THE BLOG
11/12/2014 01:24 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

Joi Gordon on Volunteering Your Way to a New Career

Joi Gordon

By Lisa O'Donoghue-Lindy, Founder at Career 2.0

This article was originally featured on career2.0blog.net, an inspirational blog about women in professional transition

Not everyone is as lucky as Joi Gordon. She discovered early in her career that she needed to make a change, that job satisfaction and happiness could only result from doing something that propelled her out of bed in the morning. And while Joi may have been lucky in her timing, she says it's never too late to do what you love, especially if what you love is living a life of community service in the non-profit sphere.

"The best time to explore the possibilities is when you can volunteer. Find out what you're passionate about, and give your time and your talent to that. Join boards and get oriented with the operations of an organization. Understand what is required to run a non-profit organization. When the time is right, make the switch. Because there will be a right time. There's always a right time for a person to refocus, reshift."

An only child, Gordon grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Oklahoma, where she studied radio and TV broadcasting at the University of Oklahoma. Those were the heydays of Court TV, and Gordon was sure she wanted to be a court reporter, covering scintillating trials and breaking down legalese for the average Joe. Seeking an institutional understanding of her preferred beat, Gordon opted for a juris doctorate from her Alma Mater.

As a means to an end of a career in legal journalism, Gordon returned to NY to join the Bronx District Attorney's Office. All was going to plan until the newly-minted public prosecutor switched on the local news one morning before work. Gordon recalls vividly, "I was distracted by a story on a not-for-profit that had just opened its doors six months earlier. The organization, Dress for Success, was appealing for donations of women's business attire to help them in their work of getting disadvantaged women into the workforce.

She left for work, planning to contact the organization only about dropping off some items. Speaking with the young founder, Nancy Lublin, Gordon was inspired. The 22-year-old had dropped out of law school to launch DFS with a $5,000 inheritance from her grandfather. Teaming up with some nuns from Spanish Harlem and supplementing her income by playing poker in Atlantic City, Lublin was shameless in her pursuit of resources for her non-profit. As soon as she heard Gordon was a lawyer, the entrepreneurial Lublin offered her an unpaid position on the Board of DFS.

Gordon immediately felt a connection with the organization and appreciated Lublin's passion. She signed on with the Board and provided oversight as DFS began to build out the platform to expand its operations beyond NY. After a little over one year, and only 29-years-old at that time, Gordon knew she had found her passion and signed on full-time to run the NY office as Lublin took on a worldwide role: "I left what I was doing without even questioning it. I cannot say I grew up wanting to be in the helping profession, but I decided this was going to be my path, my opportunity to make a difference. My decision was met with mixed reviews. My mom was always a strong supporter, if I was happy, she was happy. My dad, an immigrant from the West Indies, was less sure. Being a lawyer meant having status, he was definitely more concerned about the shift and didn't understand how his only child decided not to do that anymore. But he came round and before his death, told me how proud and happy he was that I made that decision all those years ago."

Gordon ran the NY office for three years until becoming CEO in 2002. In addition to suiting up women for job interviews, under Gordon's leadership, DFS has focused more intently on training and general all-around confidence building. "It's not unusual for us to work with women who have spent 20 years in the corporate world, lost their job and then lost their way. They need an organization like ours to pick them up again. We work with non-profit job training agencies offering hard skills training. They refer a woman 48-72 hours before her interview, and we help get her ready. If she doesn't land the job, we help her further along the process to find a job."

Gordon acknowledges it was easy for her to make the transition. She was young, with a husband and child but no debt as she had gone to law school on a scholarship. She was also earning a modest salary as a public prosecutor so her expenses were reasonable. But based on her experience with DFS, the 46-year old CEO is adamant in her belief that women must discover their own inner motivations. "If you don't move forward, you're standing still. Join a board, do your research, get involved in organizations that you believe in and feel strongly about. Look for the right opportunity but it must be strategic, you've got to do your homework. There are so many opportunities for people to get involved in the non-profit sector first as a volunteer, then as a Board member and hopefully then as an employee."

Being in so many cities worldwide, DFS offers many volunteer opportunities for women. They can serve as image consultants in the boutiques or work in the career centers, reviewing resumes and doing mock interviews. "Women of a certain age have such wonderful experience in the workforce to offer."

And the best thing about volunteering is that you become a known quantity to a whole group of people previously outside your network. So, while you may not have a lot of experience in that new field, your passion and commitment will be proof of your reliability, putting you in serious contention for a job should one arise or in similar organizations where others can vouch for you. Volunteering also does wonders for one's confidence and feeling of fulfillment.

As Joi says, "I'm incredibly fortunate to have a job that combines my commitment to public service with my passion for women's issues. Volunteering is wonderful in that it offers that opportunity to everyone."

Career 2.0 showcase inspiring stories about women who started over in new careers, ditching job stability and finding happiness and success in new pursuits. @careertwodot0