Lessons Learned with Jerri Rosen, Founder of Working Wardrobes

I’ve worked with Jerri Rosen for the past 10 years in the marketing and PR department at Working Wardrobes.

In honor of her retirement at the end of 2021, I asked Jerri to share her 31-year insights as Founder and CEO of Working Wardrobes, and the lessons she’s learned throughout her journey at the helm of this wonderful organization.

This is our interview, and here is her perspective. Enjoy!

Jennifer Lange

Jerri at the first-ever “Day of Self-Esteem” event.

Please tell us a little bit about how Working Wardrobes got started.

Thirty-one years ago, I really just wanted to do a one-time event to serve survivors of domestic violence, to give them a boost to their self-esteem and to re-energize their dignity so they wouldn’t go back to their abusive situations. My hope was that they would get a job and be able to take care of themselves and their families.

It was really about empowering women to feel better about who they are and at the end of the event, they certainly felt that way – but our volunteers were over-the-moon excited about their experience with us that day, and this has been at the core of Working Wardrobes for 31 years.  This energy, enthusiasm, and dedication from our volunteers is what moves us. We just love our volunteers.

And so, this one-day event turned into a 31-year legacy for me which is the history of our organization and the 115,000 clients we have served so far. And I mean “so far,” as in, we are not nearly done yet!

(For those of you who would like to know more about Working Wardrobes, I’d really love it if you would buy the book that I’m writing called Pants on Fire which is coming soon.)

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned during your 31-year journey?

There have been so many lessons I’ve learned from running a nonprofit organization, which has helped me be a better person.

Most importantly, as a nonprofit leader, you’ve got to find a way to get what you want done, done! This means finding resources, finding people to volunteer their time, finding ways that you can get whatever you need donated, donated. It’s exciting and fun and it is also necessary when you’re running a small nonprofit.

And, it’s important to truly value the people who come to do the work and help you get the work done. I actually came from a background of having served on another board where they didn’t acknowledge and thank volunteers for the work we did. They thought we’d get our thanks when we got to Heaven, and I certainly hope that’s the case, but it really informed my life.

I’ve learned that it’s so important to authentically thank volunteers who help us every single day.

A Working Wardrobes volunteer helping veterans.

We couldn’t do our work without them. To me, genuinely and authentically thanking and appreciating volunteers for their service is an enormous part of running a successful nonprofit.

Finale fashion show, Power Up at Camp Pendleton.

Can you share with us some memorable moments from your journey?

A special moment that comes to mind is my relationship with Jeff Coats, CEO of Autobytel. One of Jeff’s colleagues had been involved with our work and had done clothing drives in the past. We invited Jeff to come and tour Working Wardrobes and he informed us that he was putting money into a pool for local nonprofits and he wanted us to get a portion of that money. At the end of our meeting, Jeff turned to his colleague and said, “Give Working Wardrobes all of the money.”

I have to tell you that this was one of those moments as a nonprofit CEO that I couldn’t have dreamed of. Not only did Jeff give us all of the money in that pool, he was generous to Working Wardrobes every single year after. He is a remarkable person. And, he introduced me to you and an incredible partnership in communication!

There have been so many other wonderful moments, too. Sometimes, just sitting in the audience and being present at a finale fashion show at one of our Client Success events, and hearing and seeing the cheers and tears of people in attendance who are so moved by what we’ve created, is truly amazing. It’s exhilarating and fulfilling to me that people are moved and inspired by our work.

I feel like the richest woman in the world because I have had the chance to create these opportunities for countless volunteers. I always think about the volunteer experience and how rich it has been for them when it comes to serving clients who walk through our door.

What a huge win for everyone!

What are some of the more memorable challenges you’ve faced these past three decades?

We’ve been through a number of challenges over 31 years. I don’t know anybody who has had a run this long and hasn’t come across some hiccups along the way.

One of the minor challenges has been finding new places for our Donation Center to exist. We’ve probably moved 15 times in 30 years. It’s challenging to find donated buildings and get new buildings ready for occupancy. I’m sort of a closet interior designer, and I love that part of the business for sure, but moving this operation has been no easy task. I know, because I’ve done it many times.

