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Empowerment through fashion

Jacqueline Perlman is the founder and CEO of Chicago-based My Favorite Outfit, an organization that uses fashion to empower at-risk youth to succeed in middle and high school, college and beyond. My Favorite Outfit was chosen as a winner of the 2016 MissionBox Philanthropic Fund "Share With the Nonprofit World" grant.

Here, MissionBox Vice President of Partnerships and Community Engagement Mila Amundson talks with Jacqueline about My Favorite Outfit and what it takes to start a new enterprise.

What inspired you to start My Favorite Outfit?

I've always been interested in empowering women. Several years ago, while working for a nonprofit that promotes nutrition and activity in the Chicago public schools, I met all these girls who were wonderful and lively and lacking a basic necessity — clothing. So, I started collecting clothing from friends and family and bringing it into the schools.

At the beginning, my only intent was to help with clothing. As I spent more time with these girls, though, the deeper issue of self-esteem became apparent. That was the inspiration for building a self-esteem program on top of the clothing program. Instead of just bringing clothes into the school and reminding the girls that they worked hard to earn it, we get to go a little deeper. It's an opportunity to use clothing to express your individuality — to be proud of that and share it with your classmates.

Your pop-up program is designed to boost students' self-esteem. Would you describe how the program works?

This is our original program. It helps middle school girls reclaim their individuality, which is often lost during these years, by finding their personal style. Topics of discussion include self-expression vs. self-objectification and the link between self-esteem and the way we dress. At the end of the program, students are given access to a pop-up boutique — a temporary store constructed in a classroom — where they can shop for clothing at no cost.

You also offer a fashion arts program that goes beyond self-esteem by helping students develop the skills and confidence to pursue a fashion education after high school. What's the scope of this program?

Fashion 101 is a newer after-school program that covers fashion basics such as sketching, photography, styling and sewing. Students also learn to use tools such as Adobe Illustrator. Class is held once a week, and students do incredible projects throughout the school year. For example, students create their own garments and learn about everything that goes into that, such as styling, photo shoots and finding inspiration. At the end of the year, students assemble a fashion portfolio and stage a fashion show.

A key objective of Fashion 101 is to open up a student's mind about college. Some of our students would be the first in their families to go to college, so we demystify the process. We also pair each student with a volunteer mentor from the fashion industry, so students can ask questions and get advice from professionals. This support and guidance — plus a complete fashion portfolio — can give students the upper hand when they're applying to increasingly competitive college fashion programs.

Board members who support the mission are critical for any nonprofit. How did you identify and recruit board members for My Favorite Outfit?

We started with just three of us — myself, my mom and a friend of mine who's an assistant principal at a local elementary school. We used social media and word of mouth to find people who are passionate about using fashion to change lives. Then, we asked people to volunteer. Eventually, we turned to the pool of volunteers to recruit board members.

By asking people to volunteer first, we could see who was most supportive of our mission. We're a small organization, so anyone who's going to serve on our board must be naturally passionate about our cause. We don't have the resources to remind people to stay involved.

How do you solicit referrals for new schools?

We held our first pop-up at my friend's charter school. I wanted a safe place where we could simply move on if the program didn't work out. We had positive feedback and testimonials from both students and teachers, so I began to contact other schools in the area. Once we had four schools on board, we began to see natural growth. Today, school counselors are calling us to ask about the program. We try not to say no to any school, as long as the student population is primarily low income. We now have programs in 27 schools in the Chicago area and have served more than 570 students.

How do you fund your programs?

Every dollar counts! We're currently using a 2016 Social Impact Award from the Kellogg School of Management to cover the costs associated with Fashion 101, from iPads and software to scissors and magazines for inspiration. We also count on individual donors who are inspired to support our cause.

What advice do you have for other nonprofit start-ups based on your experience with My Favorite Outfit?

The first thing that comes to mind is flexibility. Our students come from the same city, but that doesn't mean they're alike in every respect. To help students build self-esteem, we need to recognize cultural differences across the entire community. We have to understand the student perspective and be prepared to adapt our approach in response.

It's also important to pay attention to what's not working. Even though our program is really organic, we don't say, "Oh, this didn't work" and then move on. We talk to the students and the teachers. We stay open as we listen to feedback. We keep the students top of mind because that's why we're doing this — to make an impact on someone's life.

Know another visionary leader or organization working for social good? Let us know! Email editorial@missionbox.com.

Jacqueline Perlman is the founder and CEO of Chicago-based My Favorite Outfit. In previous positions, Jacqueline worked as a marketing specialist for Action for Healthy Kids and media associate for Starcom MediaVest Group, both in the greater Chicago area. Jacqueline holds a master's degree in business administration from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree in communications from University of Michigan.

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