Nancy Lublin: An interview by Bob Morris

Nancy Lublin

Nancy Lublin is the Founder and Executive Director of Dress for Success, the not-for-profit organization that provides suits to low income women when they have job interviews. After graduating form Brown University in 1993, she received her Master degree from Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar. She founded Dress for Success in 1995 (while a full-time law student at New York University School of Law) with a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather, Poppy Max, to honor his memory and legacy by using his hard-earned money to help other people blaze new beginnings. By fall of 1998, there were nearly 20 Dress for Success programs. A year later there were close to 50 Dress for Success affiliates in three countries. Since then, Dress for Success programs have been launched in more than 100 cities in eight countries. Dress for Success and Nancy have been featured on 60 Minutes, Oprah, The Today Show, People magazine, The New York Times, and most other major publications.

Since 2003, Lublin has been CEO and Chief Old Person of a non-for-profit organization that provides inspiration and opportunities for young people to improve their communities. Three of its programs include one  launched by and the CLEAN & CLEAR® Brand, Join the Surge is a national campaign that empowers teenagers to take action in their communities. and Sprint are declaring a war on thumbs. Car crashes are the leading killer of teens in the US and texting while driving makes a crash four times more likely. This summer, Staples and are launching the third annual Do Something 101 School Supply Drive. Volunteers conduct school supply drives in their communities from July 4th through September 18th. Contributions of school supplies can be dropped off at Do Something 101 collection bins at any Staples store across the US.

For more information about these and other programs, click here.

Morris: Before discussing your book,  Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business recently published by Portfolio/Penguin, a few general questions. First, what prompted you to create Dress for Success?

Lublin: Being miserable in law school was a big motivation. Seriously. I was really really unhappy. The, one day, out of the blue I received a check for $5,000 from the estate of my great-grandfather. II had the idea for Dress for Success while standing there in that elevator, check in hand. It was a moment that changed my life forever.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has Dress for Success’ mission changed since you founded it?

Lublin: In the beginning, it was just about helping women land jobs. Now Dress for Success has extensive programs to help those women keep their jobs. It is one of the only organizations that don’t just cut off women once they transition from welfare to work. I’m really proud that Dress for Success cares enough to stick with those clients and help them succeed.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has your leadership style changed in recent years?

Lublin: When I started Dress for Success I was 23 years old. When our lawyer told me I needed a secretary I thought she was making an obscene suggestion about someone making me coffee–I didn’t know it was a legal term. Now at (almost) 40, I have extensive knowledge to guide me and my team. I still lead with passion and instinct, but it’s balanced by experience.

Morris: What do you know now about business that you wish you had known 15 years ago when you launched Dress for Success?

Lublin: Actually, it’s kind of the opposite. I wish that I could recapture some of my youthful energy and optimism. Entrepreneurship is about sleepless nights and an evangelical pursuit of a path. I miss being 23 and wide-eyed.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to As with Dress for Success, I am curious to know to what extent (if any)’s original mission has changed since you founded it in 2003.

Lublin: It has changed completely. When I arrived here there were offices scattered around the country. I shut them all down and moved everything online–because that is the most cost-efficient and effective way to grab teens. So the model is completely different and I find myself running a not-for-profit media company.

Morris: I checked out the website and was especially interested in the three “campaigns”: Join the Surge! in alliance with CLEAN & CLEAR® Brand), Thumb Wars in alliance with Sprint, and Do Something 101 in alliance with Staples. Please explain what the objectives and strategies are for each. What are they for Join the Surge!?

Lublin: Join the Surge is our campaign to enlist 1.2 million teens to do something in their community in 2010.

Morris: What are the objectives and strategies for Thumb Wars?

Lublin: This is our anti-texting-while-driving campaign. We literally made little socks for your thumbs–because you can’t text while you wear them! It’s a fun way to get people talking about the serious hazard of driving while distracted.

Morris: What are the objectives and strategies for Do Something 101?

Lublin: This is our big back-to-school campaign, collecting school supplies for kids in need. We’ll create backpacks for 30,000 kids. All three of these campaigns are centered on a cause and the call to action doesn’t require money, an adult, or a car. (Those are our three basic rules.)

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business. Please explain the book’s subtitle.

Lublin: Not-for-profits have small budgets (“zilch”) and have to effect major change. We are used to doing more with less–because we know how to leverage the power of zero.

Morris: Now a follow-up question. As I began to read your brilliant book, having been a CEO of a non-profit organization with more than 40 projects throughout the U.S., I immediately agreed with you that there is a great deal that for-profits can learn from not-for-profits. Here’s my question: Based on your own experience as well as what you have observed, what are the most important lessons that for-profits can learn from not-for-profits?

Lublin: It’s really a mindset change–stop thinking that throwing money at a problem is the most effective solution. There are better ways to motivate employees, build a brand, etc. The book lays out 11 lessons and each chapter ends with very practical questions.

