A conversation with the CEO and Founder of Dressember on how she ignited the global digital movement to end modern-day slavery with a style advocacy experiment.
I haven’t met Blythe Hill in person, but I already call her a friend. We were introduced digitally, by way of a movement on Instagram that supports the foundation she created to help end modern-day slavery. In case you missed it, I spent the month of December partnering with my sister-in-law to be a part of Dressember, advocating for the end of human trafficking by wearing a dress every day and posting about it on social media with links to our fundraising team page. (You can read all about it here.)
Naturally, Blythe and I had some interaction throughout the month, supporting each other via the #itsbiggerthanadress sisterhood that her movement encourages with this hashtag every year. I not only learned so much about myself and my “digital calling” during this month-long movement (you can read about that here), but I also realized I wanted to learn much more about the woman behind all of this and get to know her better.
Blythe is steadfast about what she believes in, and passionate about making a difference: she’s a general who selflessly leads her troops into (digital) battle against one of the biggest injustices of our modern world. She has done it for years, but the path to her CEO seat wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight. With her movement only continuing to grow in popularity as more women (and men) join in across the world each year, Blythe has a lot to look forward to. She is very humble; her determination and strength to fight injustice paired with her love and empathy for those affected by it make her the perfect profile for Grit + Grace, and I am thrilled to introduce her to you.
What was your childhood like, and how did it influence your path to becoming an entrepreneur?
My childhood was really lonely, honestly. I grew up with my dad and three old siblings. My dad worked two jobs, so we all learned to fend for ourselves. I became independent very quickly, making my own meals and meeting my own needs. I hadn’t thought about the connection before, but I think this definitely paved the way as an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, you have to learn how to do things on your own (or find someone who can teach you or help you), or things don’t get done. That feels very reminiscent of my childhood.
What was the career you envisioned for yourself when you were in college?
I had NO idea what I wanted to do. I changed my major no less than 4 times, trying to figure out what I wanted, what I was good at, and how to connect those things to a major and eventually a career. Finally, I just decided to major in English because I liked to read and write, and figured it was a broad enough major (and interest) to apply to many possible career paths.
At what point did you learn about the realities of modern day slavery, and why did supporting the anti-trafficking cause become so important to you?
I learned about human trafficking when I was 19, and was horrified. I thought slavery was a thing of the past, not a thriving criminal industry of the present. And to hear of the exploitation of so many women and girls was especially horrifying. Because of my own experience of sexual abuse as a child, learning about this issue shook me to my core, and I felt a sense of urgency to personally do something. At the same time, I felt powerless. I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to engage in this issue–I’m not a lawyer, or a cop, or a social worker, so what could I possibly do? I felt so passionate but so powerless at the same time.
How did the Dressember movement begin?
I created Dressember as a personal style challenge. I was in college, and felt stifled by the academic routine and rigor, and in need of a creative outlet. I came up with the idea to infuse creativity into getting dressed by attempting to wear a dress every day for a month. The next full month was December, and I quickly came up with the puny name for my challenge, Dressember. I wore a dress every day in December 2009 and the next year, my friends reminded me about it and wanted to do it with me.
At what point did you realize that your fashion experiment could become a digital movement, and how did it change your mission?
The third year, my friends’ friends wanted to join in. So, when women I didn’t even know were wanting to join in on my silly style challenge, I started to think maybe it wasn’t so silly– maybe there was potential for it to become more. I saw what the Movember campaign was doing and thought, maybe I can use Dressember as a way to engage in the fight to end modern day slavery.
What was the first monetary fundraising goal the year Dressember went live for profit, and did you meet it?
In 2013, I officially aligned Dressember with anti-human trafficking, and set a goal to raise $25K, which felt really ambitious and a bit scary! We ended up raising $25K in three days. By the end of the month, 1200+ women in 32 countries raised over $165K by wearing dresses.
How have you grown the Dressember movement to the point that it is now, having just raised over $2 Million with celebrity endorsements and a major publicity campaign?
It has been slow, steady, organic growth. As of last year, all our growth was word of mouth, without any PR investment. We raised $3M in 4 years, just by word of mouth of our passionate advocates! In 2017, I hired a PR firm (with budget that we finally had!) to take Dressember to the next level. We were covered by a number of national media outlets, and had a handful of celebrities join in. In the 2017 campaign, we raised over $2M as a result of all the amazing press and endorsements.
Dressember started out as your side-hustle…what was the process you followed to slowly make the transition from passion project to full-time CEO?
It was a labor of love for a long time! I joke that I was a “volunteer CEO” for the first two years while it slowly grew. I used my nights, weekends, and lunch breaks to work on it. Then, in 2016, I was able to leave my full time corporate job to come on as part time CEO (in addition to another part time admin job). In the summer of 2017, I was able to transition to full time CEO for Dressember, and it’s been incredible to devote all my working hours to it! I’d been waiting and working toward this for four years!
What are you most excited about as you plan for the future of the #Dressember movement in the next few years?
I’m most excited about seeing our community of advocates, of world changers, grow. They inspire me with their passion and creativity. I’m also excited to see our network of organizational partnerships grow. We are a grantmaking organization, so we make large, strategic grants to a small number of organizations. It’s exciting to me to vet new potential grant partners and examine our potential impact through partnership.
What would be one piece of advice you have for young women who feel as though they have a calling to make a difference in the world, but aren’t quite sure how to turn their dreams into reality?
Lately the thing I keep being struck by is that I never thought of myself as a leader. No one ever called it out in me, and I always thought I was better equipped to support someone else’s vision. The thing is, no one is born a leader; leaders are made. Leaders are grown. Anyone can be a leader if they have a dream they are willing to grow into. You have to be willing to push past your own fear for the sake of your dream, your vision in order for it to become anything. Don’t be the one thing stopping your dream from happening. Be willing to look silly, to go out on a limb, to take a leap of faith. I knew there was a chance Dressember would totally flop, but I was so eager to engage in the fight to end slavery that I decided it was worth the risk of looking like a fool. I think people change the world when they find the thing that is worth more to them than their own pride–when the instinct to fight overcomes the fear of failure. Find that thing, and then go fight.
Blythe’s TEDx Talk on Dressember.
If you could have lunch with any woman in the world (living or deceased), who would it be and why? There are so many, it’s tough to choose! I would love to have met Mother Teresa to hear how she found strength to face such incredible pain and grief so regularly. I’d love to meet Hillary Clinton, to ask her about how she overcame so many obstacles, and how she found the fortitude to handle (more than one) failure with grace. I’d love to hear how she was able to face so many attacks on her character, so many naysayers and those who wanted to shut her down, and still press forward. I’d like lunch with Michelle Obama to hear how she manages to take the high road every time she’s dealt a low blow. I’d also love to have lunch one last time with my grandmother, my Nana, who passed away in 2011. She was a dear friend and I miss her every day.
Edited from an interview by Eleanora Morrison.
To connect with and follow Blythe and her Dressember Foundation / movement, you can find her on Instagram @blythehill, Dressember on Instagram @dressember, and read more online at Dressember.org.