Business students suit up each year for the career fair. Proper business attire is a key component of job interviewing. As the job interview season ramps up, some Collat business students find it difficult to dress for success. They know employment depends on making a positive first impression, but they don’t own a suit or other business attire and have limited funds to purchase them. Enter Suit Up Collat, a public crowdfunding campaign powered by UAB FIRE, the university’s hub for crowdfunding and special projects.

Suit Up Collat provides much-needed assistance for students through gift cards, used to purchase suits, pants, blouses and other business attire.

This year, the program supplied some students with $100 gift cards to purchase new business attire for career fairs, interviews and more.

"Suit Up will allow me to interview with confidence," says Emily Dia, an accounting junior who received one of the gift cards. "I will be able to put my best foot forward and have the confidence to ace all of my upcoming interviews. Suit Up provided me a suit that I could not otherwise afford."

Since its inception in 2015, Suit Up Collat has touched the lives of more than 150 business students and generated more than $12,000 in donations. Fifty-five students received gift cards this spring, totaling $5,500 in student assistance.

Rita Stewart-Hampton, director of the Collat Career Center, created the program in 2015 when, upon talking with students about appropriate business clothing, realized many didn’t have business clothes because they couldn’t afford them. She understood how important the right clothes are when meeting with prospective employers, and she was worried some students were going into the job-search process at a disadvantage.

"Originally we thought it was an education problem, that students didn’t know what constituted professional business attire," she says. "We quickly learned that it was a financial issue. It was a need-based problem."

Stewart-Hampton sent Collat faculty and staff an email asking for gently used suits, ties, dresses and other business clothing for students.

Rita Stewart-Hampton poses with 2 students in suits.Rita Stewart-Hampton (center) created the Suit Up Collat program in 2015 to help students make a good first impression when interviewing."The outpouring of donations was incredible," she says. "We had professors and staff donating entire outfits from their own closets. We collected so many donations that we had to start putting suits on racks in our offices."

Within months, the donations grew overwhelming. Anna Buie, who worked as a Collat Business Peer Mentor at the time, began cataloguing the donation in a spreadsheet, organizing donations by size, material and color.

"I had two tabs: Suits Matched and Suits Not Matched. That way we could keep a count of what we had, who donated it and if a student came by to collect it," says Buie.

Stewart-Hampton advertised the free business attire to students. Students descended on her office in large numbers.

Buie, who now serves as academic advisor for Collat’s accounting and finance department, recalls students crying because, for the first time, they had professional attire for job interviews and career fairs.

"We would ask students their sizes and many said they were one size when actually they were a different size," says Buie. "They didn’t know their real size because they never wore proper business clothes before that point."

Finding A Spark Through Crowdfunding

Over time, Stewart-Hampton began leveraging business connections in the community to assist with Suit Up Collat.

In 2016, after a successful first-year launch of the program, Stewart-Hampton partnered with JCPenney in Birmingham to provide suits and attire for business students. With help from JCPenney, Stewart-Hampton matched students to brand new suits tailored to their size instead of collecting clothing donations.

In 2017, Suit Up Collat was approved for a UAB FIRE crowdfunding campaign, which allowed the program to leverage social media and digital resources to collect money online for new clothing. The program raised more than $1,800 in its first 24 hours. It was renewed in 2018 and 2019.

Now six years after the initial launch, the program has generated tremendous support beyond faculty and staff. As part of UAB FIRE, which extends beyond the university campus, Suit Up Collat has received donations and support from businesses in Birmingham and beyond. Because of the generous support, Suit Up Collat has grown from a private suit exchange to a full-fledged crowdfunding campaign.

A Resource for Students in Need

To apply for the gift cards this year, students filled out a questionnaire and submitted two short essays on how professional attire would assist them in their career goals. As part of the application, students also agreed to thank a selected donor through a handwritten thank-you card.

More than 80 students submitted applications for the program. Stewart-Hampton and the Career Center team selected 55 to receive gift cards.

Stewart-Hampton says she expects the need for business attire – and the Suit Up Collat program – to continue. The program’s goal is simple: to empower students to pursue their goals in professional attire.

"I believe that it has helped our student population grow as business leaders and has given students more opportunities to succeed because they weren’t having to worry about what to wear or how to buy it," she says.

Interested in learning more about Suit Up Collat and how you can help keep it going? Contact Rita Stewart-Hampton or Brad Whisenant.

Story by Jared Jones