The most illuminating experiences can arise from the greatest adversity. Even when there are formidable obstacles to overcome, life is full of shining moments, made even brighter when they're used to inspire others to find their own light. In partnership with Clear Eyes, the #1 selling eye drop brand, we're proud to present one woman's uplifting story of beating the odds.
The suit was gray, by a classic American designer known for catering to affluent career women. The pinstriped fabric had weight to it, and the cut was a tasteful A-line that, one can imagine, some fast-talking, "pls fix"-replying executive had chosen for its figure-flattering yet sensible shape.
When Shaquan Hoke put on this two-piece ensemble at the Queens location of Dress for Success 14 years ago, she was a homeless single mother of five children under the age of 8. She'd just completed a three-week job-readiness program and was about to embark on interviews in the community development field, but she lacked the funds for an appropriate outfit. Today, Hoke, now a 43-year-old CEO and entrepreneur, steps on set in a regal violet ruched dress, hands folded loosely in front of her, like a benevolent monarch surveying her realm. At once self-possessed and giddy at the prospect of being primped and polished for the camera (she'd called her mother earlier to steady her nerves), Hoke says she can't help but see this photo shoot as a heightened, fairy-tale reenactment of when she first walked into Dress for Success, apprehensive that she'd be treated as a charity case — or worse, "a criminal just because I needed help."
But this initial "suiting" — being fitted for workwear, in DFS speak — proved to be the transformative start of a profound relationship with the nonprofit that would extend to more than a decade of her professional and personal life.
"After weighing the cost of not showing up [to my initial DFS appointment], I decided to pray before I went into what I thought would be the lion’s den," Hoke says. "[But] everyone was so friendly and smiling like I was a long-lost relative that had just come into town. It was alarming to me, as I already had trust issues from being treated indifferently due to my economic status. I was treated with respect [there], and most importantly, I was seen. I mean, they saw me. I was struggling to get back some sort of normalcy, as a plus-size Black woman who had body-image issues trying [to enter] a field dominated by men. I felt that people looked at my size and skin color before they saw me as an asset."
That day, tearing up at her reflection in the mirror, Hoke says she felt as though she was shedding her former self, the Shaquan who'd taken a passive role in her own life after surviving abuse and internalizing self-defeating ideologies. In her paradigm-shifting suit — the first she'd ever owned — Hoke was hired by an employment services organization and stayed involved with Dress for Success as a volunteer, eventually moving from sorting donated clothes to conducting career workshops and organizing fundraisers.
"I learned from being mentored by the staff at DFS that I have a strong voice and that my past experience is a light to help others," Hoke says of the nonprofit, which she calls a "silent mentor." "DFS pushed me out of shrinking myself small. I was put in front of women to speak, to educate, and to inspire [individuals] like me. I learned that my past made me stronger and that it's okay to fall down but not stay there."
Hoke once again put this well-learned resilience into practice at what she calls a second turning point in her life: After nearly four years at the employment services job, she was laid off. She says she knew she never wanted to be homeless again, so she had to use all the skills she'd learned to continue providing for her family. But this time, unlike when she had been interviewing for her previous job, Hoke says there was a notable absence of despair, because she knew she could turn to a group of women who'd become a constant in her life: So she returned to Dress for Success as an employee.
There, Hoke says she recognized that she had a duty to pay it forward by "[helping] other women see themselves as being worthy of all that life has in store for them." Coaching DFS-ers with backgrounds similar to hers in networking and personal development motivated her to start Beyond A J.O.B., Inc., a career and employment consulting company, in 2015. Hoke says incorporating her business was a pivotal point marking how far she's come from when she first arrived at DFS.
"I transitioned from the idea of being [employed by someone else] to actually taking ownership of the skills I earned through the years, [while] being able to monetize those gifts. People saw the value I had, and it was amazing to me to have that first client and to earn income from the skills I brought to the table."
Though Hoke still speaks of her accomplishments with a touch of disbelief, she's leaning into her innate confidence in ever-expanding ways, like hosting a social-media livestream to call for donations to the Courage to Give Project, her philanthropic endeavor to collect personal-care items and provide job-readiness tools to homeless women and their families. (Hoke laughs thinking of the contrast to her old, comfortable-in-the-shadows persona: "You would say, if you knew me back then, 'Who is this person?' That's not Shaquan.'") And now, she's working toward a stable, financially secure future, educating herself with master's-level classes and investing in properties for business and family, one of which she plans to convert to a space for teenage mothers to rebuild their lives. (That's on top of expanding Beyond A J.O.B., with ambitions to secure a government contract to provide career services to women on a city, state, or federal scale.)
"We all come from somewhere," Hoke says. "We all have journeys. We all went through a valley. But the fact that we're all here in this space, that shows we're in it to overcome and can still be caretakers and love and care for ourselves. Where I am now, I need to help others who are struggling just like I was. And to be able to speak life into them in the way that it was spoken to me, I'm just honored to be in a position to do that."