Back in 1999, Joi Gordon joined the team at Dress for Success; three years later, she took over the leadership helm at Dress for Success Worldwide. Under Joi’s leadership, Dress for Success Worldwide has expanded from a singular brick and mortar location in Manhattan to a global entity, spanning across 160 cities in 30 countries and serving over one million women by giving them the tools they need to achieve lifelong economic independence.
Beyond her efforts at Dress for Success, Joi is actively engaged in numerous community engagement initiatives, serving as a member of the Women’s Forum of New York and an executive board member of the Greater Queens Chapter of the Links, Inc. Joi has received an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, been named among Working Mother magazine’s “Most Powerful Moms in Non-profit,” and has been recognized as one of the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by Network Journal Magazine. Joi received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio/Television Broadcasting form the University of Oklahoma and juris doctorate also from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Leadership for me started early on in life. My first real leadership moment was in junior high school, but mainly in high school is when I stepped into the role as a leader at my school. It was parlayed into my entire college experience, both as a resident advisor and responsible for all of the university apartments. I was only 19 years old. Everything I did in law school led me to be the general counsel of the students at the University of Oklahoma. Every step in my life of leadership has lead me to exactly where I am today. It has given me confidence. It has made me sure about who I am and what I am set on this earth to do. I’ve been climbing the staircase of leadership since I was very young and I am still climbing today.
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role?
My time as a lawyer has helped develop my confidence. It has also given me a platform to hone in on my sales experience. When you are a lawyer, a prosecutor or a role where you are often in front of juries, the whole trick to that is selling. You have to sell your case. You have to sell your client’s case. One of the cases I was working, I was representing the city of the Bronx. That experience has made me really comfortable in front of an audience. It made sure I was able to articulate my message and get people to listen to me. I took that into my role at Dress for Success. It has certainly helped me stand in front of large rooms or even small rooms and articulate a message which really speaks to what we are trying to accomplish at Dress for Success with the level of confidence that I am able to convey a message and convince the crowd to join me. I did that as a lawyer and I brought that talent right into Dress for Success.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role?
My highlights over 20 years have been the many different women who have worked at Dress for Success and the women who have come straight out of college with this being their first job or second job. I am on this journey with them as they develop themselves into professional women in the work place and know that in some small way I am part of their growth. That has been a highlight to me. A more significant highlight is watching our women grow over time. Seeing them from when they first walk through the door at Dress for Success and seeing where they are today and knowing we have been on this journey with them and have given them many tools to succeed and seeing those tools work for them. The challenge all nonprofit professionals have is fundraising and trying every year to do better than you did the year before by finding different pools of funding and diversifying the funding streams. Another challenge at Dress for Success which is unique to us is that a lot of people know us, but they only know us for the suiting process. This is so much more than clothing. Although our name is Dress for Success and people might think that means it is about the dressing, it is more important that we address and dress her inside even more than her outside. A challenge is to get people to understand that this is not an organization that just simply give suits to women who need it, but we do so much more than that.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
I often tell women and/or men who are looking to transition from corporate or academia into nonprofit is to first find something that you are passionate about because what is going to keep you in the nonprofit space. If you can align your passion with your purpose, that’s going to keep you in this work. Also, what you can do ahead of time is to volunteer. While you are working in whatever industry you are working in and you find a cause that you care about, start to volunteer within that organization. See what pieces of the organization interests you more than others and what talent you can bring to that organization. Many times when you are a volunteer the organization will see you and knock on your door before you get a chance to knock on theirs. It’s a great opportunity for you to lend your talent, time and treasure to a nonprofit organization in a volunteer capacity and see if this is a right move before you make a move. Make sure it is an organization you are going to stand behind and love the mission. Make sure this will be a job you would do even if you didn’t need to be paid to do it. That is a good indicator that it is the right time to make the move into the nonprofit world.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
A lot of people think that to be successful and find true joy, you have to skip around and have multiple jobs throughout your career until you find the right job or you need different roles, responsibilities and pivotal points in your career to be accomplished. I found everything in one place. I learned to be patient, listen to my inner voice, steady myself and not leap for the next opportunity because sometimes where you are is where you are supposed to be.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
That is a misnomer. I don’t think it is possible to have a work/life balance. You must try to be present for whatever you’re in. When I am at my children’s basketball games or watching my daughter run track or with her over the weekends, I am completely present for her in those moments. Same thing is when Dress for Success requires me to travel or to go to late night/early morning events, I am present in those moments. I try to show up for where I need to be and do the best that I can do. I know that at times as a mother and as a wife, I‘m sure I fall short, but I am hopeful that my family continues to applaud the work that I do and continues to cheer me on. Do I live a life of guilt? At times, but as long as I know I am doing the best that I can do with no intent to neglect any part of my life within my job and my family. That is the balance that I need.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think we as women need to lean in more. We need to show up and ask for opportunities that may seem like they are outside our immediate skillset. Men do it and there’s no fear there. I think we as women hold ourselves back for the next opportunity because we position ourselves from a place of “I’ve never done it and therefore I can’t.” You sometimes need to live a life of being fearless. Let people see that you are willing and capable of doing work and really hit the ground running when you are new to an organization. People want to see your excitement and zealousness when taking on your work. It is important not to be complacent or relaxed, but be looking to take that organization to the next level. That is what I want for women because there is no greater talent than a woman in a workforce.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business?
