Debi Foster 

Former real estate agent Debi Foster quit a lucrative career 10 years ago to open Dress For Success, an affiliate to the national nonprofit that assists low-income women get back into the work force. Foster, 55, has never looked back.

DFS has helped thousands of women in the Treasure Valley get back on their feet by providing work-appropriate clothes and networking opportunities. BW sat down with Foster to talk about her successes, why first impressions are so important and how she's helping the next generation give back.

Why did you start Dress For Success?

I actually saw a piece on 20/20 12 years ago. Nancy Lublin, the original founder, did a special. She said, "It's hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you don't have any boots." And the other thing she said that I really liked was, "This isn't a handout. It's a hand up." Both those things stuck for me

Obviously, my faith played into it. I can't imagine God handing me a piece of clothing that was worn out and ugly. I e-mailed [Lublin]. Nancy called me and said, "Well if you're crazy enough to do it, I'm crazy enough to sign you up." I gave her 10 bucks; she gave me a license. And so here I am, 10 years later. It's been amazing.

Who does Dress For Success target?

It's women who maybe don't have the finances ... to buy an interview outfit; a lot of them are on welfare. Even if they have the funds, we want to make sure they pick the right outfit.

You can see the transformation from the time they walk in the door to the time they walk out ... To see them look in the mirror for the first time—it's powerful.

Do you only work with women?

The DFSs have never operated with men in mind. I think it would be inappropriate for me to bring [men] into an environment like this. I've always advocated for and thought it would be great if men could help men.

A lot of the women that we help are coming off of drugs, out of prison. I don't think that me helping a man coming out of those environments is a very smart thing as a woman. It just wouldn't be appropriate. I've talked to several men about starting a men's program, but I also believe it's easier for a man to go find an outfit at Salvation Army. [Men's clothing] isn't dated like women's clothing. Men clean up easier.

Are looks really that important?

If I'm going to hire somebody to sit at my front desk, and she walks in in a pair of Levis and a T-shirt, is that the representation I want for my company? Probably not. They need to look put together, whether it's a man or a woman. You have one shot at a first impression.

What happens after they get a job?

We encourage them to come back and get a second outfit. And then they also get to join our Professional Women's Group, which meets monthly. They get to build their wardrobe every month when they attend the meeting. They network. We have people come in and talk to them. We talk about the importance of asking for raises and how to do it. We bring in professional people to help the women continue in their walk down the road of professional building on their careers. Two months ago, [the meeting had] 22 women, which is really good. Even in larger cities, they don't get that kind of attendance.

How do you with deal fashion disagreements?

With humor. I like to have fun with the girls. Usually it's our younger shoppers that we struggle with sometimes. Everybody's wearing their pants down around their hips. Well, dress pants don't work like that. Our young girls just fight that tooth and nail. We have a philosophy in the shop that we both have to like it. In other words, if I really think it looks great on a woman, and she doesn't like the way it looks, I'm not doing her any favors by trying to get her that outfit. We've done this for 10 years, and we've dressed over 3,000 women, and I can only think of two women in our entire history that we were not able to find something for.

Is it all about the look?

Our goal is physical. Some people take that—and this really irritates me—they say, "That's just surface; it's what's inside." But the bottom line is this: We're a visual society. When we see somebody, we're forming an opinion. That's why this is so powerful and so important.

Beyond donations, how are you supported?

Our main fundraiser is called Teapot Extravaganza, and we get local celebrities to paint teapots and then we auction them off. Patricia Kempthorne has adopted DFS, and Cascade Rafting Company does an event every August for us. We have the Wild and Wacky Women's Rafting Trip. And then we write grants, just hoping that the community continues to love us.

What about kids?

All the women that I serve have children, for the most part. They need clothes for those kids. I have a 12-year-old granddaughter and I thought that she needs to know what it means to give back to her community. We have junior shoppers that are 12 to 18. They help DFS personal shoppers and they help our women. When we're done dressing in [DFS], we bring them over [to Kid's Kloset], and our junior shopper helps them pick out clothes and shoes and underwear for their kids. I cannot tell you what this has done for my granddaughter and for the young women that work here. I think our young people need to see some of these things and realize that there is a whole segment of society out there that is really struggling.

Do you have a favorite story?

We had a lady come in that had just recently separated from her husband. She had a little girl. She'd go in the back dressing room and that little girl was attached to her leg. The woman would not look in the mirror when she'd come out. I said to her, "You're not looking at yourself." She said, "I don't like what I see." I said to her, "You need to see what I see, because what I see is a woman with the most beautiful figure, with beautiful eyes and beautiful hair. And you have such a radiance about you. I'd like you to just, if you would, take a little peek at yourself in this suit."

She looked in the mirror and she started crying. We just hugged her and found a phenomenal suit. She got a job in two weeks. [After that] her little girl—totally different kid. The little girl's life had changed because of mom. Mom had gotten confidence. It was life changing for me. It was a transforming moment.

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