Just as every entrepreneur remembers their first customer, Debi Zaret has never forgotten one of the first women she helped at Dress for Success when the nonprofit organization opened its doors in Ottawa a decade ago.
Back in 2011, the fledgling charity was located inside its cramped quarters in Wellington Village. Today, it occupies much roomier space in the Canadian Real Estate Association building at 200 Catherine St.
Zaret recalls that freezing-cold day in January when the client – a newcomer to Canada – arrived looking poorly dressed for the winter weather. She wore a bomber jacket and several layers of pants. She was nervous.
Zaret and her fellow volunteers worked their magic on the woman, who ended up leaving with a swagger in her step and head held high, wearing a winter coat by Canadian designer Linda Lundström.
“She looked amazing but you knew she also felt amazing; you could see it in her body language,” Zaret recalled.
On June 10, the nonprofit organization is celebrating its 10-year milestone with a special virtual birthday fundraiser presented by GGFL Chartered Professional Accountants. The Ottawa firm’s ongoing support of the cause is such a “natural fit," explained Margot Sunter, chief operating officer and new chief innovation officer at GGFL.
“We pride ourselves on being a very women-led firm,” said Sunter. “We’ve had female leadership for many, many years and we’re proud of that. We know that is not always the case in our industry and certainly not in many industries.”
Dress for Success Ottawa goes a long way toward boosting the confidence of its clients, some of whom are new to Canada and/or single moms. Along with its signature clothing program, it also offers free career coaching, workshops and training courses to help with résumés, cover letters and job interviews.
The charity was originally run by a volunteer board chaired by Marlene Floyd, who was an Ottawa Forty Under 40 recipient in 2018. Floyd, Zaret, Joelle Hall, sisters Jacqueline Grace and Louise Grace, Visnja Zaborski Breton and Wendy Mitchell were part of the initial group that opened the Ottawa chapter of Dress for Success, a global organization with 124 offices in 24 countries.
The local founders weren’t entirely acquainted with one another but they had at least one thing in common: wanting to help disadvantaged women join the workforce again. They saw a need for an organization like Dress for Success, which could provide women with all the tools and resources needed to begin their journey toward economic independence.
Zaret still remembers meeting Hall and Floyd for her first time at a coffee shop and being surprised by how young they were. She even doubted whether they’d have the time and energy to help get the organization off the ground.
“Don’t judge a book by the cover, that's for sure, because these women had amazing energy and were so committed to making this happen,” said Zaret. “Honestly, it was humbling and a huge privilege to work with these women.
“What was really key is that we all had different skill sets that we brought to the table.”
Sponsors of the June 10 birthday also include Accenture, Multi Luminaire and Gemstone, a local real estate development and property management firm owned by Zaret’s family and led by her eldest son, Josh Zaret
Debi remains “very, very proud” of her connection to Dress for Success.
“I've always had huge respect for everyone who has contributed to Dress for Success and I just wish them the very best as they go forward on their journey in helping individuals who access their services.”
The public is invited to purchase a $25 ticket to the virtual event on June 10 and consider making a charitable donation. The 100 “girls-night-in” boxes, all filled with goodies from local small businesses, have sold out. The special boxes are being assembled and delivered by volunteers, who, really, are the backbone of the organization.
There are more than 200 active volunteers connected to Dress for Success. The organization employs four full-time staff – including executive director Mary Tersigni-Paltrinieri – and one part-timer
"There's something so positive and uplifting about women helping women"
“I feel incredibly lucky to have found this organization to work for,” said Tersigni-Paltrinieri.
“Honestly, it changes people's lives, and I often say it's not only with the clients who walk through the doors; it's the volunteers; it's the staff members; it is anyone who really comes in contact with the organization. There's something so positive and uplifting about women helping women, and women's empowerment.”
DFS has grown from serving its 1,000th client in 2015 to serving 1,000 clients each year by the end of 2019.
Previously, a woman needed to be referred to Dress for Success by an agency. That's no longer necessary, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We decided anybody who needs help right now should be able to get help without jumping through hoops,” said Tersigni-Paltrinieri. “We don't want any barriers for anyone.”
Dress for Success has adapted to the pandemic by switching its suiting, career centre and workshops to an online format, and by becoming a place for women to turn to for guidance, during government-ordered lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. DFS has been able to point them in the right direction.
The organization has seen an increase in clothing donations during COVID from women who gained pandemic pounds and/or had time to clean out their closets.
One of Tersigni-Paltrinieri favourite client stories involves a newcomer to Canada who, similar to Zaret's story, came to Dress for Success in the early days, in need of winter clothing.
“She had a lot of international development experience but was struggling to find her place here,” said Tersigni-Paltrinieri.
That client, Lynette Corcino, now works as a deputy director with Global Affairs and sits on the board of Dress for Success Ottawa. She’s also a mentor with Ottawa Community Immigration Services.
“Last year we were talking, and she still has the winter coat we gave her the very first year,” said Tersigni-Paltrinieri. “She keeps it in her closet as a powerful reminder of what one piece of clothing can do for someone.”