For ten years, Vicki Bowen Hewes has worked to make economic independence a reality for thousands of Central Ohio women in need — in need of work, in need of mentors, in need of a little kindness. Since opening the doors of Dress for Success Columbus in 2007, she has served as one of the city’s greatest champions of equality and opportunity for women, providing not only the suit and the skills, but the confidence to go forth and find success, on her own terms. Over a cocktail and a couple hours, Vicki shared the story of opening Dress for Success and why she was the woman for the job.
You just wrapped up your tenth year. How was the anniversary celebration?
One of my favorite parts about our celebration was that we recognized Sparkle, a woman we’ve worked with for almost ten years — she was one of our first clients. She’s not someone who escaped human trafficking or had a drug addiction and emerged from it or was abused … she was just an everyday woman who needed help. And it’s not that all the women who have overcome those things aren’t, but there was nothing devastatingly dramatic about her journey.
I remember so vividly meeting Sparkle. When she came in, she had this diminished sense of self. I think her path is similar to what many women go through, whether they have means or not. A woman of means could have had this same kind of ten-year path, though it might have looked different because diminished resources lead to different ebbs and flows.
When Sparkle stood up at our luncheon last week and shared her story, it was like a moment in time.
Sparkle said she thought to herself, after learning she was named the Woman of the Hour, “I don’t deserve this; I haven’t overcome like other women have overcome.” But she does deserve this. I want every woman to own her achievements. She’s put in a lot of hard work and she’s successful. Sparkle owns her own home, owns her own car, and she’s putting her kids in gymnastics. That’s what it’s about. That’s our goal.
Let’s take it back. What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Pittsburgh in a super middle-class family. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a crane operator. My dad grew up in poverty, but ultimately he was successful, so I never had to experience that as a kid. I had it in my mind from a young age that people could overcome anything. I would look at people who were struggling and think, “My dad grew up in poverty. Why don’t these people have jobs? Why aren’t they working? Why are they still in need?” I really carried that with me as I grew up.
Now that I’m older, I look back and realize why his circumstances were different. He’s a white man, first and foremost, and his poverty was situational, not generational. He and his family had an amazing network around them. And, my dad is the hardest working person I’ve ever known. But, the connections are key. People connected him with opportunities, and of course he had white privilege. Once he gained success it was a top priority for him to help connect others with opportunities for advancement. His authentic integrity and dedication are key elements to how I’ve navigated my career.
Where did you go after living in Pittsburgh?
In my early twenties, I moved to Washington, D.C., for work. I graduated from high school in the 1980s and had kind of a sporadic college career. I did a year of business school before starting work full time because I wanted to make money. (Laughs) I went from being a leasing consultant in a high-rise building to being a national marketing and operational director because I put in the hard work over nearly 2 decades.
You know, D.C. was an amazing place to have my first real professional opportunity because the bar there is raised really high. You have to speak, act and present yourself a certain way.
I was having success at work, but I noticed over time that the girls who were my peers fell into two categories: the party girl, who was cosmopolitan and fun — which is great — and women who were more androgynous. For the party girls, that often meant marrying somebody. I didn’t fit into either of those groups, but I knew that I wanted to be taken seriously, and I knew that I wanted to be successful. It was a lonely place to be in my twenties, but the experience served me well. That part of my career and my professional development was really instrumental in our being able to do what we do now.
When did you decide to move on?
I was having tremendous success, but I was burned out — and I was just 22.
That seems awfully young for feeling burned out.
That’s what I thought. One day I was on an airplane, and I was sitting next to this guy and telling him what I did and how I was so burned out. It turned out that he was a recruiter for TWA. He told me, “Listen, we’re having open interviews in a couple weeks.” So, I became a flight attendant for a couple years. That was the first time I had the chance to travel overseas, and it was so awesome.
After a couple years, though, it just wasn’t mentally stimulating enough. It wasn’t ever going to pay enough for me to be self-sufficient in the way that I wanted to be, so I left and I went back to school part-time and started working again in real estate. Other than my one hiatus working as a flight attendant, my career stayed there until I started Dress for Success Columbus.
You lived overseas at one point, right?
Ah, yes. I was working in real estate in Pittsburgh, and this guy walked in one day and said, “I want to buy these buildings.” Just like that! And I thought, “Who is this guy?” He was a Kuwaiti with a lot of money, and he was absolutely charming. Not much later, I was married to him and living in Kuwait.
