You are what you wear.

It's a life lesson drilled into every job candidate prepping for an interview. And it’s a reality every employee discovers on the way up — or down — the career ladder.

Mary Ivers knows this better than most. As founder of Dress for Success Cincinnati, Ivers outfits low-income women so they are are appropriately fitted head-to-toe for their first interview — suit, shoes, hosiery, even a purse. The motto of the organization, “Suits to Self-Sufficiency,” says it all.

Ivers has always been business-minded. In the mid-'70s, she and her husband started Club Essential, a software company that, by 1985, was listed on Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest growing companies.

Then a friend told Ivers about the Dress for Success national organization. The timing was right. Her children were grown. “I had a space in my life at the time,” she recalls. “I needed a new project. I had spent lots of time prior to that volunteering in the community.”
She traveled the East Coast and visited Dress for Success chapters before, in 1999, founding Dress for Success Cincinnati. Gently used clothing is donated from a variety of sources. Women can even shop the basement boutique, where non-interview and surplus items retail for $1. All money goes to fund the upstairs program, notes Ivers. “Its mission is to sustain Dress for Success. The one thing I had in excess was all this clothing. I was donating it to churches.“

Ivers’ agency is more than about pumps and purses, it's about persona. “It's not just about the suit. The whole goal (is) to strengthen women.”
The offices on Fourth Street include a Career Corner stocked with computers offering internet access, Microsoft Office programs, stationery supplies and a fax machine. Staff members also help one-on-one with resume writing and interview preparation. And a retention program known as the Professional Women’s Group provides a comprehensive approach in training women towards self-sufficiency. Each month, seminars feature topics such as “Written Rules of the Workplace,” “Unwritten Rules of the Workplace,” “Financial Literacy” and “Work-Life Balance.”

Some 75 social service agencies in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky refer women to the program, which serves 1,000 clients a year.
Angela Moore is one such customer. As volunteers buzz around looking for the best “suit of armor” (in this case periwinkle), Moore looks for the words to describe her feelings: “I am so thankful that I came down here. There are such wonderful clothes. Everyone has been so helpful.”
How does Ivers recruit her dedicated volunteers? In a word, flexibility. “We work to fit our volunteers’ schedules,” Ivers notes. “There are so many ways for volunteers to help. The flexibility allows more women to be able to pitch in. Some women help a few hours a week. There are high school (students) that come and help to earn community service hours. It all adds up in the end.”

Ivers — who observes that the agency’s fund-raiser “Women on the Move Fashion Show” will be held Oct. 5 — says its all about running a non-profit agency that can find ways to financially sustain itself, to enable the organization “to become a bit more entrepreneurial, thinking on its feet.”

Or as client Sarah Coram puts it: “Dress for Success does amazing work. It is a generous and life-long gift that they give to women by helping them see themselves as repectable and beautiful.”