Angel Harris: Well-suited to empower

Steve Wartenberg
Angel Harris, Executive director, Dress for Success Columbus

The home where Angel Harris grew up on the east side of Columbus was where people gathered to talk, tell stories, laugh and chow down some tasty food. “My father [James] had a catering business and was a great cook,” Harris says. “Our house was where people came to hang out, and that’s where the spirit of helping and serving others was born in me.”

Skip ahead a couple of decades and Harris, 45, is devoting her professional life to helping and serving others, first at the United Way of Central Ohio, and since 2018 as the executive director of Dress for Success Columbus.

She has become a maternal figure to scores of women, following in the footsteps of her mother, Mary, who told her daughter she could accomplish anything and everything. “I’d come home with straight A’s and she’d say, ‘Of course you did, we believe in you,’ ” Harris says. “And now, I want to give our women what I had—people telling me I could do it. Our women deserve that.”

While attending East High School, Harris planned on becoming an accountant. “I wanted to be the managing partner of a Big Six accounting firm,” she says. “Even then, I guess I thought big.”

Read about all of our CEO of the Year 2020 award winners.

While attending college—she holds a bachelor’s degree in information systems, an MBA and a doctorate from Franklin University—Harris became a single mother at the age of 20. She landed a job at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus, where she designed a database for a fundraising campaign. This led to a tech-based job at the United Way of Central Ohio, where Harris eventually was named chief development officer and senior vice president.

“I learned the importance of multiple organizations coming together to achieve a goal, because no organization can do it all for a person in this community,” she says.

Harris jumped at the opportunity to lead Dress for Success when founder Vicki Bowen Hewes decided to step down. “I learned so much at the United Way, and I felt like this was an opportunity to make a huge difference with a smaller organization,” she says. “They said they were looking for a leader to take them to the next level and, being the ambitious person that I am, I wanted to take this on. I came into an organization that was so well run and I said to the team, ‘What are some of the things you want to do, but haven’t done yet?’ ”

There’s a bit of a misconception that Dress for Success only provides business attire to women to help them look professional when they interview for a job. The clothes are the starting point (more about Dress for Success on page 18).

“We empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support,” Harris says. Sixty-five percent of the women it serves are trapped in generational poverty, while 35 percent find themselves in situational poverty due to setbacks. About 65 percent of the clients are women of color, and 85 percent to 90 percent have high school diplomas.

Lorena Brown was a journalist in Uruguay and came to Columbus in 2017.

“I was lost, I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and my English wasn’t so perfect,” Brown says. “Now [Dress for Success] is helping me to learn how to apply for jobs and how to interview and feel comfortable.” In addition to its “suiting” service, Dress For Success offers women a career center, employment retention services and peer-support groups. Harris is also putting her multiple-organization philosophy into practice. “We partner with more than 130 nonprofits,” she says.

For example, a partnership with Per Scholas teaches women technology skills and coding; a relationship with Alvis helps incarcerated women re-enter society and find jobs. Harris has also initiated new programs with OhioMeansJobs and the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services.

“It’s all about making more organizations aware of what we’re trying to do and bringing them in as partners,” Harris says. “We have a small team, all women, Janes of all trades, and an all-woman board. We’re out there in the community, telling our story that this isn’t charity. This is giving women the skills and opportunities they deserve and creating the workforce of tomorrow.”

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.

Angel Harris

Executive director, Dress for Success Columbus

In position since: 2018

Previous: Chief development officer and senior vice president United Way of Central Ohio, 2001-18

Employees: 7 full-time, 3 part-time, an average of 40 volunteers a week

Revenue: $1.05 million