I’ve always been kind of a yes-first person. It was an experience that I’ve never regretted; it was a fairy-tale life. [My ex-husband] was part of the initial group of Kuwaiti families who came over to the U.S., and he lived a very charmed life; you know: front row at the fashion shows, being dressed by the most fantastic people. I had to get used to having a driver, working with a cook, working with someone who took care of the house, and having someone who managed all our social engagements. This was right after the Gulf War, so there was a lot of enthusiasm for Americans there, and there was a lot of positive attention paid to me. But this was when I really began to realize and fully understand the disparities in society. I saw things that were very troubling to me, and I thought, “A lot of this happens in the United States, too. We just deal with it a bit differently.”
I was especially troubled by the way the maids were treated. I mean, it was human trafficking. These women were brought in from their home countries, put into hovels, and then brokers from different families came and bid on them, saying “I want this one, and I want this one, and I want this one.” These were girls who didn’t speak the language, who knew only that they wanted to please because they were sending every penny back to Sri Lanka, to Pakistan, to places all over the world to take care of their entire families. Some of these women were even leaving behind their kids, and here they were serving me my tea. It was heartbreaking. I had this moment of thought where I had to ask, “Who am I, and what am I doing?”
It was just … I couldn’t take it. I became so disgusted by it. It was gluttonous.
How did your parents feel about this?
Oh, they hated it. But if anyone were to blame for that whole thing, it was me, having no idea what I was getting into. My mom came to visit our home in Egypt. I had people around me at all times, because what if I needed another glass of water, if I needed this or that? Finally, we were left alone for like five minutes. I turned to my mom and said, “I’ve got to get out of here. I’m coming home with you.” There was no question in my mind.
What was your ex-husband’s reaction to your asking for a divorce?
He said, “You’ll never be able to live any other way again.” But I don’t think he understood — I didn’t need any of that. It was absolutely a turning point in my life. There are so many people who work hard to achieve that level of success, but it’s all really just stuff. It’s stuff.
It’s interesting; in a way, you were in a similar situation to many of the women you serve at Dress — women who are stuck.
In a way. But I knew that when I came back, I wasn’t going to be homeless. I wasn’t worried that my family didn’t want me. I also knew that I had skills. I wasn’t alone. I would be able to get a job. It was the strength of my network that pulled me through. I try to impress that on people all the time. Your network is so critical. Building it isn’t always an easy thing, but it’s so important.
That’s quite an experience. Was this the first big challenge of your life?
No. My first-ever serious boyfriend abused me. A lot. And I stayed in that situation because I didn’t know how I was going to get out.
Here I was at 17 years old getting beaten on a regular basis. But he was smart. I don’t think in the whole time we were together that I ever had a black eye. He hit me in places like the back of the head or my side — where people wouldn’t see bruises. And I just thought, “I can’t get out of this. I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this.” I was petrified.
Then my college roommate came back to our dorm one night, and he had punched a hole through her Mario Lemieux poster. Of course, I said that it was me, that I had lost control. She said, “Vicki. There is no way you did this.” I just broke down, and I told her everything. She said, “You? You have it all together. How are you letting someone do this to you?”
That’s a big part of it, right? It’s the shame that you’d let yourself be treated that way.
Exactly. He held things over me. It was just the most terrifying thing, thinking this would be my life. You start to believe what they tell you. You start to believe that no one else will want you. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 17 or 77. You just believe the hype.
He had threatened to kill me, kill my family, set our dorm on fire, do all these things … and I just couldn’t see how to get out of it. She walked me through what we were going to do.
He did wind up trying to kill me. I sought refuge in my roommate’s family’s home. One night, I woke up in the room I was staying in and saw her Dad walking toward the window with a shotgun. My ex-boyfriend was trying to break in through the window.
That’s a lot at a very, very young age.
That was absolutely the hardest thing. But then I came out of that, and that’s why I wasn’t worried about leaving my first husband. I realized then that there’s nothing you can’t get out of.
How did you end up in Columbus?
I was transferred here for work on a three-month assignment. I went to a business mixer and wound up being introduced to the man who would be my next husband, my son’s father. And then I asked for a permanent transfer here.
How old is your son now, and what is he interested in?
Davey is 17. He’s a really creative kid. He’s taking welding half a day at Fort Hayes. He just loves it. He’s a very out-of-the-box kid. He’s always been into the arts, and he’s one of those people who’s friends with everybody. His dream right now is to go to NYU. He’s very interested in history and politics, and he wants to weld in the evenings.
He’s a great, different kid. Did you see my picture of him at homecoming in the suit that he created? That’s who he is. That took him like a month to put together. He found everything at Volunteers of America or some other thrift store. He’s very creative. His right brain is constantly active.
That’s awesome, considering that our society does everything it can to squelch individuality. The fact that he embraces his individuality is exciting.
I’m really proud of him. I’m super proud of him for being the individual that he wants to be.
What’s been the best thing about being a mom?