The biggest challenge we faced occurred the morning of February 2, 2020 when our 26,000 square foot building that we were leasing burned to the ground. I didn’t even know what a four-alarm fire meant but that’s what we went through and it destroyed everything in the building. By the time I got to the office (or what was left of it), there were arcs of water being poured onto the fire, yet I still didn’t understand how devastating it was.

The Working Wardrobes headquarters consumed by fire, February 2020.

There was no roof left and the second floor had fallen into the first floor. There literally wasn’t a piece of clothing left, a desk left, a computer left – not even a pen left. My instincts kicked in and I said “Okay, what do we need to do and how do we get back on our feet???”

By noon of that day, we were provided temporary headquarters by Nicole Suydam of Goodwill of Orange County and we were back to work the next day. I really wanted to make sure we had a place for our staff to be, and to do our work, so we could continue to serve our clients. That was the primary focus.

We were amazed by the generosity of this community in terms of financial contributions, clothing contributions, everything we needed to get back on our feet. Six weeks later, the pandemic hit. After everything we had been through, it felt like a blip because we just continued to get our work done.

Ribbon cutting at new Working Wardrobes headquarters.

In five months, I had put together a new Donation Center and a new Career Success Center with the help of our community.  The people who came to support this organization in our time of need have my eternal gratitude, including a young woman who is now part of our staff. Her name is Michele Ormiston and she facilitated a contribution from Toyota Financial Services for all our new furniture.

The people who helped us through these times empowered me to put together a new Career Success Center that is collaborative, safe, and beautiful. That is what we have today and we want everyone to come and take a tour. It’s really important to see this work.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from these challenges?

I’ve learned along the way that relationships are so very important. The networks you create, the people you meet, the way you engage with donors, friends, and colleagues – your relationships are critical for success. When you engage authentically and when you support people, they support you right back.

This was the beautiful lesson we learned from the fire. Yes, people were devastated and they were so sad, but they said, “Jerri, we know you’re going to rebuild and you’ll be back bigger and better than ever!”  I have to tell you how incredibly inspired I was to get those messages.

And that’s what we did. We rebuilt and we are so much better than ever. It was remarkable.

Working Wardrobes’ many supporters, young and old!

Nobody would ever want to go through this. The fire was catastrophic, but I will tell you that we were embraced by this community. Honestly, I’m still dumbfounded by it and so gratified by it. People said, “We will help you rebuild. We know what you’ve done for 30 years, now it’s our turn to help you.”

Award-winning nonprofits require dedication.

What advice would you give to others who want to start a nonprofit?

I talk with a lot of people who want to start a nonprofit organization and I have to be very honest. I say to them, “I know that you have a great heart for service, but I want you to consider the number of nonprofits that exist today.” In this country, there are well over a million and a half nonprofits, and in our community alone, there are well over 15,000.

My advice is to take that idea, that concept you have, and find a way to align yourself with another nonprofit that is similar to what you’d like to do. Are you able to provide an additional program or service to them, or find your way there as a volunteer to really understand what their mission is all about?

Then, understand that it’s all about financial sustainability because at the end of the day, your work has to be funded in order to continue. The opportunity to grow an organization is not for the faint of heart. It takes an incredible amount of passion and tenacity to make things grow, and to keep moving in the face of many odds.

So, I’m not the biggest advocate for more nonprofit organizations. While I totally understand people’s passions, I feel it is so much better to collaborate than duplicate. I really ask people to find a partner before they launch another nonprofit.

How do you envision the future of Working Wardrobes?

When I look to the future of Working Wardrobes, I envision one that is incredibly bright.

We are in an economy that is so critical for people to re-enter and find new jobs that provide them with the Power of a Paycheck and the dignity of work. So, for us, our core mission of Rebuilding Careers has never been more important or more needed! I am shocked every single day that this essential mission that I started 31 years ago has taken on a much greater meaning today. There is a far greater need than has ever been true for us and it exists not only in our community but in communities across the country.

