On a muggy May afternoon, 120 well-dressed women made their way into a large, windowed conference space in Manhattan to do something that most women never do: brag about themselves.
They are students of the nonprofit Grace Institute, a 117-year-old organization that offers a structured program of job skills training, counseling, career placement, networking and other services for underserved women age 18 through 65.
Forty percent of participants are single mothers and 70% live below the poverty line. They come to Grace as an alternative to college, to escape a dead-end job, or to find a new career after being laid off.
The program is free and targeted to women on public assistance, but "we’re not asking anyone for tax returns to prove need," says Jessica James, director of development. Students attend six months of weekday classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Brooklyn resident Joni Emeric is visibly excited when she speaks about Grace Institute. She’s been attending program classes for three weeks and feels she’s on her way to finding the career-track job that's escaped her so far.
"This is exactly what I was looking for. The quality of the teachings is high—I’m learning something from every instructor," she says.
Beyond the career basics like using Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and others, as well as resume writing and career counseling, Grace Institute teaches the often intangible soft skills of leadership.
Their largest volunteer event is the Brag Party, which is held several times a year. At the most recent event in Manhattan, the event's main speaker, executive coach Peggy Klaus, author of Brag! Toot Your Own Horn without Blowing It. Klaus led a packed room of over 100 volunteers and students through a series of exercises to help them become better at discussing their strengths and skills without coming across like braggarts, something she acknowledges can be a fine line in perception for women in business.
"Women have a narrower band of what’s acceptable when it comes to self-promotion. When is it okay to self-promote without seeming aggressive or unseemly," she says.
From the podium, Klaus had attendees standing and interacting within minutes, instructing them how to communicate more confidently, using humor and storytelling techniques.
Part seminar, part hands-on workshop with small group exercises like pairing off and giving each other quick speeches about their accomplishments, the Brag Party is designed to show women first-hand how to talk about themselves and take credit for their accomplishments without being too "over the top," which can be undermine their success.
Irish immigrant, shipping magnate, and former New York City mayor W.R. Grace founded the institute in 1897 to help immigrant and poor women achieve economic self-sufficiency. Over the years, the organization has attracted the support of companies like Ogilvy, Morgan Stanley, Citibank, New York Life Insurance, and the American Cancer Society among others. The organization also has a strong partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement.
Applicants must show that they have earned a high school diploma or GED, submit a letter of recommendation, and complete testing during the application process.
Volunteers are typically women who work at one of the employers that hires Grace graduates. They participate in a series of events throughout the year, including the Brag Party, mock interviews, and "dress for success" seminars. Over the years, the program has shifted from its strictly secretarial roots to include a wider variety of entry-level professional jobs in fields including accounts payable, customer support, and soon health care administrative positions.
Throughout that evolution, the Grace Institute has served more than 100,000 women. Eighty percent of Grace Institute graduates are placed in professional, full-time jobs at large corporations within a year of graduation. The institute estimates that participants quadruple their earning potential, putting them on a path out of poverty and off public assistance.
For women like Emeric, it’s more than just a few weeks of job training. The Grace Institute offers a path to a better life. More important, it’s a confirmation that her future holds a world of possibility.
"I’m here to better myself. I hope at the end, I’ll find a really good position with a great company. And, maybe after that, I’ll end up being a business owner, starting my own company like other women have done," she says.