My favorite thing for sure is the humility. You quickly realize you’re just not that great. He keeps me grounded.
You founded Dress for Success Columbus in 2007. Why here, and why then?
I was transferred here in 1999, and I had my son in 2000. I didn’t get to know much about Columbus until about 2003 because I was still travelling a lot for my job. During one of those all-over-the-place trips, I was in Indianapolis, and I wound up at the Indy Dress for Success.
Even though I’d gone through a lot and experienced a lot, I still didn’t fully understand the situation. If we all have equal opportunities, if this is the land of golden dreams, then why couldn’t people move beyond poverty?
The first woman I met with that day had gone through abuse as well.
She said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m staying with a friend. I don’t know where I’m going to live. I don’t know where my kids are.” It immediately took me back to how I was so scared with my abusive boyfriend. But I was 17 then, and I didn’t have kids. I had resources. To be going through that without anything, without even a job, was unfathomable.
And then she said to me, “I took two busses to get here, but I have a job interview on Friday, and I promise you I’ll make sure I can get somewhere to get cleaned up, and I’ll look great for that interview.” She was making commitments to me, and I was no one to her. These women are so desperate for someone who will just listen to them and talk to them and be somewhat kind. As soon as you come anywhere close to treating them with dignity, they want to please you. I was absolutely leveled. Everything came into focus for me at that point. It was a day I will never forget, and it was a day that transformed my life.
I immediately got in touch with Dress for Success Worldwide and said, “I don’t know what I can do, but I have to do something.” I got to know the organization better and learned that, at its foundation, it’s about treating every woman — no matter where she’s from — with dignity, kindness and grace. It’s transformative for people.
A couple years later, I started calling people and telling them we needed to start a Dress for Success here. I got in touch with the worldwide office again and said that I thought there was an opportunity for an affiliate here. But I didn’t really want to lead it. They needed someone with nonprofit experience, right? But ultimately it became obvious that it was supposed to be me.
After that, it was all about looking for locations and applying for a 501(c)(3) and understanding (and then learning that you don’t understand) the whole world of nonprofits. It was a long process from the first time I walked into a Dress for Success until 2007 when we opened our doors.
How many people do you think you’ve helped so far?
Since we opened, we’ve served more than 12,000 women. That first year, we served 56 women. But this year, we’ve served more than 2,000, and this is just November. That is so remarkable to me, but it’s also a bittersweet milestone.
Sure. It would be great if only 56 people needed help.
It would be great if no one needed help. It would be great if women had a level playing field. It would be great if there were opportunities for women that didn’t require a lot of advocacy. All at once it’s wonderful, but it’s also a testament to how much work we still need to do.
The organization does a lot — the suitings, the career center, mentoring — but what do you think it does best?
I think what we do best is change a woman’s perspective of what she can accomplish. To me, that’s not just the clients. It’s also the volunteers. It’s a client coming into Dress for Success thinking we just do suitings, and then learning that we also have a career center. Everybody’s value is increased. It’s the women we serve, and it’s the woman who donates ten handbags. What’s ten handbags? That’s ten women who otherwise wouldn’t have had a handbag to go on a job interview. We all know how much women love handbags.
You know, it’s not about WHAT we do, but HOW we do it. It’s the music in the Suiting Boutique, the way the clothes are merchandised, chandeliers in each of the fitting rooms, and our Career Center is bright, uplifting. Everything is intentional to help everyone understand that we truly value every woman who comes through our doors.
You’ve described your title as Chief Empowerment Officer. What’s the key to empowering another woman?
I’m going to dial it way back to my college roommate who looked me in the eye when I was at the lowest point of my life. She kept telling me, “You can do this.” It’s about embracing women wherever they are, whether at their lowest point or when they’re just unsure of what to do next. We have to continually work on building one another up.
Women can be horrible to each other. We don’t have the energy to tear men down, but we can do it to each other, and all of that is detrimental. I really feel that in order to live out the motto “The future is female,” we’re going to have to eliminate bringing one another down. Our expectations of one another are off the charts. We can be brutal.
Who has empowered you?
Oh, it’s an endless list. But one of the most significant experiences happened when I was in real estate. I was very fortunate to be one of two women directors in an organization that was male-led. One day, I was in a meeting about regional development. I was following along just fine with the report-outs my male colleagues were giving when I realized there was an issue. Instead of saying, “Yeah, I think you missed this on Houston,” I would usually say something like, “I was filing my nail and didn’t hear. Did you guys talk about Houston projections?” or “I might be having a blonde moment, but …” After that meeting, my female colleague said, “Come into my office.” I was completely unaware of what was going to happen next. She said, “You need to stop it. You need to stop it right now. This self-deprecating behavior makes it harder for me, and it makes it harder for every other woman in this organization.” I was just floored. I was one of two female directors at that organization and I got there by working hard, but here was my colleague telling me my behavior was embarrassing.
