Dress to impress: Sonya Lennon on supporting women returning to work

International Women’s Day is a big fundraiser for Sonya Lennon’s Dress for Success initiative, says Rowena Walsh

Dress to impress: Sonya Lennon on supporting women returning to work

For Sonya Lennon, it was an entirely natural evolution. In 2011, the fashion stylist was starring in a prime-time TV show and she wanted to use her new high profile to help others. Once she discovered Dress for Success, it was the perfect fit for the presenter of Off the Rails.

Dress for Success is a non-governmental organisation which was founded in New York in 1997. It supports the economic independence of women by offering professional clothing and career advice.

“I felt that if I was to use my profile to benefit something, I wanted to be in charge of that story,” Sonya says. I realised that the work Dress for Success did internationally is in a sweet spot for my knowledge, my abilities, and my network.”

The service works with about 75 referral agencies — which are those that help a woman back into employment through training and education — but if someone needs their support, says Sonya, they would always help.

The service includes a one-on-one consultation with a stylist. “The women are dressed from our boutique in clothes that have been donated by the public and our corporate partners and we dress them to look appropriate and to feel confident for the role that they’re going for. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all protocol.

“Once that’s done, we work with a HR volunteer to help her to mould her message and reframe her experience to be as successful as she can at that interview.”

Dress for Success has helped about 3,000 women in Ireland. “We have statistics from the market in general around success at interview and that’s about 18% and our women have a 56% success rate.”

For Sonya, the goal is to help women build sustainable careers, rather than just get a job. To that end, Dress for Success offers mentoring programmes, sponsorship programmes, and financial literacy courses. “We do everything we can to keep that woman moving forward on an upward incline.”

Sonya is passionate about helping women to find their confidence, regardless of age. She tells of one 18-year-old single mother whose child was three. “I was styling her when she said ‘I know now that I can be the best mother and the best role model for my daughter.’”

Equally in need of help are the women who have worked in the corporate world, got knocked off the ladder and have subsequently lost their confidence.

“We’ve had women who’ve got divorced and who have maybe not worked throughout their married life and maybe have to work to support themselves. That’s a very hard move to make, particularly later in life,” says Soyna/

She points out that there isn’t necessarily a quick fix available, but there is a programme that can help people to build their confidence and, crucially, to recognise their own value. “Even if a woman has not been in the workplace for 20 or 30 years, the skills that she has to employ in terms of managing her domestic situation are akin to the skills that are required in any workplace.”

Sonya is now aged 51 and she handled a milestone birthday with characteristic aplomb. “I felt great and then I felt great for feeling great. I feel very honoured to be in a situation when I turned 50 it was very positive. And I don’t take that for granted. Having said that, I worked very, very hard to get there and continue to work hard to stay there.”

Her mother has been a key influence on her life. “Unfortunately, she has very progressive dementia now and it is heart-breaking because she was a phenomenal woman, a total go-getter. Her expression to me was ‘always have your running away money’, and ‘if you’re not part of the revenue, you’re not part of the decision-making process’. That’s powerful stuff.

“If you are born into a family home with a mother who values herself and has sense of positive self-esteem and can provide or help to provide for her family, that is the best start that you can have in life.”

Sonya herself has felt the benefits of Dress for Success. “It gave me the confidence and the catalyst to set up the other businesses that I set up since. There’s a bit of magic there, for sure.”

Clothing donations are accepted at the Dress for Success office from 11am to 2pm or outside of this by prior arrangement.

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