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Helping Disadvantaged Women, Teens Aim High

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Nancy Lublin is founder of Dress for Success, a nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged women get ahead by providing them with professional clothes and career development training, and CEO of Do Something, which helps teenagers with big dreams. Lublin talks about her natural passion for entrepreneurship and helping others.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, what music are you listening to on your radio or your iPod? Is it classical? What about holiday music or maybe some jazz? Well, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson says it's all about the show tunes. He'll tell us why and that's next.

But first, it's time for Wisdom Watch - our conversation with leaders with experience and knowledge, not just smart but wise. This week, we're focusing on what it means to do good for your community, for the people around you.

Today, we talk to Nancy Lublin. In 1996, Nancy founded Dress for Success. It's a nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged women change their lives by providing them with professional clothes and career development training. And she didn't stop there. Now, Nancy is the CEO of Do Something. It's a nonprofit that helps teenagers put their ideas for changing the world into practice.

Nancy joins us from her office in New York City. Hi, Nancy. Thanks for talking to us.

Ms. NANCY LUBLIN (Founder, Dress for Success; CEO, Do Something): Thanks for having me and officially calling me wise. I can't wait to tell my mother…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUBLIN: …I now have the official title.

MARTIN: Feel free to quote us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I'm sure you've told the story a million times, but I love to hear again the story about how you've founded Dress for Success. As I understand it, you were in law school at the time.

Ms. LUBLIN: Oh, I was a miserable law student.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUBLIN: I don't know if there's any other kind but I was a miserable law student. And it was February. It was one of those cold, wet, rainy days and I had all these law school books on my bag and I was just feeling tortured. And I came home and there was an envelope in the mailbox with the return address from a lawyer in Hollywood, Florida. I didn't know there was a Hollywood in Florida.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUBLIN: And I didn't know who this lawyer was, so I opened up the envelope and inside was a check made out to me for $5,000 from the estate of my great grandfather. And it was just really strange to get a windfall from someone who was kind of a hero in my family. You know, he'd immigrated here with nothing. And I got in the elevator and when I got to the sixth floor where I lived, I had this epiphany and knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. And that night, I started Dress for Success.

MARTIN: How did you know that that was something that was needed? Was it because you were interviewing at the time and you thought to yourself, okay, I can go to my closet and pull out whatever I need?

Ms. LUBLIN: No, no - that's actually - I wasn't - I knew I didn't want to go the law firm route. It's actually harped back to a funny family story. My father was a lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut. And he had once told me that when he interviewed secretaries, he would look out the window and watch them go from the car to the door of the building. And he said he would know before they reach the door whether or not he'd hire them, which I thought was the worst thing I had ever heard. And I said, how can you know, you never even met them, you didn't know their name, you didn't shake their hand? And he said, you can know just by looking at someone and I was, that's horrible. And he said, but it's how the world works, now go comb your hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUBLIN: You know, there was always this excuse for telling me to tuck in a shirt or, you know, remove an earring.

MARTIN: How did you get started? How did you - anytime anybody starts something new there's always the people who are going to tell you, no or…

Ms. LUBLIN: Yeah. That's actually how I got started. The people who told me no I think were a part of this.

MARTIN: Well, how does it work?

Ms. LUBLIN: Well, because I - so I got the check and I literally came into my apartment and thought, oh, this is such a great idea. And so, you know, I called my family. I called the people who knew my great grandfather and told them the idea, and, of course, they said, you're crazy, you know, spend it on law school books. Take a vacation. Go to the stock market.

MARTIN: Yeah. Go to Florida and dry off.

Ms. LUBLIN: Yeah. And I said, okay, I'm going to show you. You don't believe me, you don't believe me. And that was sort of the best motivation was, you know, nonbelievers.

MARTIN: Was there a moment when you knew you had hit something? I mean, it sounds to me like you started off with this epiphany, as you said, this great idea and you thought, you know, I'm going to make this thing happen. Inevitably, there are setbacks, but there was a moment when you think, yeah, yeah, I have really got something here.