I said I didn’t want to offend anyone. She asked, “Do they worry about offending you? When your projections are off, do they give you any mercy? Do they say, ‘Oh, I was doing my fantasy football league and maybe I missed that stat’? No!”
It was a watershed moment for me. I realized I wasn’t helping anyone by acting like that. I changed my behavior slowly, and things began to change around me. I wasn’t invited to play golf anymore. It was disappointing, but it was also liberating.
Hold yourself in high esteem. Understand you have value, and it’s not about making others feel more comfortable. If you’ve got a seat at the table, you belong there, so just own that.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women?
Well, equal pay, for sure. That’s absolutely the biggest barrier we must overcome. There’s just no excuse for it.
Tell me about your husband Ken.
Ken and I met on Match.com. At this point, I’m comfortable with that. We used to say we met on a blind date, which I guess it was. My Match profile did not have a picture; it was very vanilla. It just said I was a professional, and that I spoke conversational Arabic. I knew that I wanted something different, not your typical guy. I found Ken by searching “salt and pepper hair” because I’ve had a crush on Anderson Cooper forever. He’s intelligent, he’s stylish, he’s worldly and I love his hair. So, I searched for that, and Ken came up. That’s how we met, and we immediately clicked.
I think it’s so special to meet people later in life. When you’ve gone through some things, and you know what doesn’t work, then you know what you’re looking for.
Let’s talk style. What are your go-tos?
I like anything that is asymmetrical; even my hair is a bit asymmetrical. I don’t know where that comes from; I just like mixing up those lines. It can be hard to find great things in Columbus that you can actually afford, but what I’ve always done is look at the style magazines and see what I like. Then I try to find it at a price point I can afford. Whether it’s a menswear suit or a dress for something, I know the look I want. If I can find it somewhere, I know I can take it and cut it. There’s Stitch Witchery all throughout our house and fashion tape all over the place because I always want to do different things with my clothes. I love things that are different.
What’s next for Dress for Success?
I see so much more for Dress for Success Columbus. We know from the decade of work that we’ve done that we’re absolutely a catalyst for social change, and also for women being able to achieve economic self-sufficiency. The game-changer for the women we serve is not the suit. It’s when, after she lands the job, she trusts us enough to stay involved, to come into the career center and to get a mentor. Right now, we’re cobbling together spaces for mentoring, professional development, and for women’s groups. I want Dress for Success to have its own facility where all those programs are under one roof.
You know, Sparkle’s story is one of so many inspiring women we meet at Dress for Success. We see women achieve and break the cycle of poverty. We work with women from the shelters to the suburbs, from every walk of life. We know what we do is important, and these programs work. But the real magic is inside the women – they have the key to their success, and now they have the confidence to move forward.
SIDEBAR: ABOUT DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Dress for Success Columbus isn’t simply a service — it’s a sisterhood. In 10 years, the organization — a local affiliate of Dress for Success Worldwide — has served more than 12,000 women, helping them prepare for job interviews, secure meaningful work and financial independence and continue their career development.
After being referred by one of more than 100 community partners, a client meets with a personal stylist at the boutique where she’ll receive a full fitting and a complete interview outfit. (Items from suits and dresses to shoes and accessories are donated by thousands of generous Central Ohio women throughout the year.) Upon landing the job, she’ll receive an entire workplace wardrobe, including five head-to-toe looks.
The work doesn’t stop there.
Dress for Success offers clients the use of a career center, resume workshops, one-on-one mentoring, financial literacy and health and wellness resources and more. Ultimately, Dress for Success is about empowerment, from the moment the client walks through the door.
For more information—and to get involved—visit columbus.dressforsuccess.org.
SIDEBAR: VBH’s Favorite Things
The Andy Warhol Diaries and, more recently, Going Clear. That was scary. I mean, I felt sad for these people; they’re so desperate for something, and they’re willing to sacrifice everything.
There’s the Gandhi saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” because it’s so true. Even in the crazy political climate right now—we can’t just complain about it … we’ve got to do something about it. In my office, I have hanging, “She believed she could and so she did.” And I love that, because when we believe we can, there’s nothing holding us back.
I love the old-school vibe at The Rossi. And Basi Italia? In the summer it’s gorgeous outside, and in the winter, you feel like you’re one of six people in Columbus.
Thing to do at home
I am a crazy kind of fashion person in that I will buy things and then take up the hems and do this and do that. I have this whole area in my closet filled with things to be reimagined. And, we love to play Scrabble.