Now, I will admit that over the years I thought we should be a national organization and there were all kinds of plans I had for that to happen, but every time I ventured down that road, there would be another financial challenge. So, I had to scurry back to take care of day-to-day operations.

I do think there’s an opportunity through a virtual platform to serve many tens of thousands of people across the country with the internal work that we do, with all of our career building tools and techniques and workshops. Also, there is so much that we can do in so many different communities and with the partnerships that we have that could become national partnerships.

Rebuilding Careers has never been more important.

Jerri with incoming CEO, Bonni Pomush

And, I think new energy and new opportunities are really well blended in our new CEO, Bonni Pomush. Bonni brings so much of that vision of where we have been and our legacy, and honoring this legacy, and saying “The future has no limits for Working Wardrobes.”

I believe Bonni has the ability to paint the future of Working Wardrobes in beautiful colors. I have great faith and confidence in what she’s going to be able to do, and I will be cheering her on from the sidelines!

What are your future plans for your retirement years?

Well, I’ve been working on Project Jerri for the last year and I couldn’t go from 180 miles an hour to a full stop. But I don’t want to operate at 180 miles an hour anymore, so I’m going to notch that back to about 50.

I’ve already become an executive coach with Executive Coaches of Orange County and I’m coaching two nonprofit CEOs. I’m loving this experience. At the same time, I was asked to chair the organization, so now I’m going to serve as Chair of Executive Coaches for the next two years. It’s very much a grassroots, all-volunteer organization, similar to Working Wardrobes in its early days.

I do think Executive Coaches has a chance to offer more services to the nonprofit community and I’m very excited about bringing together different partnerships so that we build a better name for ourselves and serve more nonprofit organizations.

I see my work with Executive Coaches as a culmination of almost everything I’ve done these past 31 years at Working Wardrobes. Building relationships is absolutely key. I can pick up the phone and call just about anybody in Orange County and find a way to get to the people we need, to get the resources we need.

Executive coaching equals success!

Jerri spending time with wonderful friends.

We’ve got a wonderful leadership team and they’ve been incredibly supportive of having me come on board. This is the legacy of Bob Cryer who founded Executive Coaches. I knew Bob, I’ve worked with him in the past, and I know people in his organization who were around when Bob started. To honor his legacy, I think it’s so important to take a look at what has been done and find a way to move that to the next level.

I’m also going to finish my book about Working Wardrobes and my 31 years at the helm.

And, I’m definitely going to travel and I’ve got my first trip booked with my best buddy. We’re going to Amsterdam and Berlin, and I know there’s a river cruise in there somewhere.

Then, I just want to have days when I curl up on my very comfortable couch and read and just get lost in great books.

I’m a resident of a new community, which is a beautiful active senior community, and I have made the most extraordinary friends there. I find richness in their lives. They have such amazing histories and I’m finding myself interviewing them because I’m so curious. I love being surrounded by people who have interesting stories and are willing to share their journeys with me and create new friendships in this final quarter of our lives.

I think this is going to be the most incredible time for me.

It’s all about new opportunities, new challenges, so much joy, so much excitement, and so much fun! I’m really looking forward to making that a reality for myself and slowing down just a bit.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

You know, I think it’s the most incredible question to ask yourself what advice you would give to your 18-year-old self.

To women, in particular, we need to hear that we have all of the opportunities, talent, and skills we’ll need – that said, depend on your best instincts, depend on your gut, and always take the high road. When you take the high road, you can’t miss. I wish I could have shared all this at 18.  It would have made a huge difference in my life and made me a more confident person earlier.

And please don’t forget that people are incredibly important. People will help you do whatever you need to do when you embrace them and engage them with your ideas.

Put people first!

Follow your instincts and put people first.

Jerri, thank you for putting people first these past 31 years.  Enjoy your retirement, because you deserve it.  We will miss you!

Are you, or someone you know, out of work?  Do you need help?  Please call (714) 735-4409 to speak with a career coach today!