At the age 23, Nancy turned a $5,000 inheritance into Dress for Success, a global entity that provides interview suits and career development training to women in need. Today, Dress for Success helps women reclaim their destinies in more than 120 cities in 10 countries. In 2003, Nancy rescued DoSomething.org and transformed it into one READ MORE »
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: In 1996, I was a full-time law student … and I was miserable. Out of the blue, I received a $5,000 inheritance from my great-grandfather. I hadn’t earned that money. It didn’t feel like it was mine. It was a very strange feeling—and so, standing there in my building lobby with the check in my hands, I had the idea to give it back. I had the idea for Dress for Success.
Seven years and 70 affiliates around the world later, I was bored. So I did what founders should do: I left. It was like stepping off a flat Earth, but it was the right thing to do.
One day my phone rang and a voice said “This is Andrew Shue and I’d like to talk to you about DoSomething.” I had been a fan of Melrose Place, so I giggled my way through that phone call. A few months later, I took over the reigns of DoSomething. They had just laid off 21 or 22 people, it was strapped with 250k debt, and there was no physical office … but the challenge of a turnaround excited me!
Q: Who is a leader that you have great respect for and why?
A: My hero is Nelson Mandela. I can’t think of another example of such selfless leadership. He was imprisoned for 27 years and then forgave his captors—not because of religious beliefs or a promise of salvation, but because it was the right thing to do for his country.
Q: How can someone who is not in a traditional position of leadership, still inspire a shared vision in her workplace or community?
A: Leadership doesn’t always come from the top or from a title or from age or even from experience. It comes from courage—and nobody has cornered the market on courage.
Q: Innovation requires creative thinking. How do you tap into the creative thinking resources within your business?
A: Innovation requires questioning, failing and change. The best thing any organization can do to encourage this is hire and promote engineers and scientists. These people are used to building things that break or are outdated in 3 months. Failure is a normal part of their everyday existence!
Q: As a leader, how do you communicate the vision of the company/brand with your team?
A: Transparent and continuous communication with your team is crucial to creating a strong brand. We have a weekly staff meeting where we have a weekly question and share one goal and one accomplishment. Every staff member does this. This allows open communication among the team and knowledge of what is happening within the organization. This translates to all of our supporters through a quarterly dashboard and an annual meeting where we share our financials, accomplishments, failures and plans for the coming year. We are able to build trust within our team and outside.
Q: I believe obstacles create opportunities. What was the hardest career transition in your life and how did you grow from it?
A: Leaving Dress for Success was hard! Most founders create something—and then leave in a pine box or on a stretcher. I’m a true entrepreneur—I get itchy for a new challenge and I get bored when the wins come easily. I wanted Dress for Success to be an institution, not a cult of Nancy. So I picked a successor and made a clean break. I don’t think anyone thought I’d actually leave—but I did. In fact, I went to Australia for 3 weeks to prevent myself from just showing up at the office or calling to check in! I’m not even on the board of directors. Clean break. It’s absolutely the right way to go … but most nights I do still dream about dressing clients.
Q: What do you believe makes a great brand?
A: I’ve written about this a lot. I think there are 5 elements to a strong brand: simple, unique, relevant, consistent, truthful. (See an entire chapter on this in my book Zilch.)
Q: For those that are new to mentorship, how do you ask someone to be your mentor and how can one be a good mentee so the mentor will be motivated to continue the relationship?
A: I think mentor programs (and even the word itself) are bullshit. The notion that one person has so much to bestow on another? No thanks. Instead, I’m a big believer in friendship. Every two people on the planet have a lot to teach and learn from each other. It’s a binary relationship.
ON Starting Out
Q: What are your top 3 tips for a woman entering the “real world” workforce?
A: Don’t try to force big words. Speak from the heart.
Don’t shit where you eat. Dating in the workplace (that includes flirting in the workplace) = bad idea.
Read the business section of the NY Times every day and subscribe to Fast Company.
Q: Confidence is key to pursuing your dream. How do you build up your “confidence muscles”?
A: Red lips and red nails every day. I’m not kidding. If Iron Man has an arc reactor that keeps him fired up, I’ve got Essie “Forever Young.”
Q: How do you respond to the question “How has having a child changed your life?”
A: I’ve learned a ton from being a mom and it has made me a better listener, manager, planner, etc. But I think the one thing I’ve gained is humility. Nothing reminds you of your place in the world like puke, poop, spit up and pee.