The traditional model of how we got women is from referring agency partners. Okay, well, they’re operating virtually now today as well. Even our County system..the referral process changed. The number of referrals we were getting started decreasing. What we did was go out and put ourselves in the community. We call that boutique on wheels where we come out; we set up a virtual boutique, whether that is in a community location, so that access to us is a little bit easier and more visible to your everyday routine or whether it’s within a corporation that is now.

This is another wake up call of 2020. Employers are finding that they need to nurture their employees internally, and if they want them to be encouraged and build confidence to move up their ladder, they have to provide them the resources. So companies are actually now partnering with us to come internally to provide resources, development, and tools to existing workers. And so that’s our new audience today. I call it audiences getting out in the community. A lot of times, women that have previously been through our program can come and definitely help in those arenas and those structures.

SCHMITZ: That’s great. And how far out across Cleveland, your chapter or the Cleveland organization, how far does that reach? And what are some of the other chapters within the state and area? I don’t know if we call them chapters, but what other organizations

BUTLER: We call them affiliates. Right now, we’re in Dress for Success globally is in 25 countries, and we have 150 affiliates among those countries. And then here in the state of Ohio, we have three affiliates Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

There is a lot of space between the three of us, and that’s another thing COVID was allow us because we’re all operating virtually is to do some statewide programming together. When we have opportunity that exists in all of our cities, we can then come together and say, hey, this broadcast is for women in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and therefore not separate efforts. But one effort to impact the whole state is being done. But as far as us in Cleveland, we want to reach Lorain County. We want to reach Summit County. We want to reach Stark County, so we go as far as we can is what our goal is. And our goal is to reach Northeast Ohio with the boutique on wheels model. Whether that is a community agency inviting us into their grand ballroom so we can set up there and reach women that are coming to their facility or, like I said, going to maybe a local corporate organization and doing it internally where the visibility is more centralized just on their employees or their employee base. So that is what our goal is.

Right now we are getting ready. Our next step is to go to Lorain County, which we have started before COVID in 2019. And then right now, as far as this year, our reach has reached Lake County. We did a boutique in Lake County.

SCHMITZ: As we’re talking today, it’s so evident that you and the organization has not only overcome and been resilient in these challenges but embraced the opportunity to expand your reach. Is there any other way or what are the other ways that people can get involved and take action? We will certainly share the website links as we do social media, becoming that ambassador. But what do you suggest is, what could somebody do today?

BUTLER: Someone can help when we come to your community. I mean, the whole process of coming to your community is physical. It’s packing up a truck. We have had partnerships from organizations like Penske Truck to donate some of the cost that is incurred to get there and unload and provide that service. So if anybody wants to undergo the cost of that, that would be great, but also come out on those days that were in those different locations and help us load and unload. That’s a physical hands-on support.

And then when we’re at the event just really participating because you have people and sometimes we never know how many people are going to come. So having extra hands on that and what we’re hoping to do now, we provide clothing at these boutique on wheels. But we also want to provide mock interviews and have the capability to provide mock interviews one-on-one. If we have enough people that can help us conduct those or to have a resume development session while you’re there shopping for interview suit or interview attire, you can also help and get your resume reviewed.

We also have laptops now that help us take on the road with us so that we can introduce women to our new E-learning systems. One of the things that happened while we transitioned to a virtual platform is we were able to partner with organizations that have E-learning systems, so we can sign you up for access to tools that will help develop you right in your own home. So maybe to retool or to excel within your organization, you need to learn. Let’s just an easy example. I need to learn Excel a little bit better, and I know a little bit about Excel, but I really don’t know how to do pivot tables and graphs and charts.

I want to know that, right? And so we have a tool that you can sign up and learn any Microsoft Office software program to enhance your development, and it’s tiered in three different levels from a beginner to an intermediate to advance. So it meets your needs where you are. It doesn’t take you back to where you I really know that and am bored. It meets you where you are. So those are tools that we want to demonstrate when we’re out and about in the community, as well as we have workshops where we’ll do that with you over just the one-on-one over the Zoom meeting.

