Dress For Success: Sarah Belk Gambrell

Dress for Success
Dress for Success

Generations of women from around the world have continued the fight for basic human rights; among them the right of autonomy, the right to live free from domestic and sexual abuse, the right to an education, the right to financial independence, and the right to a voice.  The cultural norms ingrained in societies that shackle women can be defeated but only by standing in solidarity.  Strong, passionate women; women who have been raised to be leaders, those who have climbed the corporate ladder, experienced the board room, those who have juggled life with all its ups and downs: single, married, or divorced—with or without children, these are women who have made it their mission to pass on a legacy of confidence, leadership, and commitment for others.

Sarah Belk Gambrell is one such woman. A graduate of Sweet Briar College, she is the daughter of W. H. Belk Sr., founder of the Belk Group stores.  She has served as Vice Chairman and President of various Belk Companies and has been Director of Belk Inc. since 1998 (Businessweek.)  Belk Inc. opened its first flagship store on East Trade Street, Charlotte in 1895.   “People traveled great distances to shop at Belk for the latest fashions.   Belk was a leader in fabrics and fine threads and that was a big draw,” says Gambrell.  “Traveling to Charlotte was a planned event and the shopping experience at Belk was wonderful.”  Quality of service was a primary goal set forth by her father.

The store expanded to nearly a city block after acquiring “prime space” with Tryon Street frontage.  “There was wonderful energy and great pride in Charlotte during that time.”  Gambrell’s early days in the fashion industry were spent visiting the factories and learning how items were made and how the garment industry worked. She enjoyed these visits and, as her father, “she developed a respect for high standards and products constructed with quality. Now in her mid-90’s, she still follows fashion trends via Women’s Wear Daily and as a member of the International Fashion Group in New York.”

For decades, Gambrell has been one of Charlotte’s biggest philanthropists. “Giving back has always been important to me.  There is great joy in giving.  Everyone needs to participate and personally engage in giving especially to worthy organizations they believe in and organizations with good leaders.”  With that said, Gambrell is active and very fond of the arts and community organizations.  She is a Board Member for a vast number of organizations, such as the YWCA Central Carolinas and NYC, Parkinson Disease Foundation, Columbia-Presbyterian New York, North Carolina Community Foundation, Inc., Cancer Research Institute, and Dress for Success, Inc. She also serves as trustee at several schools: Queens University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Trinity Episcopal School.  Besides her involvement in these organizations, Gambrell has received honorary doctorates from Erskine College, UNC at Asheville, Furman University, and Johnson C. Smith University.  Often referred to by her daughter Sarah, as a female Hugh McColl (McColl was a banking pioneer, who led the efforts to revitalize Charlotte) Gambrell is no stranger to trailblazing.  

The Dress for Success organization, an international not-for-profit 501 (C)(3) charitable organization, was founded in NYC in 1997.  The organization “promotes economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support, career development tools and [the assistance needed for women to] thrive in the workplace and in life.” It is here that Gambrell excels.  As a result of her involvement, Gambrell will be receiving the Dress for Success Charlotte Paradigm Award that links individuals and corporate philanthropy with social needs activism.  

The idea of empowering women is top on her to-do-list. “It is important for women, especially single mothers, to have a job with an appropriate salary and good working conditions.  They need to eat and have the basics for their families. Dress for Success is a very worthy organization and as a retailer, we need to contribute, especially to the suiting program.”  A good suit or outfit of any color is an outward representation of who a woman is, and what color “depends on what makes [her] feel confident…a nice outfit reflects what is going on in her world.”  The training Dress for Success offers is very important, and “as a woman, I am particularly interested in supporting woman’s organizations.” With many women still unemployed or underemployed, most single and head of households, it’s important this program succeeds. Currently, Dress for Success has served more than 700,000 women, on average 70,000 women per year.  With 130 affiliate organizations throughout the United States, Australia, Canada, Africa, Europe, Singapore, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, the number is still growing.

Gambrell contributes her philanthropic activities to just being herself. Having had parents who were committed to helping others, “I was fortunate to be influenced by many other great leaders.” With the “Sarah Legacy Society,” which Dress for Success Charlotte is launching at the Ultimate Power Lunch on September 25, 2014 at the Fillmore at the NC Music Factory, women in the Greater Charlotte community, in New York, and throughout the country will be recognized for their contributions.   This is a great honor, but when asked the question: “Fifty years from now, what do you want people to remember you for,” she answers–“Concern for others, being active, and standing up for what I believe in.”

For more information visit www.dressforsuccess.org.