Social Entrepreneur Nancy Lubin: Nuns, Poker and 1,000,000 Pairs of Jeans

I actually knew about Nancy Lubins first venture, Dress for Success, before I met her.  How could I not?  The organization is now in 76 cities, 4 countries, Home Shopping Network produces clothes for them and they provide support for the women who use the organization. 

Needless to say Nancy has serious energy.  She is smart as a whip and am pretty sure she doesn't take no for an answer. I liked her immediately.  She has made a serious impact on countless lives starting with Dress for Success, moving to Do Something and because she has started a new organization that is an off-shoot of Do Something called Crisis Text Line.

Let's start at the beginning. Nancy grew up in West Hartford, CT on white bread and American cheese. A sheltered life. Her mom stayed home, her father was the local lawyer who also grew up in West Hartford. Nancy and her father went to the same nursery school and that kind of sums it up. Nancy kept busy with sports and lots of them. When she got into Brown for college, she left and life changed.

At Brown Nancy majored in political science which turned into feminist theory. She lived in Japan one summer in High School and returned for one summer in college too. Thinking ahead about graduation, Nancy applied to law school and for a Marshall scholarship. She was awarded the scholarship and embarked to Oxford upon graduation. Oxford was a serious life changer. The daily conversations with her peers were thought provoking, challenging and rewarding. It was an incredible experience on so many different levels. 

Her two years at Oxford came to a close and she returned to NYU where she had been accepted to go to law school.

Her entire life, she thought she would become a lawyer. After one week of law school she realized that she hated it. 

The environment and conversations were 180 degree turn around from her last two years in Oxford.  She couldn't believe that she had thought she was going to be a lawyer her life and then poof, she actually hated it. She stayed for a year but sometimes things are meant to happen.

February of her first year of law school, her Grandfather died. He had left Nancy $5000. She wanted to do something with that money to honor his memory. He was a Polish immigrant who came to the US as a stowaway on a boat. She had this idea for Dress for Success. Men get dressed everyday in the same outfit where as for women it isn't so easy.  You have to put the outfit together and present yourself in a certain way.  Maybe schmata was always in her blood...her Mom's family had been in the garment biz. 

While going to school, Nancy began Dress for Success.

She shared her idea with a professor who said she should go speak with Sister Mary in Spanish harlem and her group of nuns.

Nancy met with them and they loved the idea and said they would help. Most of them ran social service programs in the area. Their advice was to find a rich white guy to sit on the board and put her $5K in a six month CD. She ignored the rich guy advice and put the nuns on the board but listened to the bad advice about the six month CD and so the business launched on no money because the cash was in the bank. Nancy met with a pro-bono lawyer who told her to incorporate and that she would need to appoint a secretary. She was at a complete loss, in essence, she felt like a kid who just got off the boat from Poland.

Fast forward, she figured it out.

She began to fax people in the middle of the night because she realized if you faxed in the middle of the night then the fax would be the first thing on their desk the next morning. She was shameless. 

She asked anybody and everybody for money and clothing donations including a dying aunt and the family shunned her for Thanksgiving that year.

Nancy had put the second year of law school on hold once the business started taking off. She was only making $30k a year which was not easy to make ends meet particularly if you liked shoes. So every Friday night Nancy would play poker in the underground clubs around the city. Guilliani closed those shops and instead Nancy would go to Atlantic City every Friday night for a year to supplement her income. She made about $5-7k a year starting with a $200 ante.

Once she met her husband, she stopped the poker but it taught her alot. She was mostly the only woman at the table and learning how to bluff, hold her cards tight and play the game was an education.

Over time the business grew and the brand became a household name. Not only does Dress for Success give clothes to women in need for a job interview they began to do research. That once women got a job working in an office they would be shunned from their friends on the block. So Dress for Success created a professional womens group similar to AA where they bring in speakers and create a support system for women including teaching women how to put their clothes together.  That way Dress for Success is not just a one stop pick up for the wardrobe. Having her office wall up against an AA group for many years taught her a lot.

Seven years passed and she was bored.  She recruited her successor and moved on. She has just turned 30 and wanted to do something a little crazy. She knew of an organization call Do Something that Andrew Shue founded. A great vision with little funding that had just collapsed. They had $75k left in the bank with $250K in restricted grants that they used but did not comply with where they were supposed to go. They had 20 offices at one point and now were down to 6. She decided to take on the challenge and turn the organization around. This was before Friendster and Facebook. The first thing she did was put everything online which was the first step in the right direction.

Do Something is now the largest organization for teens connecting to social change in America. They empower teens to make a change in their community. Recently they did a campaign around homeless teens. They called youth shelters across the country and asked them what is the one thing that most of the teens living in the youth hostels ask for...answer.. blue jeans. 

In 3 1/2 weeks the campaign collected and cleaned 1,020,041 pair of jeans and distributed them around the country. Pretty damn impressive.

One kid every sixty seconds joined the campaign. They will do 30 campaigns this year.

What is interesting is as they have enrolled and engaged kids through texting and the by-product has been that kids in crisis have been texting them back. What did Nancy do? Set up a new organization that is creating a 911 text hotline for kids which will set up referrals and collect data so they can start to spot trends such as acute bullying. A wonderful side benefit of Do Something. This new organization will having their first board meeting this week.

People assume when you start a charity that you are nice, earnest and sweet but Nancy will tell you that she is none of these things.

What she is, is an incredible entrepreneur and her focus on making a difference has touched countless people. My gut is if she had taken that $5K from her Grandfather and started a profit business she'd be sitting on a pile of cash and who knows what change she would have made for the world, but lucky for many people she didn't take that angle. Her passion, sharp mind and take no prisoners attitude is one that I am a huge fan of. Looking forward to see where Crisis Text Line takes her over the next couple of years. Did I mention that Nancy went back to NYU and convinced them to let her take the rest of her classes at the Stern Business school to get her law degree? She did and so she might not like the law, she did achieve her childhood dream by getting her law degree.

Based in New York City, Joanne Wilson, aka Gotham Gal, started working with web startups folllowing a career in fashion. She is now involved with various startups as an advisor or investor, including Curbed (Eater/Racked), Food52, Red Stamp, Ricks Picks, Hot Bread Kitchen, Gotham Gym, The Moon Group and MOUSE. She has also invested in a few restaurants, is an early supporter of the Highline project, and sits on various non-profit boards.

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