Dress for Success, a Mercer County affiliate of an international non-profit organization, aims to address the catch 22 for women who need jobs – without a job they cannot afford a suit, but without a suit they cannot get a job.

Dress For Success opened its boutique last fall near the corner of Klockner and Whitehorse-Mercerville Road, in the basement of an apartment building owned by the Gershen Group. The organization promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire and a network of support and career development tools to help them thrive in work and in life (609-587-8298 or mercercounty@dressforsuccess.org). The center is open five hours daily by appointment and referral only.

The center received seed funding from Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $50,000 donation. A women’s affinity network at B-MS, looking for a nationwide charity, picked Dress for Success.

"The Dress for Success brand is so well known, but then we realized that there was no central New Jersey chapter. No other nonprofits were interested in taking it on," says Jayne O’Connor. Formerly with Bristol-Myers Squibb, she now works for Capital Health System. "Bristol-Myers Squibb gave the go-ahead to establish the chapter, provided legal counsel to file all the documents, and arranged for pro bono counsel for us later."

"We’re immensely grateful that B-MS believed in our vision and provided not only start-up funding and in-kind support, but also held a suit drive that gave us more than 500 suits," says Debbie Bronfeld, executive director.

A native of Newtown, Massachusetts, where her father was an accountant and her mother a teacher, Bronfeld majored in accounting at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Class of 1983, has a master’s degree from Babson College, and has worked in operations and logistics. She and her husband, who works at Bristol-Myers Squibb, have two school-aged boys.

"But we’re not just about suits," says O’Connor. "We want to offer mentoring, and we are recruiting volunteers with experience." In addition to the entry-level workers, the non-profit has clients with four year degrees going for jobs in professional positions. "Your education level does not inoculate you against hard times, and people unexpectedly find themselves needing help. We are there for all of those people.

"We were extremely fortunate in that the business partners stepped up to the plate without hesitation," says O’Connor. "Everyone involved has an incredible appreciation for the people who work in the nonprofit sector. We had a lot of advantages, working for a big company, but we did a lot on our own and starting a nonprofit is a lot of work. We could not have done this without our partners’ help.

O’Connor, a Rutgers alumna, grew up in West Caldwell where her mother, a single parent, worked as a controller. "My mother lost her husband at age 34, with four kids under the age of 10, and she had never worked before. She had to get out into the workforce. So I am very aware of how you think your life is one way one day, and quickly your life can change."

In 10 years the national organization has suited more than 350,000 women for their job interviews. Job-ready clients are referred by social service agencies, such as job-training programs and domestic violence agencies. Most are single mothers ages 18 to 38 raising an average of two to three children.

Suiting days are on Tuesdays, when clients meet their personal shoppers, who help them pick out an outfit complete with accessories and a coat. "Since we are so new, our supply, for most sizes, is much bigger than the demand. Once a client gets a job she can come back and get a week’s worth of clothing," says Bronfeld. So far volunteers have suited eight women, but just one woman got a job and returned for more.

Volunteers are personal shoppers, to help suit the clients and provide encouragement and interview advice. Soon a monthly Professional Women’s Group will provide ongoing support and mentoring. The wardrobe closets are sufficiently stocked with clothes right now, but what Dress for Success doesn’t have is enough cash.

"What we really need is money for our overhead – telephone, fax machine, supplies," says Bronfeld. "And sometimes, if we don’t have the larger sizes, we will have to purchase them."

Other founding sponsors are California Closets, Compucom Systems, GenTech Systems Management, Hamilton Supply, HessTech, Kucker Haney Paints, Millner Kitchens, Inc., Renaissance Painting, Ruthellen Rubin, Sedgwick, Detert Moran & Arnold, Stark & Stark, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Yedlin Group, and Worldwide Wholesale Floor Coverings.

In addition to O’Connor and Bronfeld, the other board members are Laura Banks and Rachel Donington-Torpey of Pennington, Ilene Gershen, Nancy Goldin MD and Elaine Moorin of Princeton, Ellen Hackman of West Windsor, Stephen Kim of New York City, Maria Imbalzano, Ann McNally and Linda Meister of Lawrenceville, Melva Moore of Trenton, Naweichi Temu of Delran, and Caroline Yarbrough of Yardley, Pa.

"We have a very talented and diversified board of directors who each contribute his or her own expertise, resources and talents toward the success of the new affiliate," says O’Connor. "We are controlling our growth but we will grow by entering into agreements with more nonprofits, to help more women."

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