As the new CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide, a nonprofit that helps women in their careers by providing support, professional attire and development tools such as career coaching and workshops, Michele C. Meyer-Shipp is focused on listening and learning from stakeholders to make improvements that support them.
Read through the Q&A for more insights into Meyer-Shipp’s company “listening tour,” and how Dress for Success Worldwide helps women with professional clothing, mentorship and building confidence.
Q: You’re new in your role at Dress for Success. What’s your goal for the company over the next year?
“My goals at this juncture are really simple. The first is, I need to get a lay of the land. I’m doing right now what I call a listening tour because we have so many stakeholders. We’re 25 years old and we’re at a pivotal point in our history in serving women as a part of the pandemic.
“The pandemic had a crippling effect on women in the workforce around the world. McKinsey research shows the pandemic set women back three decades in the workplace. I’m coming into this organization at a time where we really need to think about who we are, who our client is and who we need to be.
“I’m doing this listening tour, which is probably going to take about three months or so, because I’m meeting with various stakeholders, starting with our clients and with our employees. We have over 140 affiliates around the world. I’ll be meeting with them, our supporters, donors and our corporate partners.
“I’m also looking at our systems and processes to understand where we have some low-hanging fruit and where we can make enhancements. I want to understand our brand value. I want to understand our affiliate network, how we partner with them and how we can do that better.
“In addition to the women that we serve, I have a whole staff of employees right here at the Dress for Success Worldwide headquarters. My job and my goal here is to make sure that they have the tools, infrastructure and the support they need to do all that they do to support our clients and our affiliates around the world.”
Q: One of the things your organization does is provide women with professional attire. How do you balance helping women dress for the job while being mindful of the Grooming Gap?
“It’s really a multitude approach. We have volunteers who come into our boutique to work on professional attire, we call that Suiting. We bring volunteers in and we train them on how to work with each woman individually to understand her need for clothing, her preferences and really understand the environment in which she’s going to work. Then we take her through the myriad clothing offerings to take something that would work best for her and the environment she’s going into.
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“But it’s really about confidence and helping build confidence for the women that we serve so that they feel comfortable in their own skin. Volunteers are a critical piece because we often have women coming in here who put on that dress or that pantsuit, whatever it may be, and they look in the mirror and they’re like, ‘wow, I actually do look pretty damn good in that.’ You see their eyes twinkle and they automatically have that confidence.
“We also provide basic workshops on things like how to show up in the workplace, executive presence, being your best self and branding yourself. We try to provide not just the suit or other workplace clothing but also the workshops and services to address all that goes on with that.”
Q: Some companies have moved more toward a business casual dress code, and there’s an unspoken rule in some workplaces where women feel they have to dress up more or look a certain way to be taken seriously. Does casual dress make this harder for women in the workplace?
“Our affiliates, we have over 140 globally, customize their boutiques to have a wide range of clothing to work for the region that they are in. The clothing you’ll find in a boutique in Rome versus New Orleans is going to be different, and New Mexico to Houston, it’s going to be different. And we think about the industries in our various communities where these affiliates are and that dictates what the workforce attire should be.
“For example, we know that historically with tech firms, people are dressing really casually and in jeans usually. Then you hit Wall Street and you’re in an investment firm and it’s a little bit more business-y, sometimes business casual, but we try to have a wide array of clothing.
“We’re actually finding women are coming in and they are not afraid of wearing a formal suit. They want to make sure they have a nice assortment of business separates that they can wear that can be business casual at the office.
“I think it’s really more about the company culture that makes a woman feel uncomfortable about how she shows up more than anything. This is where the work that we do to help build women’s confidence through our workshop is really important, but more than that, it’s up to these organizations to create inclusive work environments so that everybody can show up and be their authentic selves.”
Q: There’s long been conversations and issues around how Black women and men in the workplace wear their hair to work. What advice do you have for Black employees who feel as if coming to work as their authentic selves and wearing their hair naturally is an obstacle in the workplace?
“My advice for a woman who works in a place where she feels like she can’t wear her hair natural, I would tell her to find another job because I don’t want to be anywhere where I can’t show up as my full self.
“Knowing now that many jurisdictions have passed the CROWN Act and women have more than ever in the last five years or so embraced their natural hair, for any company that is not creating an inclusive environment where a woman can feel comfortable wearing her natural hair, then shame on that organization, and they don’t deserve a woman who was trying to show up with her natural hair.
“There may be instances where the natural hair concern is part of a bigger confidence issue, and again, that goes back to some of the core programming we work on with women to build confidence overall. But if it’s about ‘I’m not comfortable working there because I haven’t asked if I can wear locks or dreads,’ then my reaction is why is that? Did someone say something to you? Is there a policy that says you can’t? And if that’s true, again, candidly, I would recommend you go find another job because who wants to work in an environment like that?”