One Good Deed

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 19, 2011

On a miserably cold and rainy day in February, Nancy Lublin reached in her mailbox and pulled out an envelope. Postmarked Hollywood, Fla., a place she had never heard of, it was from a lawyer. Lublin, a first-year law student, carefully and anxiously opened the envelope. Inside she found something totally unexpected—a check made out to her in the amount of $5,000 from the estate of her great-grandfather who had died several years earlier.

Making her way up to her tiny New York City apartment, Lublin reflected on the life of her “Poppy Max,” a Polish immigrant who had come to America with nothing and worked hard to create a better life for himself and his family. Even his birthday was made in America, assigned to him by an immigration official, as his family couldn’t remember the date of his birth.

“I thought to myself—I didn’t earn this money; it’s not mine,” she says, thinking the money should go to a cause that was more in keeping with Poppy Max’s legacy. “And the idea for Dress for Success came to me spontaneously in the elevator, with the check in my hand.”

Lublin’s idea would become an international organization providing women with hope and opportunity, much as the United States had done for her great-grandfather. And it would change the direction of Lublin’s life as well.

Dress for Success is probably best known for providing economically disadvantaged women with appropriate attire for job interviews. Finding a job, however, is only the first step for these women in becoming self-sufficient. The organization also offers programs that help support the women in retaining their jobs, acquiring new skills and developing their careers. One of its programs, Steps to Success, provides extra support during the crucial first 30 days of employment as the women transition their lives for the world of work and face challenges that may be new to them. Started in 1997, the organization now benefits more than 50,000 women every year.

As she launched Dress for Success and saw how it could empower so many others to improve their lives, Lublin lost interest in a legal career. She worked full time on the charity, also honing entrepreneurial skills and moxie that served her well in this role—and in future endeavors.

As the founder of the nonprofit, Lublin oversaw its development for seven years—from idea to full-blown organization operating in more than 70 cities in four countries. And then she did what she believes founders should do. She quit. As she explains in her newly released book, Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, when founders stay too long, other dynamic people within the organization tend to become discouraged. Their passion and presence are often lost in the long shadow cast by a charismatic founder, and they realize they may never have the opportunity to be promoted to the top spot. So having groomed a talented and capable successor, Lublin felt it was time to step aside and let someone else breathe fresh life into the organization.

Meanwhile, a once-thriving organization called DoSomething, which was dedicated to helping young people make a difference in the world, had fallen on hard times. Down to only $75,000 in the bank, the organization had laid off 21 of its 22 people and placed most of its property in storage, having lost its office space. At the suggestion of another well-known nonprofit leader, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, DoSomething solicited Lublin to take the helm of its struggling organization.

Up for a new challenge, this time with a very different type of organization, Lublin accepted the position. She realized from the outset that the success of this organization would rest largely on its ability to adapt to change, and she thrived on change.

By closing its remaining office and moving the entire operation to where young people live—online—Lublin nursed the organization back to fiscal health in less than six months. Now with offi ces in New York and Los Angeles, a $3.5 million budget and another $6 million of in-kind services donated annually, DoSomething is one of the largest organizations in the United States that helps young people connect and get involved in causes they care about. The organization is on track to activate 2 million young people in 2011.

For someone not yet 40, Lublin has racked up an impressive résumé. In addition to her leadership roles with nonprofits, she’s a columnist, author and speaker, who will participate in October at The Women’s Conference in California. She’s also received numerous honors, including being named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. But her most cherished memories are of the people whose lives have intersected hers.

“I will never forget the first day at Dress for Success,” she says, “where we opened our doors and had a dozen Russian immigrants that we dressed that day. I will never forget the mayhem in the shop, and the excitement—almost like a dozen women playing in their mother’s closet. And as they were getting dressed up, everyone wanted a silk scarf. To them that was like their vision of a working woman. You had to have a silk scarf!”

Lublin says another memory “tattooed on her brain” was seeking the first grant ever awarded to Dress for Success. Now an expert fundraiser, she was inexperienced and just 24 when she approached the New York Community Trust for a $25,000 grant. During the site visit, “I just burst into tears. I was so nervous, and I was so young, and I was so intimidated, and we needed the money so badly. And I remember thinking to myself we are never going to get this grant…. A month later we got the check, and we could hire our first employee.”