This year Dress for Success Worldwide celebrates 20 years of opening doors for 1,000,000 women served across 150 cities and 25 countries. To celebrate this milestone, the organization is encouraging all women around the world to join together by pledging to support the #OpenDoorProject, a social media initiative that celebrates women investing in each other’s success and raises money to advance the mission. A donation of just $20 at www.dfsopendoorproject.org can open the door for another women at Dress for Success.
We decided to spotlight a selection of influential powerwomen who took the #OpenDoorProject pledge and continue to open doors for women around the world. In an exclusive interview with Kara Ross, the Jewelry Designer and Philanthropist discusses how her fashion career evolved, who opened the door for her and how she is giving back and opening doors for women in return.
DFS: What was the starting point of your career? Who opened the door for you?
KR: I always loved fashion and loved fashion magazines. Growing up I always thought I wanted to get into magazine publishing. After college, I worked at Harper’s BAZAAR. I did that for a year then left to work at Ms. Magazine. I went to Model magazine after that. I spent some time thinking about what I was going to do; I contemplated getting another job at a magazine. It would’ve been easy, but I decided to go for my dreams because if not now, when? So I left and I went to GIA, the most renowned gem laboratory in the world. Frankly, I thought it was going to be easy, but it was very challenging. However, I soaked it in and I really loved it. After that, I went to work at one of the largest pearl companies. We sold to Tiffany, Harry Winston—I got the best education on pearls and began to really love them, especially the Tahitian pearl and the South Sea pearl. I did that for a year and then I began meeting and forming relationships with diamond cutters and dealers. After that I began designing engagement rings. I did so many I can’t even count. [I learned] you just have to be open to every experience.
DFS: Did you have a mentor that helped you throughout your career? Who has had the most profound effect on your life professionally and why?
KR: I have had a lot of fabulous mentors throughout my career (both male and female). My family had the most profound effect on my professional life. In my family, we’re all about education. My brother and I went to Georgetown, two of my siblings went to Harvard and my other sibling went to the University of Pennsylvania. We all did really well in school and there wasn’t really an option to do poorly. My parents set this standard of excellence, which I also enforce in my own household. Some people view it as harsh, but I see it as an affirmation. It confirms that they’re smart enough to get the grades I expect because they should expect them as well.
DFS: Tell us about how you learned about Dress for Success. What specifically about the mission and the work made you want to get involved?
KR: I first learned about Dress for Success through various friends who are involved in supporting. Initially, I thought it was all about making women look and feel good for job interviews with clothing. As I learned more about the mission, I realized it is so much more than just clothing. It is a REAL place of support for women to gain self-confidence and learn skills. It helps them get back on their feet when they are down.
In 2016, I sponsored a breakfast for Dress for Success where I sat next to a recipient of the program, her name was Maybell. She was such an incredible and inspiring woman. Maybell solidified the fact that women have to support other women. We all go through similar hardships and obstacles, we face similar issues and it’s extremely important to help each other through them.
DFS: You now are fully focused on your social impact brand, Unleashed. Can you tell us a little bit about Unleashed and what you have set out to achieve since launching Unleashed?
KR: UNLEASHED is a social impact brand whose net profits support girl’s education and job creation globally. We have chosen to focus on artisan women internationally that are often times overlooked, in areas where talent exists but opportunity does not. Our next venture includes a job creation platform in India, bringing product to market in the US by skilled female artisans. We are UNLEASHING women’s potential by creating opportunities to break the poverty cycle through education and job creation. The goal/formula combines discovering talented artisan women, and addressing specific obstacles they must overcome to be successful.
DFS: This year, you selected Dress for Success as one of two profit partners from Unleashed. What about the organization made this a seamless partnership?
KR: I am really proud to be working with and supporting Dress for Success in 2017 because the organization is very much in line with our mission. Essentially we are both providing education and opportunities for women to “unleash” and achieve their highest potential. Naturally, it was a wonderful fit as we wanted to focus on women getting back into the work force.
DFS: Tell us about Unleashing India and what you hope to achieve?
KR: We have identified a collective of women in India within a town called Bareilly, which is outside of Delhi. The product (organic cotton + beaded/embroidered ready to wear shirts) will be created by a collective of artisan women. The women are empowered through beading because they get to stay home, take care of their family and are then completely self-reliant. The design inspiration is the BINDI, an important part of the Indian culture. The Bindi is an everlasting circle, representing endurance. It is extremely powerful to give more opportunity and job creation to these women as it is not disrupting their culture or lifestyle. It is helping them take care of their families and households. The impoverishment of opportunity is worse than poverty itself. We are injecting a 25k microfinance loan to empower the collective of women, currently speak with KIVA.
We will be announcing our media partnership in Summer 2017- featuring a documentary style multi episode series focusing on the power of job creation. The program is about highlighting female artisans globally and telling their unique stories while shining a spotlight on craft, their culture, the current political landscape, agriculture and bringing their product to market with top US retailers.
DFS: Why is giving back and paying it forward, especially to women, so important to you?
KR: I am very lucky to say that over a successful career in fashion [spanning 25 years], I have achieved everything I set out to accomplish. I wanted to focus my energy on giving back and helping the next generation of strong female leaders. I believe that if a young girl is educated she will have a huge positive impact on the world. If a girl is educated, she can then help educate her children, her family, her community and everyone around her.
Education and opportunity is essential in order to break the poverty circle. I turned my business into a vehicle for philanthropy because I really believe we can make a difference. I wanted to use my skill sets, network and access to do make women feel good, look good and to do good. I also have such a strong ‘GIRL SQUAD’ of support. When women get together powerful things happen and we have to pass it onto the next generation.
DFS: You are a huge proponent for job creation and empowerment for women and girls. Do you feel that it is your mission to open doors for more women?
KR: About 25 years ago, I was married to a successful Wall Street trader when I came to discover he had a huge gambling addiction. I was left alone with two young girls. He had gambled away the college savings we had begun to accumulate for the girl’s college tuition and he had borrowed and lost huge amounts of money from friends. I knew for the sake of myself and my girls that I needed to get out. I left with nothing but the kids- myself- some unimpressive furniture and my growing jewelry business. I have never received a penny in alimony or child support. I did not have inherited money to fall back on. It was all on my shoulders.
At the time I had been in the jewelry world for about five years after having graduated from Georgetown & the GIA. I had a collection I was selling to Neiman Marcus and had the start of a very successful word of mouth diamond business. The girls and I were in a small two bedroom apartment and I worked my butt off to stay afloat. I was a single mom in NYC with two kids to support and my business. Thank god for my business because otherwise we would have been on my parents couch. I worked all the time. This small growing business I developed kept a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs and I was able to pay for the girls to go to a great private school in NYC. Most importantly, I didn’t have to ask ANYONE for money. I was [economically] independent, I was very proud of my work and my business and I was happy.
I KNOW- the power of designing and creating beautiful chic product and bringing it to market to sell. The product tells a story and just as important – that beautiful product provides JOBS and independence. In this next “chapter of my life” after 20+ very successful years in the accessories industry, I want to help women create sustainable, self-reliant WORK that will TRANSFORM their lives just as it did mine.
DFS: How will you continue to open doors for women?
KR: The overall goal is to RETAIL REALITY and focus on our female collectives, creating jobs and opportunities where they do not exist. UNLEASHED already has plans to bring our job creation platform to Cuba, China and Greece over the next few years. We will continue to work with two no profit partners each year, and give back to our artisan collectives with sustainable work.
For more information on Unleashed visit: https://unleashed-world.com/.