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 of the largest youth organizations in America. Her most recent project, Crisis Text Line, will provide 24-hour counseling referrals for teens in crisis. She talks below about innovation, her hero and the color red.
Claudia Chan: How did your professional journey begin?
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.
[pullquote_right]Seven years and 70 affiliates around the world later, I was bored.[/pullquote_right] 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 $250,000 of debt, and there was no physical office … but the challenge of a turnaround excited me.
Related: A Blockbuster Lesson: Why Pivoting is Important
CC: Who is a leader that you have great respect for and why?
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.
CC: How can someone who is not in a traditional position of leadership still inspire a shared vision in her workplace or community?
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.
CC: How do you tap into encourage creative thinking within your business?
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.
Related: Startup Advice from Women Entrepreneurs
CC: As a leader, how do you communicate the vision of the company/brand with your team?
Transparent and continuous communication with is crucial. We have a weekly staff meeting where we answer a 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.
CC: I believe obstacles create opportunities. What was the hardest career transition in your life and how did you grow from it?
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.
Related: Joi Gordon on Dressing Disadvantaged Women for Success
CC: Confidence is key to pursuing your dream. How do you build up your “confidence muscles”?
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.”
Inspired by Nancy Lublin? Take a look at Claudia Chan‘s other interviews with enterprising women.
Zainab Salbi: Helping Women Survivors of War
Jane Wurwand on Redefining Skincare
Suparna Bhasin on Helping Women Find Their Calling
Dee Poku on Inspiring the Next Generation of Women Leaders
Bobbi Brown on the Business of Beauty
Joi Gordon on Dressing Disadvantaged Women for Success
Ingrid Vandervelt on Overcoming Self-Doubt and Empowering Others
An Entrepreneur Turns a Passion for Cooking into an Cookie Empire