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How Dressing The "Unemployable" Became One Entrepreneur's Pathway To Success

There are any number of reasons why obtaining gainful employment is especially difficult for economically challenged individuals. Some of those reasons are obvious, others not so much. Commonly, we meet women who don't have a car or other access to transportation. Just as frequently, we interact with women who don't have reliable childcare. Addressing even one of these two employment obstacles is understandably daunting, let alone both.
08/24/2015 02:29 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2016

Like so many other job seekers before her, Lea Jones* found herself in desperate need of something suitable to wear for interviews. She had neither the wherewithal nor the know-how to select and procure the appropriate attire so crucial in making a positive first impression. Lea had the added challenge of concealing dark bruises that ran up and down her arms--the visible scars of domestic abuse.

Lea came to Jackets for Jobs, Inc. in August 2015 seeking an outfit fit for an upcoming interview. We were able to find something that met her cover-up criteria but that also appealed to her fashion sense. In the end, Lea walked out with a beautiful pair of slacks and a matching long-sleeve blouse. Holding her head a bit higher, Lea left Jackets for Jobs determined to land work that would enable her to move herself and her children out of a homeless shelter and into a better life.

The reality is that Lea's story is, sadly, a familiar one. While the circumstances vary for each individual with whom we work, the common thread is that they're all facing sometimes major barriers to employment, and they need our help. We have made it our job to empower women who are struggling under the burden of poverty, domestic abuse and life on the streets. A 501c3 nonprofit, Jackets for Jobs is my life's mission.

There are any number of reasons why obtaining gainful employment is especially difficult for economically challenged individuals. Some of those reasons are obvious, others not so much. Commonly, we meet women who don't have a car or other access to transportation. Just as frequently, we interact with women who don't have reliable childcare. Addressing even one of these two employment obstacles is understandably daunting, let alone both. It's no wonder then that many of the Jackets for Jobs clients we see haven't given even a moment of thought to what they might wear to an interview and eventually to a full-time job.

Women who meet eligibility criteria by the state of Michigan are referred to Jackets for Jobs by Detroit's Employment Solutions Corporation. They then come to one of our two Detroit stores where they are invited to select a brand new interview-appropriate outfit with the styling assistance of our experienced staff and volunteers. In addition to clothing, Jackets for Jobs customers also select accessories including new shoes and a purse to complete their look.

At Jackets for Jobs, we realize that an individual's outward appearance is only part of the impression she or he makes during the job search. It's for this reason that we couple our style counsel with job training and etiquette advice. Before Jackets for Jobs clients leave our facility, they go through important training with our staff.

When you're desperate for a job, you may not think about the subtleties that can make a difference during the interview process. If, like Lea, you've lived in constant fear of abuse, you're also likely to be lacking in self-confidence.

We hence discuss the importance of punctuality, a firm handshake and interview follow-up. We talk about self-esteem, what it means and how to cultivate it. We help our job seekers think through potential responses to common interview questions so they're ready with answers that help tell potential employers more about what they can bring to the job.

Confidence looks good on an individual, and it's always been my observation that when you look good, you feel good. Thoughts become words that become actions. I know from personal experience. Jackets for Jobs was an idea I dreamed up after two very different tragedies collided leaving me feeling more determined than ever to realize my life's purpose.

After 9/11, I, along with many of my colleagues, took a leave of absence from United Airlines where we worked as flight attendants. People simply weren't flying like they had been on September 10, 2001, and the days, weeks and months that preceded it. During this time of soul searching, I reconnected with my long lost half-sister. Sadly, just months later, she died of cancer. It was only in planning her memorial that I learned she had been struggling on welfare for some time. I had no idea.

It was then that I knew what I needed to do. I would help women struggling financially find a way through the fog. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to do it.

Now 15 years after Jackets for Jobs opened its first doors in a 12x12 church utility closet in Midtown Detroit, we have two expansive locations on the city's East and West sides that, combined, represent more than 6,000 square feet of space. In addition to women, we now assist men with interview attire and preparation. We've clothed more than 16,000 job seekers. We've also caught the eye of retail giants T.J. Maxx and Men's Wearhouse, both of which have provided significant financial and merchandise donations to help fuel our growth.

Never have I been more certain that I'm living my purpose. I love that I'm helping women who, like my sister, were afraid to ask for help. I love that my entrepreneurial endeavors have led to a fulfilling career that makes a difference in my own community. I love being part of the renaissance happening in my hometown by readying job seekers for meaningful employment--sometimes the first real employment they've ever had.

I am proof positive that success can be attained outside of corporate America, inside the inner city, and alongside women and men who many see as unemployable. Entrepreneurs need not necessarily invent something new. They may find reinventing something--or someone--is just as, if not more, fulfilling. For me, career success has come from the latter, and that has made all the difference.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.