BLOG IMAGE Robyn de Szoeke

Female Leader, Robyn de Szoeke, Chair Dress for Success Sydney

Robyn de Szoeke Chair Dress for Success Sydney has volunteered for over 8 years for the organisation, which supports disadvantaged women to transition to the workforce. Robyn’s corporate career has included her current role as Client Services Director for Deloitte, and previously Director Australian Graduate School of Management. She was recognised as NSW 2017 Corporate Volunteer of the Year for her volunteer work with Dress for Success Sydney.

Through a range of programs, Dress for Success Sydney helps women in need by providing the skills training, appropriate clothing, peer support and confidence to assist with job seeking and securing paid employment.

Dress for Success’ upcoming annual fundraising event, a very stylish ‘100 Years of Fashion’ event hosted at Dolton House in Sydney, has been directed and curated by DSS Sydney Ambassador Charlotte Smith, owner of the rare 8,000-piece Darnell Collection of couture fashion. 

Tell us about how Dress for Success Sydney is impacting women and helping them to transition from welfare to work.

Dress for Success understands the barriers that women face who are trying to secure employment. The women we work with are often overcoming extreme hardship and desperately want to achieve economic independence. We know that our programs restore confidence and self-esteem. Both are essential ingredients to taking the emotionally and physically draining first steps to joining or rejoining the workforce. 

What are some of Dress for Success Sydney’s key initiatives?  

Often our first introduction to a woman is when she comes to us for a dressing and styling session to ensure she has the ‘right’ outfit for interview. We all know how easy it is to judge people on appearance and our clients, in particular, are in danger of being discriminated against for the way they look. This form of discrimination is known as ‘Lookism’. Our volunteer stylists spend an hour with each woman to ensure she avoids this bias.

But we all know that appearance is just one element of success. We provide a range of career support workshops that focus on the skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. We also have a wonderful group of coaches who work with clients one on one to help them navigate their journey to employment or support them to thrive when they get the job. We’re very proud that our career program is delivering  proven success. 69% of our clients secure paid employment, and an additional 11% pursue education/training pathway.

We are very conscious of the challenges that face women in rural and regional areas in NSW.

For many years we have operated a ‘pack and send’ service where our ‘virtual stylists’ select items to suit each woman based on the role they are seeking and their personal preferences. These garments and accessories are then packed and couriered. It is our fastest growing program, confirming for us how great the need is in these areas. In early 2017 we opened a branch in Wollongong as the first ‘bricks and mortar’ initiative to provide a full suite of services to women in the Illawarra region.

Our prison program is unique to Dress for Success Sydney, and allows us to provide support to some of the most vulnerable women in our community. We are currently developing plans to expand this service. Essentially we believe every woman deserves a fair go.

Dress for Success volunteers contribute over 15,000 hours annually to the charity, and helped over 2500 women in 2017. This is incredible. How do you find your dedicated volunteers?

We are so proud of our army of amazing volunteers. Mostly women and some men, come to us from all works of life – students and retirees, entrepreneurs and those in corporate roles, young people at the start of their careers who want to make a difference in the community. We are very fortunate that so many people in NSW know about Dress for Success and when they hear about the work we do they want to become part of it.  

And we have great connections with a large range of corporates who include us in their staff volunteer programs. Most people tell us they like knowing that their donation of  time and talent will directly impact a woman’s life. That is proving to be a very powerful motivator.

You have dedicated 8 years volunteering for Dress for Success, and in 2017 you were recognized as NSW Corporate Individual Volunteer of the Year. What does the organization mean to you?

I have seen a great deal of change in the charity during my 8 year involvement particularly around the expansion in our services portfolio and the number of women we serve. The Board, our dedicated staff and our volunteers all focus on professionalism in everything we do. But what I love most is engaging with passionate people – seeing people get inspired about the work of the charity and being motivated to make a difference. 

We know that coming to Dress for Success is life changing for many women. We give them practical and meaningful services to increase their success rates of finding a job. But more than that, we show them care and kindness and respect. Many of them tell us it is years since anyone has done that for them. There are many, many touching stories that make it very worthwhile.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Our greatest challenge is ensuring that we meet our financial targets each year to continue our work. Raising over a million dollars a year without government funding is not easy. We rely on the generosity of personal and corporate donors, the skill of our grant writing team and the incredible energy of our fundraising and events teams.

We believe that our volunteer hours and the donation of pro bono products and services delivers an additional $1.5M in value each year. We’re constantly working hard to ensure we can grow cash and in-kind donations to expand our reach to more women. 

What are you most proud of?

Making a difference to women’s lives and knowing that the ripple effect of that translates into better lives for their families and an impact on their community is always front of mind. But it is becoming more obvious to us that we are becoming large players in what we are calling ‘Sustainable Styling’. We receive around 80,000 items each year – clothing and accessories – generously donated by individuals and organisations. We take our obligations seriously to manage these donations ethically and responsibly.  

Our clients are our first priority but over 60% of items we receive are diverted into fundraising activities and community offerings. Our fashion fundraising sales are becoming famous in Sydney and Wollongong. They attract hundreds of sustainable style champions who are choosing to shop for a cause. We know that if one million women bought their next item of clothing second hand, instead of new, we would save 6 million kg of carbon from carbon pollution from entering the atmosphere. We want to put that challenge out there! 

What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?

Many people ask me how I manage to ‘fit it all in’. My advice to future female leaders is to be discerning with how you use your time and your talents. It’s a fast paced world and it’s easy to be swept up in doing what you think others expect of you. Make the choices that give you personal satisfaction and inspire and motivate you.

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Founder

Mother, wife, daughter, determined dreamer. Lover of books. Background in Human Resources leadership in global organisations.