Constellation Brands is honored to support Dress for Success Worldwide and their mission to help women thrive in work and in life, particularly through the pandemic. To kick off Women’s History Month, we connected with Michelle Martin, Program Coordinator at Dress for Success, and Jennifer Rodriguez of Lean in Circles, which brings together women from all walks of life in small groups for peer mentorship.

Michelle and Jen share their perspectives on the present impact of the partnership, the future for programming and advice for women on the journey of professional development.

Question: From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges that women encounter professionally?

Michelle: One of the biggest challenges that women encounter is not feeling confident in advocating for themselves and standing in their own success. 63% of women are employed compared to 94% of men and 60% of women that are served by Dress for Success live under poverty level. The pandemic exacerbated existing struggles around work life balance and highlighted deeper issues like unemployment due to supporting children when schools were closed. We also underwent a shift to virtual programming, but a lot of the women don’t always have the technology or resources to participate. It has been important for us to use active listening to understand what women really need – going beyond standard programming and tapping into their mental, physical and spiritual being.

Jen: Imposter syndrome is something that a lot of women struggle with – advocating for yourself when you’re not sure about your worth or if you belong. Women are often shorted on their salary by not understanding the temperature in the market. We are constantly aware that top level positions are limited, and we are left out. Therefore, it is important for women to practice connectedness in navigating who is an ally and support others while contributing to their own success.

Question: What inspires you the most about your work?

Michelle: My belief system aligns with Dress for Success’ mission to empower women to achieve economic independence with the program offerings. I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded if the women haven’t succeeded, but I know that every woman that walks through the door isn’t ready to receive what we have to offer. It’s important to be transparent and honest with them to build trust, because you don’t know what they’ve gone through and their trauma. I am a huge proponent of this quote, “When you help one woman, you help her entire family in turn you help an entire community.”

Jen: Dress for Success creates a ripple effect in the community and I am inspired to always use the knowledge I’ve learned to pour into those that aren’t reachable just yet. Since participating in a lot of the groups, I’ve learned that no matter where you are on your journey there’s nothing wrong with needing support. Women don’t always know how to ask for help, but I know that Dress for Success has put me in places I would have never been. The groups are diverse and include women of various age ranges and professional backgrounds, with frequent opportunities to learn through connecting.

Question: How do you believe that the partnership with Constellation Brands will impact your efforts long-term for the advancement of women in the workplace?

Michelle: I believe that the partnership will aid in bringing new ideas to support Dress for Success, strengthen our advocacy efforts and help raise awareness for the cause. One of the great things about our partnership is the Lean in Circle program that is offered to the Chicago market. It allows Dress for Success participants to network and have meaningful and honest discussions with female employees from Constellation Brands. We truly formed a sisterhood this year and a book club as well, where Constellation Brands provided the books and lent their expertise.

Jen: I have gained so much insight from the shared experiences of the Lean in Circles and in helping to lead the book club. The presentations around overcoming challenges were inspiring, but what was even more powerful was the encouragement of women by women. It’s important to take the little victories along the way to share in future conversations. The partnership has led to sisterhood, especially during the pandemic and through the challenges of staying connected,.

Question: What are some of the steps you believe are necessary to build a healthy community with diversity, equity and inclusion at the core?

Michelle: Continuing to communicate transparently through honest conversation. I think we can do this by hosting cultural events and making sure we bring everyone of all walks of life together. The women we serve are very diverse, and by aligning with partners who faithfully execute diversity, equity and inclusion, I know that we can continue to do remarkable things for those we serve.

Jen: I think that recognizing differences, and embracing them through sharing them, brings the opportunity to celebrate what makes us unique. Working together as a team will make us more successful, in addition to cultural events, education and awareness.

What is next for programming in 2022? Anything new that you can share with us? Do you have a dream project that you would like to realize, perhaps as part of this partnership?

Michelle: We are going to continue with the Lean in Circles and we’re going to do two shorter periods in the spring and fall to reach more women. When you bring women together at the same time, once a month with the same people, relationships start forming. Women need to know that there is commonality in their connections. This is a safe space, whether they want to shed a tear or share something personal.

It’s important that we give the women that we serve a voice to let us know what they need. A dream project would be a comprehensive resource event that provides help for women who lack childcare, mental and emotional support, wellness, legal advice, home ownership tips and other resources to help them anchor their ambitions.

Jen: I’m interested in seeing what else Dress for Success has to offer for 2022 because they are always responsive. I agree that a comprehensive resource event would be beneficial for women to receive necessary information all in one place. My personal ambition is to continue to morph my community action plan to support more women. I’ve learned through the pandemic that if you can’t always do what you want to do, do what you can do.

What can industry leaders do to amplify broader conversations around gender equality beyond Women’s History Month?

Michelle: I think leaders can encourage more group decision making and champion that all people are created to be valued and deserve to be treated respectfully. Leaders can encourage a safe work environment and celebrate the differences of others, while making work life balance a priority.

Jen: Be intentional and ask a woman, “What do you think?” – then to give her time to think! After all, women aren’t always asked the necessary questions – so pause and listen!

What advice would you give to women on their professional development journey?

Michelle: In answering this question, I thought about the advice I would give my younger self as well. Be open to opportunities and don’t limit yourself to one industry, be patient with yourself, know your worth, find a mentor, never stop learning and don’t get stuck. If you make a mistake, own it, learn from it and move on.

Jen: It’s important to be aware of imposter syndrome and find a mentor to remind you of your worth, while challenging any narrow views of yourself. Build a strong network of powerful women that support you.