Dress for Success Pittsburgh helps women gain confidence, financial independence


Image Via Dress for Success Pittsburgh

Dress For Success Pittsburgh // Jiya Narwal, For The Pitt News Members of Dress For Success stand outside a mobile event.

By Jiya Narwal, For The Pitt News

At Dress for Success’ mobile boutiques, clients can find a decorated van packed with racks of clothing, shoes and refreshments. 

Calynn Abdullah, the communications and development manager of Dress for Success Pittsburgh, said one of the most notable features of the organization is its mobile boutiques. The organization travels to different locations in the Pittsburgh area to bring these items to women in need. 

Founded in 2005, Dress for Success Pittsburgh is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women obtain attire for job interviews, job training, court appearances or any major life changes. They have locations in Lawrenceville and Washington County. While DFSPGH provides clothing to women in the Greater Pittsburgh region, they also help clients with resumés, applying to jobs online and enriching their technology skills, Abdullah said. 

“We want every woman that leaves the boutique feeling more confident than when she arrived, you’ll notice a lot of women are intimidated coming in, a little bit embarrassed or shy and not really sure what to expect,” Abdullah said. “Once you have the outfit, once we work together to figure out what barriers there are, you’re gonna feel more confident leaving.”

Abdullah said during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult for women to obtain transportation in order to access Dress for Success locations. Mobile boutiques offered a solution to this problem. 

“It became our number one way of reaching women, more so than our physical boutique locations. This spring we have over 50 locations that we are going to and we anticipate about reaching 1200 women ─ just through the mobile boutiques,” Abdullah said. 

Because of the increasing popularity of these mobile boutiques, DFSPGH has had to start turning people away. As a result, the organization has just purchased their third mobile boutique, which is set to open in the summer. 

Erram Ahmed, the mobile services manager and EmployHER Pittsburgh lead, said the mission of DFS allowed her to realize the significance of building relationships with the women she serves. 

“The mission of Dress for Success Pittsburgh is so important to me because I wholeheartedly believe that women empowering women will definitively always be what takes womankind to the next level 一 be it equal rights on all fronts, respect and dignity everywhere we go, and of course, a place at every table,” Ahmed said. 

According to Dress for Success’ website, women report job burnout at a higher rate than men. This gap between men and women has only intensified as a result of the pandemic. DFSPGH also has mental health resources that work to combat this issue. 

Abdullah said because the organization deals with clients with varying backgrounds, outcomes can vary from one person to another. 

“People have a stereotypical image of what these women are, but not everyone is in that position,” Abdullah said. “We’ve seen retirees, who have left the workforce, came back and wanted to become a medical assistant during COVID. We see folks that have the money, but don’t know what to wear, because they might not have had that support at home. We’ve seen women who have left their state and traveled to the city of Pittsburgh, so they’ve left everything behind.”

Abdullah said people generally think that DFSPGH’s sole mission is to overcome unemployment, but there are many other barriers that people don’t immediately recognize. 

“Success might be being able to walk to the grocery store because you have an outfit to wear, and that’s success,” Abdullah said. “But there might be another woman that’s aiming for a CEO role and that’s success in her terms.”

Tanya Vokes, the CEO of DFSPGH for the past five years, wishes she had the support that Dress for Success offers while she was in college. 

“As a first-generation college student, I could have benefited from a program like Dress when I had my first professional interview coming out of grad school. My mom was very supportive, but she hadn’t worked in a professional environment and wasn’t able to tell me what to wear or how to prepare,” Vokes said. 

From working at DFSPGH, Abdullah said she has learned that it’s important to keep an open mind when it comes to all the different scenarios that might occur. 

“We’ve even had house fires where women come in clothing that someone lends them because they can’t go to work because they lost everything. So we need to get them to be able to get clothes so that they can go to the grocery store 一 those types of things,” Abdullah said. “Before this job, I did not know how different journeys can be and how people define success on their own terms.”