Getting people engaged with us virtually as well as still in-person, but in-person is maybe not at our offices all the time they are when we go out in the community. Also, we’re still doing development workshops virtually twice a month. We also have a lunch and learn, making sure people understand the different engagements that we have and engaging in them. The other thing that we have that is new is what we call thought leadership sessions. These are topics that not only impact entry level or women currently thriving and advancing in the workplace, but women that are in all positions at all levels C Suite level as well.

Because these are issues that impact women as a whole. We all still are women. We are all still not equally paid. We are all not included at the table of decision making. We all still struggle with image. Even our image is different than what men have to deal with their image as we age, from certain ethnicities with our hair, our look, our makeup. There are all of these things. So these are issues that we talk about and we provide a platform for all women to come together.

Engaging in those platforms kind of makes that connectedness of women across the board together. That’s one of the newer things that Dress for Success would like to host and be a part of, and that hopefully will lead into advocacy, into change and into standing up for ourselves and being supportive and having a safe haven because believe that women, even though they are in C suite positions, still have pressure, still have some days where they don’t feel confident and you need to share that with other women.

SCHMITZ: That is the true sense and definition of community, and it’s really helping to empower each other through empathy. We truly don’t know what it’s like to walk in another shoes, but from what you shared today, whatever your background, whatever your skill set, it sounds like there’s something that you can give back through Dress for Success. And in the same vein, truly experience the rewards of helping others and coming together. Melony, is there anything else you want to share before we wrap today? I’m so grateful for you to take the time today.

BUTLER: I just say, look for us in 2022. Know that be patient with us. As far as your traditional way of getting engaged with just for success, people still call and say, I want to donate clothing. Please realize that only what was 95% is only 38%. So the number of items that we can take has diminished. Right now, we’re only taking 20 items from donors. And because of the issue that we’re all faced with not knowing where this COVID comes from and what it arises from.

So we want to protect our staff and volunteers that are actively working and receiving the clothing. So we are asking that all clothing is laundry or dry cleaned and bought on hangers. The only thing that people can bring in bags are purses, shoes and jewelry and accessories that don’t hang. And the other thing is that we have a contact list. When you do come, we have a contactless process. Now we have a cart and a rack in the lobby and we have the receipt. If we do, ask clothing donors to think about tucking in and giving $10 for every donation.

There is a glass box for you to put your donation in. Understand that Dress for Success, we are still serving. Yes, the number of women we are serving per year…we’re still building that back up to where we were pre-COVID. We’re at 65% of where we were in 2019, and we are a staff of three people, including me.

SCHMITZ: Oh, my goodness. I didn’t realize that we’re a staff of three people.

BUTLER: So when you come and when you demand, we come downstairs and see your donation piece by piece, we don’t have that capacity. So those are things that we do appreciate your support. I understand that we may not be able to receive as much as we used to, but your support is still significant and important to us. And there are so many ways being a mentor coming in and helping to sort the clothes and process the close our inventory. We are like a retail store. When it comes to processing our inventory, everything gets tagged, everything gets counted in.

There is a process to that know that you can do virtual one-on-one support with a woman to develop her resume, to do mock interviews, to do what we call surprise calls and to individuals so that we’re keeping them prepared if they’re looking for employment. All of those things that we used to do in person are still being done just virtually, and we can schedule you to do that and become engaged and just the thought. Leadership participate. Come to the table. Share your story. Participate and help empower women globally.

SCHMITZ: Thanks so much. I couldn’t have said it better to end our call. But Melony, I really appreciate your time again. Thanks for all that you do for Dress For. Success Cleveland, as you continue to grow and embrace that change and opportunity.

BUTLER: Thank you so much for giving us a platform, giving us voice in the community. Great. We’ll be keeping in touch absolutely thank you, bye.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and web formatting.

Introducing the C to C podcast, an oscast by Oswald production

Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The CtoC podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.

Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.