Morris: One man’s opinion, “not-for-profit” does not mean that an organization so identified does not have to balanced the books and maintain positive cash flow. Presumably you agree.

Lublin: I’ve never run a non-profit organization–that’s the auto industry, airline industry, and many magazines. I run not-for-profits. Our goal is to have some cash on hand at the end of the year–we just don’t divvy that profit out, it goes right back into the org.

Morris: I share your high regard for those whom you characterize as “an international list of not-for-profit rock stars” such as Charles Best (DonorsChoose), Wendy Kopp (Teach for America), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), and Zainab Salbi (Women for Woman International). However they and their respective organizations may be in most other ways, what do these leaders all share in common?

Lublin: I like them. Truly. I decided to write about people I like. Orgs I respect. It is a very diverse list–some orgs you’ve heard of and some that you probably have never crossed.

Morris: You made a conscious decision to organize your book’s material within eleven chapters and you include in each a list of eleven lessons to help your reader “get started.” Why eleven rather than ten or, in deference to Stephen Covey, seven?

Lublin: Because great not-for-profits always go a little beyond expectation. Anyone can create a top ten list…we go to eleven. Confession? I also loved the movie Spinal Tap. “It goes to eleven.”

Morris: As I worked my way through your narrative, I was reminded of Albert Einstein’s admonition, “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.” To paraphrase Einstein, your core advice seems to be, “Reduce your resources to the absolute minimum but no further.” Is that a fair assessment?

Lublin: No. I don’t think I’m suggesting that having nothing is better than being flush. I think I’m suggesting that some companies and people can choke on too much money. That money is the “cheap” answer to problems. Force yourself to think differently.

Morris: In your opinion, does the current economic recession/depression/disaster/whatever seem to have a greater, lesser, or about the same impact on for-profits as it does on not-for-profits? Please explain.

Lublin: We’ve all had to learn how to do more, with less–less money, fewer people, etc. I think it got very lucky with the timing of my book.

Morris: My impression is that companies haved become much more concerned about being perceived as “good citizens” and are much more involved in their local communities than ever before.  Do you think that is in fact true? If so, how do you explain it?

Lublin: Cause-marketing is a very powerful means of endearing your brand to your target market. It creates brand differentiation, loyalty, etc. Research shows that if consumers are presented two comparable quality products and one is associated with a cause, they will chose that product 805%of the time. And here is the kicker–it doesn’t even have to be a cause they care about. Just any cause will do.

Morris: Each of your chapter titles begins, “Do More with….” Of all eleven categories (ranging from “doing more with less cash to throw at people” to “doing more with innovation”), which seems to be the most difficult achieve? Why?

Lublin: We’re all used to doing more with MORE! It’s a dirty habit! Its time to think differently!

Morris: I have worked with several dozen companies to help them plan, launch, and then sustain change initiatives. In most instances, the greatest barriers were cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes in Leading Change as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: What advice do you offer to leaders of change initiatives that will help them to avoid or overcome resistance to doing more with less?

Lublin: Figure out the purpose of your company–a measurable goal–and then stick to it with laser focus. Again, this is something that great not-for-profits have had to learn to do: create metrics. Is there one number that your entire company can rally behind?

Morris: Before concluding, a few personal questions. All of us have heroes and heroines who have had the greatest impact on the development of our values. Who are yours and why is each so important to you?

Lublin: I think Nelson Mandela is a bad ass. Can you name another leader who endured 27 years of prison, came out and forgave his captors–and not in the name of religious salvation, but just a sense of pure pragmatism for the future? Then, he smoothly transitions power in his lifetime. The man is a management genius.

Morris: Both you and I are the beneficiaries of a superb formal education. Yours includes Brown and Oxford. In retrospect, how specifically has your formal education helped you to achieve what you have thus far?

Lublin: The best education I ever received was starting Dress for Success at age 23. I can impress people at cocktail parties with my knowledge of German philosophy or my ability to speak Japanese–but that stuff doesn’t help me land a sponsor or navigate a tough personnel issue. Noting replaces on-the-job learning.

Morris: One man’s opinion, however the two terms “success” and “failure” are defined, I think more and more valuable lessons are learned from failure than are learned from success. What do you think?

Lublin: For me, it isn’t a zero-sum choice of success or failure; it’s questioning all of it. I can find fault within what other people would consider success. Everything is worth questioning and learning.

Morris: Opinions are divided about whether or not it is possible to “balance” what’s most important in one’s personal life with what’s most important in one’s career. Your own thoughts about that?

Lublin: Balance? What’s that? Never heard of it! Ha. Actually, I suggest having children. They have given me a whole new sense of purpose in life and a reason to come home before 7 PM. I feel like my life is really full now.

Morris: What question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your reply?

Lublin: “Would you like fries with that?” And the answer would be, “Yes!”

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