I want more women to start their own businesses. It is not something you do hastily. I am a big believer in doing research. I feel strongly that if you are going to start your new business, non-profit business, for-profit business, buying a franchise or creating a small entity, first you have to do your research. You have to see if what you’re doing is already being done. Is there any way that what you’re creating can be done in a way that makes it more palatable, more marketable, more successful than something that is already out there? Before you leap in and start, find your distinguishing factor about how your goods you are selling are going to sell faster, better and to more people than your competitor. What would be your competitive edge that you will do something different and have a greater need than what is already being served? How are you going to do it differently? It should be well thought out with angel investors. If you can’t convince other people to support you and believe in you, that should be a moment of pause in your business plan. You have to sell it and people have to buy it. If people did more research, we wouldn’t have so much overlap and so much competition. We would have more collaboration and less competition.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I am mentored by many and a true believer in mentoring. Many of Dress for Success board members are mentors, coaches and advisors to me. I surround myself with people that are smarter than me so that I can learn. I also believe in mentoring so much that on any given day if anyone reaches out to me, either formally or informally and ask for my help, I will give it. I think that is what women do and what we are supposed to do. I believe our responsibility, as women, is to help other women succeed. Mentoring to me feels very organic and it is who I am. What does it take? 5-10 minutes to answer an email or telephone call? If you can help somebody else then that is what you’re supposed to do. Mentoring is very critical especially for young women. It doesn’t necessarily have to be another woman, it could be a man but you need a coach. You need someone to guide you and give you some focus, guidance and constructive criticism.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire so many, but not just women who are well known. Obviously there’s the women that everybody knows of – the Oprah Winfreys and the Michelle Obamas. Of course, they are extraordinary women, who wouldn’t admire them. I also admire women who work really hard, get their work done and are kind to other women. When I see kindness come forth in women, that is a characteristic that I admire more than anything. I think you can achieve a lot in this world when you are kind and you don’t have to have an edge to get it done. When you are kind to people, they will follow you to the end of the universe especially if they are following your heart. I see people like Niki Leondakis, the CEO of Equinox, and know how people care about her, her leadership and how she treats them. Those are attributes of characteristics that I need to have in my leadership toolkit. I admire women who lead with their heart, are purposeful and are kind to everyone.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year?
Professionally, I want to continue to grow Dress for Success and infuse more technology into the organization. I want to pay closer attention to how the work force is changing over the next 5-10 years and make sure we are razor sharp and focused on how we can better prepare our women for the workforce. There are so many disruptive business models out there and I want to make sure our women have that edge and make sure we are giving them the tools they need to succeed. I want to spend a year learning to make sure this organization is protecting and providing women with what they need to succeed. Personally, I want to see my daughter, who is graduating from college, to succeed. I want to stand on the sidelines and cheer her on. Her success is my success. I want to be there for her, I want to watch her grow and I want to give her the support she needs. That will make me feel really accomplished as a mom if she is succeeding in everything she wants to do and watching her move into the next chapter in her life.
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out?
Do your research so that you are prepared.
Find other people to believe in you and invest in you. Get a team of supporters because starting a business is no small task. Find your core group of people to support you through the startup of your new business.
Recognize that there are going to be a lot of sleepless nights, personal investments of time, treasure and money. Pace yourself. It is easy to run out of steam and get close to the finish line to decide that you cannot cross it. If this is your dream, passion, and purpose, you can make it happen. You just have to take time for yourself and take time for what you are trying to create.