One-time prosecutor Joi Gordon quit the legal profession to lead nonprofit Dress for Success. She talks to lifestyle expert Claudia Chan about second careers, the art of negotiating and how a suit can change a woman’s life.
Joi Gordon knows that suits exude power: She wore one every day as an assistant district attorney in the criminal court system. One morning, while listening to the news, she heard Nancy Lublin, the founder of Dress for Success, an organization that provides professional attire to disadvantaged women, describe how a suit helps a woman feel confident as she walks into a job interview. “I knew the feeling that she was describing because I had experienced the power of the suit throughout my own career,” Gordon says. She decided to donate a suit; not long after, she joined Dress for Success’s board. Within a year she went to work for the nonprofit. Nearly 15 years later, Gordon is now the CEO, helping the nonprofit offer its services to 50,000 women worldwide each year.
Edited interview excerpts follow.
Claudia Chan: Many people become discontented with their career yet fear making a change. What’s your best advice for women in this situation?
A: Women were given a unique and special gift called intuition. It’s that little voice in our heads, and those butterflies in our stomach that tell us when it’s time to move in a particular direction. We are most powerful and most impacting when we are doing what we love — what we were called to do. I never intended to run a global nonprofit. I set out to be an attorney. I went to law school and began my career as a prosecutor. At that time I could not have imagined that I would oversee an organization that has more than 115 offices in 15 countries around the globe. That [was] unfathomable. But I took small steps, and followed my intuition and it led me right where I am now. Trust yourself and follow your intuition. We’re all much smarter and much more capable than we imagine ourselves to be.
CC: What are three characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: Vision, passion and tenacity.
CC: Negotiation can be a game-changing career skill. Studies show that men are much more comfortable asking for what they want. What’s your advice to women?
A: Women are some of the most powerful beings on the planet. The challenge is that most of us do not fully recognize or embrace our own power. We are taught from a very young age to be nice, humble, and meek. There is a place for that, but there also comes a time when we must be bold, brazen, confident. Men don’t have a problem with that. Most were never socialized to behave modestly, so they are much more comfortable asking for what they want or believe that they are entitled to. Confidence has to be the engine that drives women’s success. When we believe in who we are and what we have to offer, we are much more comfortable asking, and when necessary, demanding that which is due to us. At Dress for Success… the true gift that we are offering our women is confidence — the confidence of knowing that they deserve more out of life, and the confidence they need to go out and get it.
CC: If you had the opportunity to give advice to your younger self at say the age 13, what would you say?
A: Dear Joi: The odd spelling of your name will serve you well later in life; it will make you unique and people will love to tell you how much of a “joy” you are to be around. Stand up straight and don’t try to make yourself shorter. I know being 5 foot 10 at 13 years old may make you feel like a giant, but it will give you the stature you need to walk with a confident stride. Lastly, stop worrying about moving from New York and living in Tulsa, Okla. You will incorporate a lot of your new city’s southern charm into your personality and trust me, you will get back to New York City someday soon.
CC: What do you think is the key to happiness?
A: When we live for purposes that are greater than ourselves we gain a sense of fulfillment that ignites the passion in our lives. My purpose is helping to empower women. My purpose is also being a great mother to my daughter and my son, a great daughter and a great wife. My purpose drives my decisions in all aspects of my life. It shapes how I allocate the hours in my day and the causes with which I align myself. I view my happiness as a barometer of how well I am living in my purpose. When I find that I am unhappy, I go back and evaluate how the decisions I am making align with my priorities. As I make the proper adjustments in my life, I find that my happiness quotient increases accordingly.
CC: What do you do to unwind or disconnect?
A: Who doesn’t love a good spa treatment? I try to schedule a deep tissue massage at least once a month [and] four quiet hours to myself on a Saturday or Sunday. During my weekend wind-downs, I can sit in front of the television and watch a marathon of comedic sitcoms. It probably doesn’t do much to stimulate my intellectual capacity, but sometimes laughter can be the best medicine.
CC: How do you balance career and motherhood?
A: I work hard to ensure that on weekends and during vacations, I am fully present for my family. When I’m at a basketball game for my son, I am the loudest mom in the bleachers. I want him to remember the moments that I was there, because there will be times that my job will create scheduling conflicts and I won’t be able to be with him. My hope is that my children will remember my cheers from every sideline. When your job is in complete alignment with your happiness, it makes you a better person. I am certain that because I love what I do, I am a better mother.