Stressed and anxious, a middle-age woman takes a deep breath before walking up to the Dress For Success Southern Nevada boutique. Becky (not her real name) never imagined she would need help from such a nonprofit organization. Once a successful entrepreneur, her professional and personal lives have taken terrible turns. Embarrassed and self-conscious, she expects to find something like a second-hand thrift store where she can get a suit to wear to a job interview. Instead, she opens the door and enters a fashionable space where friendly volunteers are excited to make her feel like she's queen for a day.
Paula Lawrence, the executive director, steps forward with a big smile. Warm and welcoming, Paula has the ability to make anyone feel instantly comfortable and loved. As they select clothes to try on, she explains to Becky that some clients just need to be styled for a job interview, but DFSSN also provides job readiness training and support in its career center and professional women's group for others who need the help. She then steers Becky into a fitting room with a velvet-covered seat for trying on shoes. Becky grows more confident and optimistic with every outfit Paula and the volunteers put together for her.
As Paula sees Becky's outlook change before her eyes, she recognizes the emotional transformation from her own experiences. Originally from Northern California, Paula moves to Southern Nevada as a young wife and stay-at-home mom. She gets by until 2002, when she finds herself divorced and needing income to support herself and two young daughters, Riley and Casey.
She gets a job managing a private security firm. After 9/11, many businesses in Las Vegas want security guards on their premises. Companies are not just looking for protection, they seek people with a certain polished image. Naturally gracious and attractive, Paula begins giving advice to her guards about how to present themselves. As a result, the security industry does very well until the recession hits in 2008, and companies need to tighten their belts. She loses her job and her house.
At this point, her mom and dad also begin having health issues. So she is not only job seeking in her 40s, she’s raising adolescent daughters and caring for aging parents. "I had the clothes," Paula says, "but I needed support, to put my ego aside and ask for help."
Her many friends and relatives provide support as she takes her natural qualities to the next level. Paula becomes certified as a master etiquette and protocol consultant and founds Keynote Academy. She advises elite corporations, dignitaries, educators and celebrities on social awareness, generational diversity, personal branding and other aspects of professional development.
Judy Machabee, who has known Paula since they were both taking their toddlers to Mommy and Me classes, remembers every phase of Paula's own development. "She's very optimistic," Judy says. "She has an innate ability to see the glass half full and to draw on her own tough times to walk into any situation with empathy."
In 2011, a board member for Dress for Success Southern Nevada also notices these qualities when she sees Paula featured on the local TV news. She introduces Paula to DFSSN founder Paige Candee. "We were in the startup phase, and she had so much passion, energy and wisdom about our clients and their needs that she made an immediate impact," says Paige, who brought Paula onto her board of directors. "With her experience in charitable work, fashion, etiquette and business, we knew we were getting a dynamic person who would catapult our organization to a new level."
From being a board member, Paula volunteers to be its part-time executive director in 2011 before taking on the job full-time in 2014. Under her leadership, DFSSN opens its boutique in 2012, establishes its career center in 2014 and serves more than two thousand women. She increases its services, events and fundraising and is named a Woman of Distinction by the National Association of Women Business Owners for her philanthropy last year. Many businesses, including the Las Vegas Brighton stores, participate in donation drives and fundraising events. Besides a yearly Handbag Trade-in promotion, the Brighton stores hold a donation drive for jewelry for the first time in February.
Such accessories fill another room at DFSSN. After they decide on her suit and shoes, Paula ushers Becky into this space to finish her look. They try on various pieces of fashion jewelry and scarves, ultimately selecting those that best suit her outfit and industry. To top off the session, Paula hands Becky donated certificates for a facial and hair styling. Overwhelmed by the support, Becky blinks back tears of gratitude. Paula and the volunteers also well up as they all end up in a big group hug.
"It's not just, 'Here's your clothes,'" Becky says. "It's like, 'Here's your strength, here's your love.' When you go, it's not a fitting, it's a ceremony. They give you your self-esteem."
The next day, Becky goes to her interview and pretends that Paula is there, talking her through it. She makes a great impression and is immediately hired. For her and many of Paula’s clients, it’s not just a new job, it's a new life.