What does “dressing for the job you want” actually mean? If you were sitting at MacLeran’s with Barney Stinson, he would break out into song and dance proclaiming, “Suit Up!” He would explain that wearing a suit everyday distinguishes himself “from the millions of T-shirt and jeans lemmings out there." Legen….wait for it...dary, Barney.
While a majority of us don’t wear a suit for every occasion like Barney, “suiting up” to land a dream job, is an age-old policy. But to Lauren Reilly, Executive Director at SuitUp, there’s more to it than just the clothes you’re wearing.
I sat down with Lauren to kickoff our first Career Chat series and to learn about her personal journey with “suiting up.”
From the minute Lauren started reading, she learned the importance of education. With two college-professor parents who were heavily involved in both her and her sister’s schooling, homework “always came first and all extracurriculars, friends, sports, all that good stuff came after.” Her parents “saw education as the pathway to having a good college and career experience.” Upon graduating from Vassar College, a liberal arts school that, “asks you to question...and think critically about--to be honest-- everything,” Lauren put her first suit on--as a teacher.
When looking into a career, Lauren always knew she wanted to be an educator. When she “suited up” to be a teacher in the Bronx, she found herself using the skills she learned at Vassar less than the skills she learned from other individuals. Sometimes she feels that “college doesn’t always prepare you for the real world.” While critical thinking and questioning are great cognitive skills to learn, she believes she learned the necessary leadership and communication skills on the soccer field and from certain mentors she identified with during summer internships. Everything from how Lauren suits up to how she schedules her day today is owed largely to her soccer coaches and female mentors. Such networks, often established for the first time in college, are the way the majority of young professionals today land their first job. Unfortunately, not all students have access to any semblance of a network. One of the biggest challenges facing low-income or first-generation students is that they have few adults in their life who serve as mentors to prepare them for jobs. Given Lauren’s background, finding her calling as an educator made sense. What sets her apart in this field though, is that she recognizes not every student has such viable career trajectories in their grasp, due to their limited network.
While some students might take longer to discover their ultimate calling, others don’t even know what is out there for them. For three years, Lauren taught in low-income schools, first in the Bronx and then in Harlem. Lauren shared, “many of my students only knew what was in their 10-block radius.” When she would discuss different career paths like marketing, finance, or consulting, she’d get a lot of blank stares. For her students, “those careers didn’t exist; or they existed, but they truly believed that it was outside of their realm of possibilities.”
The gap between the corporate world and students from low-income communities continues to grow, creating more challenges for students starting their careers today.
Research shows that students of low socio-economic status graduate 41% of the time compared to 74% of the time from their counterparts in high-achieving schools. This is partly because low-income students struggle to connect success in school with success in the workplace. Lauren points out that some students’ career aspirations are even more limited by external factors, like their families. Because students see what their parents and what their parents’ friends do, they may be pressured to fit that mold. Further, “students from low-income areas struggle with career awareness more because they really don’t have as many resources...whether that’s the lack of guidance counselors, the career fairs, or college fairs etc.,” says Lauren.
So how do you solve this lack of career awareness plaguing our low-income communities?
Lauren offers, “introducing the different careers out there” and “making sure that [students] understand that no dream is out of reach is so critically important.” She believes that as long as students know that job titles such as CEO, VP of Marketing, Business Development Manager, etc. are attainable, the door to finding their “suits” is open.
When I asked her what advice she would give to a student lacking in resources, she immediately responded: “identify a support system, whether that is a professional, a professor, or an older friend. I think mentorship is the number one thing that can help change a life trajectory. She continued, “I’d tell students to schedule a phone-call once a month just to check in with their mentor. I’d also push mentors to help their mentee identify steps they need to take to be the professional they want to be.”
And even as an Executive Director, Lauren still receives mentorship from several professionals in the field of education and youth development. As a mentee herself, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” is some of the most important career advice Lauren has received, but not in the literal sense you may assume. Unlike Barney Stinson, Lauren doesn’t just think of clothes when she’s told to “Suit Up.” She adds that more importantly, you need to put on the persona for the job you want. Dressing the part is only half the battle. Whether you’re searching for your first job or in between jobs, next time you “suit up,” channel your inner Lauren Reilly and put on your persona first, then the blazer for the job you want.
Surely, when Lauren was 11 she never thought about being the Executive Director for an innovative education startup. Instead, when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she had two responses: a badass soccer player (think Mia Hamm) or an attorney (think Olivia Benson from Law & Order)!