Arkansas’ only Dress for Success chapter empowers women seeking jobs

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 1,677 views 

Taylor Toreno, spa director at Spa Botanica at Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, is a success ambassador for the Northwest Arkansas chapter of Dress for Success, an international nonprofit that empowers women to achieve economic independence by enabling them to build a career and become self-sufficient.

Taylor Toreno has come a long way since losing her mother nine years ago when she was just 15.

She credits the nonprofit group Dress for Success (DFS) with guiding her on part of that journey and helping her accomplish her goals.

Raised in Parkland, Fla., Toreno, an only child, had a solid home life. “My mom and I had an incredible relationship,” Toreno said. “She was literally my best friend.”

On the evening of Aug. 15, 2010, Toreno enjoyed a sleepover at a friend’s house, talking to her mom on the phone about a movie. The next morning, her distraught father came to give her the news that her mother had died suddenly during the night. She was 44. Authorities investigated but cause of death was never clearly determined.

With overwhelming grief and a father and grandmother who both fell into deep depression, Toreno felt lost. “That period in my life became really dark,” she said.

Toreno persevered, and a family for whom she babysat helped her get into Florida Gulf Coast University. She attended on scholarships, choosing to study resort and hospitality management. Knowing that spas had been a source of peace and comfort after her mother passed away, she believed she could offer spa services to help and heal others who were struggling.

While in college, Toreno began managing The Spa at Shangri-La Springs. After graduation in 2017, she decided to move to Northwest Arkansas after seeing an article listing it as one of the best places to live.

Finding a job was a struggle, but she happened upon the Goodwill Career Center where she was referred to Dress for Success.

“They helped me so much,” Toreno said. “Not only did they give me really nice clothes, but they also gave me tips on how to do well at career fairs or interviews.”

Toreno attended a Goodwill job fair and landed an interview with Larry Cooper, regional director of operations of the Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas.

“She had spa experience and was dedicated to growing her career. I was impressed with her knowledge of marketing the spa when it came to growing our business,” Cooper said. “She was business minded and definitely impressive.”

Cooper hired her as spa director at the hotel’s Spa Botanica.

Dress for Success continues to provide Toreno help with skills like financial literacy, networking, public speaking and even professional headshots.

“The mentoring and resources they have provided me with have motivated me to keep going and advance in my career,” she said.

Cooper echoed that sentiment about Dress for Success’ support of Toreno.

“They help with her professionalism, with being able to communicate with clients and with people in the community,” he said.

Toreno’s goal is to be regional corporate wellness director for the 82 hotels under Atrium Hospitality, the hotel’s management company. Cooper said she’s on track. Currently, Toreno is working with Atrium Hospitality on wellness concepts for other hotels in the company.

Dress for Success has 150 affiliates in 27 countries and has helped 1 million women since its beginning in New York City in 1997.

Tangel Clinard, a success ambassador for the Northwest Arkansas chapter of Dress for Success, speaks at the nonprofit’s annual Little Black Dress gala held Oct. 3 at Record in downtown Bentonville. Pictured behind Clinard are, from left, MacKenzie Freed, a Dress for Success volunteer and Miss California 2018, and success ambassadors Taylor Toreno and Blanca Rivero.

Jane Behrends and Krischelle Tennessen, working for Walmart at the time, founded the Northwest Arkansas affiliate six years ago after seeing the need to offer economically disadvantaged women access to professional clothing and mentoring. There is no other affiliate in the state.

“Our programs empower women to secure employment, retain their jobs, grow in their careers, provide for their families and improve their lives,” said Tracy Green, operations and program director for Dress for Success NWA.

According to a report from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, 48% of children in Northwest Arkansas are growing up in low-income families. More than 24,000 women are currently living in poverty in the region, 18% more than men.

Over the past 18 months, Dress for Success NWA has served 551 women, of whom 206 are single mothers and 114 are victims of domestic violence.

Since its inception, the affiliate has helped 1,750 women. The total impact, Green said, is 10,500 lives, as a woman brings six people with her when she comes out of poverty.

Participants are given tools — at no cost — for a successful job interview. A job readiness coach helps them choose an interview suit from donated clothing. Women are given two interchangeable outfits to wear for interviews, and once they obtain a job, they are given a week’s worth of clothing.

Dress for Success also provides career services, including resume writing, application completion, interviewing tips, mock interviewing, and writing and delivering an elevator pitch.

“So many of the jobs in this community are gained through networking, so it’s important to have a quick ‘elevator pitch’ they can tell off the top of their head when they meet someone,” Green said.

Dress for Success has 40 referral partners in the area, including the Returning Home Center in Springdale, Goodwill Career Services, NorthWest Arkansas Community College’s Career Pathways, Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, and Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Northwest Arkansas. Women need an appointment but don’t have to have a referral to use the services.

Help doesn’t end with clothing. “We walk alongside women for 12 months,” Green said. Volunteers call participants once a month for a year to continue to meet needs.

Over the past four years, Dress for Success NWA helped Tangel Clinard get two jobs in the area. Attending a workshop on how to present yourself in a job interview gave her the skills to get her current job as a quality associate in Walmart’s Fashion Distribution Center. She’s also been part of the ongoing Success Ambassador program, which provides mentoring.

“I’m not the same person as I was when I walked into DFS. They’ve given me confidence, they’ve helped me believe in myself, believe in my family and who I am as a person,” Clinard said. “DFS has opened my eyes to possibilities.”

Green has witnessed Clinard’s growth.

“Tangel has opened so many doors for herself just by being able to articulate her story and her journey,” Green said. “That lady’s going places. She’s fearless and tenacious, and nothing’s going to stop her.”

In November, both Toreno and Clinard will become part of the DFS Professional Women’s Group, a worldwide initiative within DFS, as the organization transitions from its Success Ambassador program. Membership is for life, and the only requirement is having a job. The 12-month curriculum will include workplace etiquette, work-life balance, financial health, health and wellness, and leadership and civic responsibility. Each member will also have a mentor.

The mission statement of Dress for Success, “Together with you, we empower women toward economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and programs to help them thrive in work and in life,” calls for an army of volunteers, Green said. She is the only paid staff member, but she stresses that the organization’s 10-member board works hard, running the affiliate and organizing fundraisers which include “Little Black Dress” and “Success Stories Brunch.” A monthly giving option for the general public called Circles of Impact will be in place by the end of the year.

Green said she’s in awe of what women like Clinard and Toreno are accomplishing.

“We’re just a part of their journey. It’s their journey,” Green said. I’m just here to open the door and say come on in.”