Ms. LUBLIN: So the next day, I went to a professor of mine at law school and I said to him, I have this idea. What do you think? And he put me in touch with a nun actually in Spanish Harlem, which is a little funny being that I'm a Jewish kid from Hartford and my only other experience with nuns is like being a fan of "The Sound of Music."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUBLIN: And so we got together and I said to them, here's my idea. What do you think? And I guess, for me, the epiphany that my hunch was going to be something more than just a hunch was when we sat there for the next 45 minutes exchanging stories of, you know, one of them had a woman who with a job interview set up and she just didn't show up because she was embarrassed. You know, she didn't have anything to wear.

Another woman had a client with a job interview and she showed up in like a Sergio Tacchini type of tracksuit because they're the most expensive things she own so she figured that was the nicest thing she owned. And, you know, there's these stories about women showing up in miniskirts that might be appropriate in miniskirts that might be appropriate for a Saturday night but were definitely, you know, two sizes smaller and two inches shorter than what should be there on a Monday morning. And, you know, I know enough about business to know that where there's real demand, there's some kind of a product or service just waiting in the shadows.

MARTIN: How does it work for those who aren't familiar with Dress for Success? How does is work? And I should mention that this little idea that you had going in the elevator and your way up to the apartment is now operating in 70 cities in four countries.

Ms. LUBLIN: Yeah, and I think even more since then. So, yeah, you know, the nuns and I basically sitting there in Spanish Harlem over Hi-C and Chips Ahoy cookies, literally, came up with a basic concept, which is we didn't want to judge the women themselves, we didn't feel comfortable, you know, with a woman coming Dress for Success and I was looking at her saying, well, okay, you deserve a sweater, or you don't.

So instead, we screened the agencies and we picked not for profit partners. And so we would screen the 501c3s, the Charitable Partners, and then we just gave them referral forms and we trusted them to send us clients who were job-ready.

MARTIN: So is your focus women who whether are in job training programs or people who are in some sort of formal training or…

Ms. LUBLIN: Yeah, some of the programs were job training programs, some of them domestic violence shelters or homeless shelters. Some of the women who find themselves in domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters have incredible experience, really don't need job training, have wonderful skills, just something else has happened and they've fallen on hard times.

MARTIN: And then after a certain, you know, you built this organization and then you left it.

Ms. LUBLIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why did you leave?

Ms. LUBLIN: Because I am truly the entrepreneur's entrepreneur. I was entrepreneur before the word became cool and anybody knew how to spell it. You know, I was like the kid making lemonade stands even though I lived like way in the suburbs. So I'm the person who - when something really gets stable, I get bored.

And so I love Dress for Success, I still dream about it all the time, but I knew that the exciting sort of vision and a lot of the growth had happened and I left an, you know, I knew that it was going to be hard for me. I didn't want to be like lurking in the shadows like, you know, a founder who everyone had to tiptoe around. So I literally made a clean break and said, I'm really leaving you guys. And just to prove my point, the day after I left, I went to a Australia for three weeks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUBLIN: So that I couldn't even talk to anybody by phone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm talking with the founder of Dress for Success, Nancy Lublin, about doing good. And speaking of doing good, you've started another organization called Do Something?

Ms. LUBLIN: Yeah, I'm in Do Something now. I didn't actually started - which was a new experience for me. I came into something that have been going on for about 10 years, but had fallen on hard times. So I came in to turn it around and refine it, which is…

MARTIN: And what does it do? What does Do Something do?

Ms. LUBLIN: Do Something works with teenagers to help them make a difference. We're a trusted resource for them to find opportunities and support them as they change the world.

MARTIN: And your title is CEO and chief old person, which is kind of cold, Nancy.

Ms. LUBLIN: Exactly. It's…

MARTIN: Kind of like, it's kind of cold.

Ms. LUBLIN: You know, to the kids here, I am really old. Even though I wear Converse sneakers everyday to work and I think I'm pretty cool, I'm old around here.

