By Dawn Kissi, Knight-Bagehot Fellow
Having landed in New York City as a newly minted attorney, Joi Gordon saw herself leveraging both her broadcast journalism and law degrees into a network television role where she would provide sharp, up-to-the-minute legal analysis for viewers across the nation. It took a quick reality check to realize she would need actual courtroom experience before speaking about legal issues on national television. Gordon joined the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to cut her teeth in the profession and began to build her network.
By her own admission, Gordon did not go to law school to necessarily practice law.
“I really saw myself as kind of a legal analyst,” Gordon explained during a lunchtime event hosted by Columbia Business and Law Schools as part of The Reuben Mark Initiative’s Organizational Leadership Series, which hosts preeminent business and legal executives to discuss how they leverage their effective leadership styles to foster strong organizational cultures. “I kind of saw myself as a nicer Nancy Grace. I thought, you know, I’ll take my broadcast journalism degree and couple it with a law degree and I will get a gig on network TV.”
As fate would have it, it was television that led Gordon to discover her true calling. She describes the commercial advertisement that propelled her into charity work as a “call to action.”
“I literally saw Dress for Success on the news one day,” she explains. “I was getting dressed for work and thought, what a great organization.” One phone inquiry about how to donate a suit resulted in Gordon joining the Board of Dress for Success and within a year she left the Bronx courtrooms to work full-time for the global charity. Two decades later Gordon is overseeing 145 offices across 25 countries. “I love what I do. This is my Nancy Grace.”
During the conversation moderated by Rita McGrath, faculty of Executive Education at Columbia Business School, Gordon explained the company’s humanitarian beginnings. Dress for Success launched in 1996 with its roots grounded in humility–two nuns in Harlem invested $5,000 to help women exiting prison acquire interview-appropriate attire. “It was about getting women off the [welfare] rolls,” Gordon said. “We were giving women suits to go on interviews.”
Today, the organization has grown to be an internationally recognized global brand. And to Gordon’s credit, Dress for Success is now “more than just suits.” Leadership development, she says, has grown to become a key component of the services Dress for Success offers. “We do both hard and soft skills,” Gordon explained. “We do financial literacy, health, and wellness. It’s really very holistic.”
To date, Dress for Success has assisted more than 1 million women. Gordon notes that many are single mothers, an affinity she shares having been raised by one herself. “The person who is my North star in my development as a leader is my mother. She led me on this path of what leadership looks like.”
Treating women with respect remains a key pillar of the organization. Whether it’s in New Zealand or Africa, Dress for Success empowers women by promoting confidence from the moment they walk through the door. “This has to be an organization for all women,” Gordon said. “It can’t be an organization for some women.”
In addition to female empowerment, which has been a part of the organization’s DNA from inception, Gordon utilizes her platform to elevate the issue of diversity in the workplace, a problem, she said, starts at the very top. “It’s important that people who don’t look like me see this as an issue and that they, from the leadership level at the very top, make it a mandate to change the culture and the environment of the corporations that they run.”
Reflecting on her leadership journey and position today, Gordon bills herself as “everybody’s coach,” stressing the significance of giving back and caring enough to provide opportunities and sometimes second chances—a critical lessons for the next generation of ethical business leaders.