Wake County

Dress for Success turns focus to women veterans

Women veterans who come to the Raleigh or Durham offices of Dress for Success Triangle for help with their job searches tell the volunteers there that the military gave them four uniforms, straighter posture and the training to do at least one task very well.

It did not necessarily equip them for life after active duty.

In a job search, “There are challenges that all women face,” said Beth Briggs, executive director of Dress for Success, which helps women land jobs by providing resume assistance; networking programs; image, career and interview coaching; and interview attire.

But female veterans, who have a higher rate of unemployment than their male counterparts (6 percent to 5.2 percent last year according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) begin their foray into the civilian workforce with issues most other job applicants don’t have, Briggs says.

While they have years of training and experience, they often don’t know how to describe their skills and abilities in a way that makes those sound useful outside the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.

Their military training – to be assertive and aggressive – may be off-putting to potential civilian supervisors. Conversely, if they were victims of sexual assault while in the military, they may lack self-confidence and appear too timid in interviews. A 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study reported that 4.3 percent of active-duty women had been victims of unwelcome sexual contact in the previous year.

Women who enlisted in the service right out of high school may have never even have had a previous job interview.

Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which might make them seem depressed or on edge; or they may show the effects of a traumatic brain injury, which can affect memory and attentiveness. Some are single mothers distracted by the legal effort to regain custody of children lost during deployments.

Since it was launched in 2008, Dress for Success has worked with 8,000 women, Briggs says, and last year began examining how well it was serving the growing number of clients whose last – or longest-lasting – job came with a military rank.

“Talking with these women has made us realize that if we were going to serve veterans, we had to be laser focused on their needs,” Briggs said.

Confidence boost

So this year, Dress for Success hired a part-time veterans coordinator to work with women who are leaving the service and looking for a civilian job. In addition to the services it provides all its clients – a resume, a suit, a connection and a mentor – the agency also has begun to connect with outside groups that can provide other services women veterans may need, such as health care, mental health counseling, legal aid and housing assistance.

It’s a nurturing environment that would be helpful to any woman, says Katrina Holley, the veterans coordinator, who started in April.

“We have one woman, still transitioning out of the Army, who was feeling very defeated,” Holley said. “She knew this was the road she had to travel but she was finding it very hard at every turn, and was not feeling very inspired.”

At Dress for Success, Holley said, the woman was treated like a shopper at a chic boutique, getting help from volunteer fashion consultants who work with donated clothing and a client’s preferences to find a stylish, work-appropriate suit.

“You feel wonderful when you’re there,” Holley said. “You go into the dressing room and put on the outfit, and come out and look in the mirror.

“This lady, she is used to looking in the mirror and seeing herself in her fatigues or in her dress uniform, and now she sees herself looking so put-together.

“It is such a boost to the confidence. It’s such a boost to the self-esteem. I think it makes all the difference.”

Heroes, too

On Wednesday, the agency will celebrate the accomplishments of women veterans with a luncheon featuring California-based author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. The public is invited to join Dress for Success volunteers, donors and clients at the event at the Women’s Club of Raleigh. The cost is $35.

Lemmon’s book most recent book, “Ashley’s War,” released in April, is the story of Ashley White, who was a platoon leader in the 230th Brigade Support Battalion of the N.C. National Guard when she volunteered to serve on a Cultural Support Team attached to the Army’s Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

The all-female Cultural Support Teams were launched in 2011 to help Special Ops forces in the search for terrorists and weapon stashes in the towns and villages of Afghanistan during the U.S.-led war there. The teams grew out of a need to be able to communicate with Afghan women, who had information about insurgent activity but were off-limits to male soldiers as a matter of local cultural norms.

At the time, women in the U.S. military were officially barred from serving in combat, but were proving able to bridge a gap that male soldiers faced again and again.

Writing the book, Lemmon says, gave her the opportunity to tell the little-known story of the Cultural Support Teams, which went on secret missions with Special Ops forces, working toward the same goals as the Special Ops soldiers and facing the same risks.

White was killed during combat operations in the Kandahar Province in October 2011 when the assault force she was with triggered an improvised explosive.

Lemmon, who presented a popular TED talk about the Cultural Support Teams in May, said she likes to tell their story because “There is always a hunger to hear stories about heroes,” and this one, she says, demonstrates that women are heroes too.

Beth Segovia, vice chair of the board of Dress for Success Triangle and executive director of THINK Business Group Services at Lenovo in Research Triangle Park, says her company recognizes the value that women veterans can bring to the work place. Discipline, commitment, dependability.

Lenovo supports Dress for Success because it wants to help women veterans see those qualities in themselves, she said.

Other than helping them find jobs, the most important thing Dress for Success does for women veterans, Segovia says, is send them out the door “thinking, ‘I can do this, and I will do this.’

“So many of them say, ‘I got my power back.’ ”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

Want to attend?

Tickets for the Sept. 9 lunch with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of “Ashley’s War,” are $35 and are available through Monday at nando.com/ashleyswar. The noon event, at the Women’s Club of Raleigh, has space for up to 250 people. If you can’t attend but would like to donate to or volunteer with Dress for Success, got to trianglenc.dressforsuccess.org.

Need help?

If you need help in your job search, including a gently used interview suit, go to trianglenc.dressforsuccess.org/client-services or call Dress for Success at 919-286-2128. Client services are available at 1812 Tillery Place, Suite 105, in Raleigh, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 10 am.-1 pm. on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month.

The Durham location, at 1058 West Club Boulevard, Suite 634 (Northgate Mall) is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays and the first and third Saturday of each month.