MARTIN: So what's fun about that? What's the idea there?

Ms. LUBLIN: Oh gosh.

MARTIN: Why teenagers?

Ms. LUBLIN: This is such a fun place. We leverage communication technology. So we have our own Web site. We're on Facebook, we're on MySpace. We are - starting in January - going to be pushing things over text messaging, because anyone with a teenager knows that they're texting even more when they're online. And it's everything from just information about causes on how to get involved.

So helping them navigate - okay, I care about homelessness, but what can I actually do to really own the organization that gives grant money to teenagers without an adult involved in any way? We don't require parent's signature, we don't require a mentor or an advisor. We really believe that teenagers have the power to lead today. It's not about grooming future leaders.

MARTIN: And forgive me for this, I don't mean to be patronizing, but how do - I assume that this is an organization that runs on donors like every other non-profit has donors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How do you assure your donors that their money is being well used?

Ms. LUBLIN: Well, actually, we just received the coveted four-star rating from Charity Navigator, but we track everything. And actually because we are largely Web-based, it's easier to track things than other on-the-ground organizations.

MARTIN: So, Nancy, you know, you went to Brown, you went to Oxford, you went to NYU School of law even though you were miserable. As you mentioned, you started this organization, you have an entrepreneur's attitude and then you got this wonderful out of the blue legacy from your grandfather. Let's say you don't have any of those things. Let's see you don't have any of those things, and you want to do something to change the world. What do you do?

Ms. LUBLIN: Oh my gosh, especially young people, I think - and by young people, by the way, I just don't mean people in the years, I also mean people with young spirits. You could do so much today and I think that making the world a better place is so in vogue now and there are things you can do in one minute, in, you know, one hour, one day, one week. And everybody can do their part if we just each lived a little bit differently from all the green things that you can do, like reusing bottles or not taking plastic and paper bags at the grocery store, but bringing your own bag.

And then there are things that you can really make a commitment to that may affect your quality of life, but that you can do to contribute to the world around you. So…

MARTIN: Nancy, what do you say to those who argue that the problem nowadays with us is that we all think a little too small, that there aren't enough people with big ideas and big dreams like you had.

Ms. LUBLIN: I say they haven't spent time with teenagers lately because I don't meet teenagers who think small enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUBLIN: I mean, the young people who I meet are like, oh yeah, I've got this great idea. I'm going to put on Facebook and I want a million people to sign on to it by New Year's, and that they only think big. And they know what the word scale means. I mean, they really think and they believe they have a huge sense of efficacy. They really believe that they have power. And they're right. I mean, they really do. They can make things happen and can grow things and can get attention from things and get the word out. It's no longer, you know, you have to create a press release and hire a fancy PR firm and put it on AP wire to get the word out there in the media and have it appear in, like, the New York Times.

There are multiple radio venues, there are blogs, there's profiles and sites online. You could build your own thing to get people talking about any kind of an issue.

You know, there's a guy who started a campaign that I just saw on Facebook to stop horse carriages, to ban horse carriages in New York City and basically, all he did, I think, was on a whim, put up a photo and start a group on Facebook and he's already got, like, a thousand people signed on to it.

You know, in the old days, you'd have to go, what, canvass door to door? There's no longer an excuse of I don't have the time or I don't have the money to make a difference. You can be that drop of water that has a ripple effect. It's so much easier now.

MARTIN: Nancy Lublin is the CEO of Do Something, it's a not-for-profit-Internet-company that helps young people who want to change the world. You can find out more about Nancy and her organization at our Web site,

Nancy Lublin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. LUBLIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And now we want some of your wisdom. As we wrap up 2007, we want to know who you consider person of the year. Now we know the big magazines and the TV shows have their cover stories and their year-end wrap up packages, but we want you to have your say. Who was it that really mattered, made a difference, stood out, or simply, fascinated you? Go to our blog at and tell us. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522.

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