After being incarcerated for 15 years in Jefferson Parish, Kenner resident Willie Smith began searching for a job and working to create a better life. But he couldn’t seem to get past the first step of the process: the job interview.
“I was going on interviews with just jeans and a T-shirt, and people weren't hiring me. They wouldn't give me the opportunity,” Smith recalled. “How you walk in there and how you present yourself, that's how they see you.”
His chance of landing a job improved drastically when he was introduced to Sharp Men, a nonprofit organization that provides professional attire and resources for men hurdling barriers to employment. The organization granted Smith a black suit with blue pinstripes, a button-down shirt, spiffy shoes and a burgundy bow tie. It also equipped him with job interview skills.
“When I put that suit on, I felt like one of 'The Avengers.' It gave me superpowers,” said Smith, describing the newfound confidence he experienced when walking into an interview. “I got the suit and everything else changed for me.”
Smith is now a case manager for Cure Violence, a local initiative designed to combat violent crime. He’s also developing a nonprofit that offers educational programs to incarcerated youth.
“I already had a passion for the youth,” Smith said. “(Sharp Men) giving me this opportunity — the suit — has helped me pursue my dreams, and what I really want to do.”
Sharp Men is the male counterpart of Dress for Success New Orleans, which provides attire and support for women seeking jobs and economic independence.
“Every superhero has their suit,” said Patrick Young, the founder and CEO of Sharp Men. He established the organization in February 2019 with assistance from Help from the Hart, 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans and United Way of Southeast Louisiana.
“Drew Brees, when he goes to play football, he has his uniform. That's his suit,” Young said. “But when it's time for a guy to fight for a career and an opportunity, and he doesn't have a suit, he doesn't have a chance to win. So we want to make sure men can compete for an opportunity, but also feel good about themselves, and like they're actually going to win.”
Sharp Men provides apparel for the homeless, veterans and young men who are housed in juvenile detention centers.
The garments are a mix of new and donated items: Some come from surplus stock at clothing stores, such as K & G Fashion Superstore, Men’s Wearhouse, Brooks Brothers, Dillard’s and Macy’s, while others are donated by local individuals.
Young believes how candidates present themselves conveys their level of professionalism and the seriousness they give the role they are pursuing.
According to The Undercover Recruiter, a global employer branding and talent acquisition blog, 65% of bosses indicate that clothes could be a deciding factor between two almost-identical candidates. And, 55% of a person’s impact stems from the way he or she dresses, acts and enters the room.
Candidates shouldn’t be disqualified for a job because they can’t afford a new suit and accessories, which may cost up to $400, Young said.
Sharp Men clients also receive image consulting and executive coaching services, financial guidance and help maintaining their physical and mental health, thanks to a partnership with the Doc Griggs medical foundation.
Sharp Men works with referrals and hosts suit drives throughout the year. This past November, the organization presented more than 20 tailored suits to incarcerated adolescents at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center. The recipients would be able to wear the ensembles to court and job interviews.
During the event, Young and his team filled a room inside the center with suit sets in a variety of sizes and styles: a navy blue Ralph Lauren suit was paired with a light blue dress shirt, brown leather Alfani shoes, and khaki slacks. A black Tommy Hilfiger suit was accessorized with a red bow tie and black leather shoes.
The incarcerated teenagers somberly walked into the room with their hands clasped behind their backs. But once they were dressed in their suits, they seemed to stand up straighter. Their demeanor brightened.
“The suits show a better picture of us,” said a 16-year-old who was wearing a suit accented with a patterned blue bow tie. “They won’t see us as criminals.”
Another teen said he was wearing a dress suit for the first time in his life.
“It feels good,” he said with a wide smile. “It will change my ways and my mindset.”