Vicki Bowen Hewes - Using Trauma for Good
Vicki Bowen Hewes is known in Columbus as the founder of the Columbus chapter of Dress for Success, but it was a long journey to the founding of the nonprofit. Vicki describes her childhood as feeling like a square peg in a round hole. She says she always felt like an outsider without a tribe, and didn’t believe she was special. Though she grew up in a loving home, with parents who believed in her, Vicki had low self-esteem and was bullied mercilessly during middle school.
When Vicki began dating in high school, she met her first boyfriend. The relationship grew tumultuous when he became physically abusive. Vicki had never seen abuse before, and it embarrassed her to think it was happening to her. Scared and ashamed, Vicki hid the abuse from the people around her. Deep down, she felt this was happening because she didn’t deserve better.
The relationship continued through her enrollment at the Bradford School. She continued to try to hide the abuse, and her boyfriend frequently hit her in places that no one would see. But one day, after a violent episode, Vicki’s roommate returned to their dorm room and saw holes in the wall. She asked Vicki what had happened, and Vicki, having protected the secret for so long, said, “I made the holes.”
Vicki’s roommate didn’t believe her, and convinced her to tell the truth. “She told me that ‘This has to end,’” Vicki says. But when Vicki found the courage to leave her abusive boyfriend, she says, “everything that you’re afraid is going to happen happened.” Her abuser stalked her and became increasingly violent, setting fires and threatening Vicki’s life with guns.
This time, Vicki had new resolve: “I am worth more than this.” She hated what he had done to her, and she hated that she had let him do it. But a new voice now spoke to Vicki, she says, and it acknowledged her worth. She went to counseling, and while it was beneficial to her personally, she kept the abuse hidden from others. Others thought she was happy, she says, but inside, she was a mess.
After graduation, Vicki focused on her real estate career. Professionally, she was achieving great success. At her company, Vicki began helping to manage national philanthropy. But here, there were reminders of her past. The company would choose where to donate its money, and often, Vicki found herself in discussions about why victims of domestic violence stayed in their abusive circumstances. “Every person’s reason is their own, but it’s not because they like it,” Vicki says. Instead, she says, domestic violence victims see no way out.
Vicki was soon sent to Indianapolis as part of her company’s acquisition and development department. While there, she saw an ad in the paper for Dress for Success Indianapolis and decided to volunteer. The position was described as “personal stylist.” She knew she was successful in a male-dominated career and wanted to pay it forward.
Vicki’s first match was a young woman who effusively thanked Vicki for her help. This woman shared her story of domestic violence, saying she had just left an abusive boyfriend and lost custody of her children. The woman was sleeping on a friend’s couch and had landed a job interview that week. She said that she was going to change her life, for herself and her children.
Vicki describes this as a pivotal moment. For the first time, she opened up to someone else about her own abuse. The two women hugged, and Vicki describes this woman’s vulnerability as “the greatest gift I ever received.”
From there on out, Vicki says, she was a “full woman,” believing that everything happens for a reason. Because of her abuse, she could understand others who had gone through the same thing. Vicki began to open up about her past and share her story with others. Many of her friends and family were surprised. Others reacted with pity. But most heartbreaking of all was the number of women who shared with Vicki their own stories of domestic violence. The abuse “is an epidemic, but the stigma hasn’t changed,” Vicki says.
Vicki says it is not her place to tell others what they should do, but she wants to emphasize to women that they are worthy. She wants women to be able to own their story and their voice, even if it is just to themselves and their journal. For girls struggling with self-esteem, as Vicki did as a child, she encourages them to follow their own light and do the things that they enjoy.
When Vicki was transferred to Columbus for work in 1999, she began looking for a women’s empowerment center, but could not find one. She knew Dress for Success would be beneficial to the Columbus community, and wondered “Who is going to do that?” In response, she was told, “You should!”
But Vicki had zero experience running a nonprofit. At this time, she was beginning to realize that her marriage was ending, and she had a 6-year-old son. The timing wasn’t right, but in some way, this was destiny. Vicki drew upon the resilience that she had learned from her past. She sold her Louis Vuitton purse collection and earned enough money for a deposit and two months’ rent on a house. She quit her job and launched the Columbus Chapter of Dress for Success.
Vicki was passionate about Dress for Success, despite the challenges it posed. 70% of nonprofits fail in the first three years, and Vicki did not want to become part of the statistic. There was energy in the community for individual donations, but the goal was to include wrap-around services for the women, including referrals, housing and food opportunities. There were times when Vicki wasn’t sure how they were going to pay the electric bill. She is forever thankful to Express, because it was Dress for Success’ first corporate funding partner. In those first few years, they would host a fundraiser and bring in $250. Twelve years later, they fundraised half a million dollars.
While Vicki never thought domestic violence would happen to her, because she was raised in a safe and secure household, she hopes women and girls will follow whatever lights them up. This is how you find your people, she says. Vicki no longer feels like a square peg in a round hole and has found her own tribe. She says she and Envision Proven Success Founder McQuetta Williams are knitted at the soul.
Vicki continues to follow what lights her up. In 2018, she passed on the baton at Dress for Success Columbus, now serving as CEO emeritus). She says fresh ideas and diverse leadership are key to the success of social service relevance and impact. She has since worked for Dress for Success Worldwide; launched the social enterprise Fashion Forward, now managed by the Real Real; and took the helm of Social Ventures as CEO in 2021 following the founder’s retirement.