More than just clothes: Career Closet opens doors for women

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Women shop for clothes at Career Closet in San Jose. The organization helps women re-enter the job market by outfitting them to make the best possible impression.

When every door seems closed, Career Closet empowers struggling women by providing new clothes, new skills and a new lease on life.

“It’s about dressing someone from the inside out – what their clothes message to the outside world,” said Executive Director Jean Cecil of the nonprofit organization, which has locations in San Jose and Foster City.

Although the thousands of jackets, pants, shoes, purses and accessories neatly displayed at the Career Closet’s boutique are what stand out to visitors, the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the program have been key to the organization’s success since it began in a hospital utility closet 20 years ago.

Working with 130 partner organizations for referrals, Career Closet furnished workplace outfits and programming to 1,754 women in 2011 and 2,200 women to date in 2012.

What makes the organization unique is its commitment to treating each client as an individual and “teaching hard lessons in soft ways,” Cecil said.

As soon as a new client walks in, a representative helps her develop a work plan that meets her professional needs. Although each woman receives a 90-minute consultation and is outfitted with at least a week’s supply of dress clothes, the program often has a deeper impact.

Career Closet opportunities help women overcome insecurity and low self-esteem to reach personal goals – completing their GED, learning workplace etiquette or planning time and finances – that seem unobtainable while juggling a variety of life challenges. Classes on occupational and presentation skills enable clients to learn in an environment that Cecil calls a “safe place to fail.”

“We want to make sure that she doesn’t do something completely (inappropriate) because she doesn’t know better,” said Cecil of the nurturing nature of the program toward its clients.

In 2012, Career Closet graduated 50 women from the Work Experience Program, an initiative created in 2010 that gives clients hands-on work experience at the center or a partner company in the community. Personalized training and coaching by the organization’s staff over a longer period of time assists the participants in securing employment and sustaining workplace success.

With the support of the Town Crier’s Holiday Fund, Career Closet plans to expand the Work Experience Program, set up a computer lab where women can take courses through Khan Academy and eventually tailor services for men who need professional clothes and training.

As the organization grows, so has its model for financing program services. According to Cecil, Career Closet’s retail program – with designer clothing items available for purchase by the public – is generating a growing percentage of the organization’s more than $35,000 monthly operating costs for its two locations combined. In 2011, retail sales generated $124,000 in profit. Cecil said more donors are contributing gently used apparel because they know that nothing goes to waste and that the money goes directly back into programming.

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