Working Wardrobes, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, can thank the passionate dedication of its Founder/CEO Jerri Rosen for its amazing success.
You can’t resist her smile. She lights up a room. To be honest, you can’t help but smile back and pretty much help Jerri Rosen, founder/CEO of Working Wardrobes, with whatever she might need. This remarkable lady doesn’t need to ask for help.
“I open up the dialogue to the possibility and the excitement of where we are going or what we need, and people respond,” she says. “I think people can find in volunteer service the personal growth and development that they may not have the opportunity to experience in their work lives.”
Rosen has been sharing her excitement for 25 years at Working Wardrobes. What’s interesting about her involvement with the nonprofit is that this Uniontown, Pennsylvania-born lady never intended work in the nonprofit world, having graduated from Arizona State University with a double major in business and English. As a graduate of Thunderbird Graduate School in international management (learning French along the way), she had plans to live and work in Europe. Marriage changed those plans, when her husband took a job in New York City, but after losing his job, the couple sublet their apartment and traveled in Europe for four months in a Volkswagen they bought at the Volkswagen factory in Germany.
Following a move to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s because her husband wanted to pursue a career as a stockbroker, the marriage eventually ended in divorce. A series of jobs led Rosen to group sales at Magic Mountain, marketing at Del Taco, Wendy’s International and Carl’s Jr. before she decided to start her own ad agency, J.L. Rosen & Company, in 1990.
“My longtime company focused on planned giving and development campaigns for nonprofits, and I was drawn by the personalities in the community,” she says.
That same year, 1990, Rosen and five friends decided to do something about the growing domestic violence victims in Orange County and set out on a mission to help those in need. They all had day jobs and after 5 p.m., they gradually organized an event, which Rosen said took them a year to plan. After gathering clothing and accessories and storing them in Rosen’s office, they held the first-ever Day of Self-Esteem™. Serving 67 women from six shelters was a life-changing experience.
“We had no idea what we were doing and had no template to go by,” Rosen says. “But, when I think back to those years, it was about tapping into people’s expertise and talents.”
It was going to be a one-time only event, but helping survivors of domestic violence get back on their feet and back to work became a mission as the foundation for Working Wardrobes was being laid.
“How can you not change personally when you have a hand in helping change people’s lives?” Rosen asks.
They got everything donated and it always seemed the right people, opportunities and donations came when they were needed, according to Rosen. Soon, they were serving 167 women the second year and 267 the third.
“We just had to do more for more people,” Rosen says.
The events became larger and larger, a board of directors was formed and fundraising became a reality. By that time, Working Wardobes’ first retail store, The Hanger, opened in Tustin and Rosen, wanting to increase the client base, expanded to helping men as well as women reclaim their dignity and return to work. The partnership with George Zimmer and the Men’s Wearhouse, which began in 1997, introduced the Men’s Day of Self-Esteem, and, later, in 2000, the nonprofit reached out to emancipating and at-risk youth. A separate young adult’s Day of Self-Esteem was held, and an extensive series of life and career skills workshops were developed that included goal-setting, career coaching and presentation skills.
For those first 12 years, Rosen, who was now sole owner of the ad agency, included Working Wardrobes as her ‘pro bono’ client and volunteered there after-hours. Finally, in 2007, she felt she had to close her agency.
“I felt I had to focus and work full-time to serve more people,” she says.
With Rosen’s time now totally dedicated to Working Wardrobes, the nonprofit moved forward to serve clients year-round with a contract to serve the welfare-to-work population. Then, concerned again about keeping emancipated teens making better choices for their lives, Rosen began a young adult program.
That led to another need for your girls that had no funds to buy prom dresses. Rosen introduced Cinderellas for Life, an event to help young ladies from low-income families prepare for prom. After seeing the impact it made on the girls, it was expanded to include young men as well and in 2011, Working Wardrobes created Dream Girls and Distinguished Gentlemen to provide prom dresses and tuxedos, as well as accessories, to young men and women from low-income families. Along with that, the event helps teens plan for the future with workshops on etiquette, self-esteem and goal setting. The really good news is that the remaining dresses are donated to female Marines and military wives so they can attend the U.S. Marine Corps Ball at Camp Pendleton every year.
It was in 2012 that Working Wardrobes expanded its ability and resources to help veterans reintegrate back into civilian life with the guidance of Harry Humphries, retired Navy Seal. Although the nonprofit had been serving veterans for eight years, a new scope of services was introduced called VetNet, a safety net for veterans. It is designed to provide all the services a vet needs to make the successful transition between military life and the civilian work force. It is a program close to Rosen’s heart.
“The work with our vets is so powerful and satisfying,” she says. “They are remarkable human beings and deserve our support.”
Since VetNet launched three years ago, more than 1,100 vets have been served through the program with job training, placement and follow-up. VetNet uses an integrated case management approach to directly link clients to supportive services available through the Working Wardrobe partnerships.
Today, Working Wardrobes is a thriving organization located in Costa Mesa (Rosen told me in the early years they moved 15 times in two years, due to space being donated and then retrieved), that has served more than 80,000 clients emerging from life crises by providing services. Annually, 5,000+ clients achieve self-sufficiency and re-enter the workforce through the nonprofit’s Career Success Institute, which provides career training and life skills workshops on resume writing, interviewing, job searching, financial literacy, even offering certification in customer service and retail sales through a partnership with the National Retail Federation.
What started as a Day of Self Esteem is now called Career Success Graduations and are exciting events, which draw hundreds of volunteers, who Rosen says are the mainstay of Working Wardrobes.
“I know we’ve changed countless lives over the years, but I think it’s our volunteers who have been inspired and whose lives have been changed so deeply,” she says. “And, mine too.”
Along with the volunteers, Rosen lauds the board of directors, the generous corporate and individual donors and a special new group of women supporters called the Smart Women, who help support client services by attending Fashion for Breakfast events or becoming annual members, who enjoy quarterly Fashion for Breakfast events.
“I am very humbled by the people I’ve met and how dedicated they’ve been in making my work a reality,” Rosen says.
Volunteers also work in the Hanger Boutiques, two upscale resale shops, two outlet shops, and two thrift shops. Clients get on-the-job customer service training and build their resumes, and the shops provide for more than 40 percent of the organization’s budget.
As to the 25-year mark, Rosen says,
“This work is very joyful, and even though we’re working with people dealing with challenges, we’re helping them get much closer to success, so we have much to celebrate.” Jerri Rosen
I was surprised to learn that the tenacious workaholic is actually talking about retiring.
“I am going to take the time to chart the course for the second 25 years and to plan for my succession with our board of directors,” she says. “I want to be respectful of a new CEO, but I want to be available, as needed, as founder.”
And, as to this remarkable woman’s real motivation for her work, she says,
“I actually believe I have a responsibility to do this. I think when we have talent and a skill set, we must do good in the world.”