Top retail students from across the country are nominated to participate in the American Express-NRF Foundation “Aspire2Retail” Intercollegiate Challenge by their college or university’s program director. Selected students are then assigned to one area of study in a retail case study problem — ranging from sourcing to merchandising. Team members must work together remotely and are given a retail executive mentor to help guide their individual recommendations, before they present their findings at NRF’s BIG Show.
One participant, Alexandra Wangard, a student at University of Wisconsin, took the challenge head-on. We interviewed her to find out more about the life-long lessons created by her involvement.
How was the experience of working remotely with other students from around the country? Did you have any particular challenges working remotely?
Working remotely was definitely challenging in some aspects as we were dealing with different time zones and many different schedules. However, working remotely also motivated us to use our time together on calls wisely. For my team and me it was about time management and making sure we had a set plan for every call. As a team leader, I made sure we had an agenda for each of our meetings and an idea of what we wanted to accomplish when we talked again. In many ways not having that real-time face-to-face interaction helped keep us organized and on track because we knew we wouldn’t be talking to each other everyday.
You had the opportunity to present in front of retail executives during the NRF’s BIG show. How did you prepare?
Presenting at the Big Show was nerve-racking but also incredibly exciting and I was confident that my team and I would do well. Preparation was more about learning how to deliver our presentation to a live audience rather than over a web conference. In order to prepare, I re-worked my talking points and added a more conversational element. Our team had a few more conference calls to make sure we were all on the same page, as well as a practice in New York the day before we presented. We also did a team dinner at a phenomenal Italian restaurant in the Theater District to celebrate our win.
Why are you interested in a retail career? What motivates you?
There is really nothing else I can imagine doing; working in retail is something I have always had a passion for and the more I learn about the industry the more I know I picked the right sector to pursue my career in. The retail industry is constantly changing with new developments and technologies that help create better products and a better consumer experience. I am definitely motivated by the progressive nature of the industry and the unique and exciting experiences and challenges that working in the retail industry brings.
What did you learn from this overall experience and how do you apply it to your professional career goals?
Personally, I learned how to lead a team successfully as well as how to be a successful team member. As team leader, I was able to develop my communication skills as well as develop an understanding about what it takes to be a respected leader. The teamwork skills I gained during this project will also help me be a better professional, as working on or with various teams is something I will undoubtedly encounter during my career. This case study simulated situations that I will be presented with in buying and planning. We created our own retail business from merchandising to sourcing and it is great to have a more specific and real-life knowledge of how a retailer functions in its entirety. Having this cross-functional knowledge will be incredibly useful as I embark on my career path.
What did your (challenge section) mentor do to ultimately help you to solve the problem in the case study? What was it like having a one-on-one session with (name of mentor, company, and position)
I fulfilled the compliance role on my team for this year’s case study and our compliance mentor was Dennis Cohen, Senior Director of Private Brand, Sourcing and Supply Chain for Office Depot. The session helped broaden my knowledge of the compliance issues that retailers currently face. Prior to the call I had a basic knowledge of various compliance factors like trade deficits and labor conditions, but Dennis provided me with a lot of resources and other pieces of information that really helped me complete thorough research and really develop a strong understanding of compliance and how it can be applied to manufacturing footwear or other private label goods.
Did you face any unique challenges while participating in this case study? How did you overcome them?
The most unique aspect of this challenge was taking the challenge prompt and coming up with an entirely unique company profile from a merchandising strategy to the detailed aspects of sourcing and a new diversified supply chain. My team members and I had a lot of great ideas and information and it was definitely challenging to try and sift through everything and develop a comprehensive presentation. I attribute our success to the mutual respect we developed for each other’s opinions and ideas and our ability to communicate and collaborate to create our solution.
Do you have any advice for future “Aspire2Retail” challenge team members?
The most important advice I could give to future team members would be to really get to know your team and your university affiliated mentor. As part of this case you spend a lot of time talking to your team and knowing their communication and work styles will really help you develop a successful solution. Another important tip would be to use any and all resources available to you; don’t hesitate to reach out to various industry professionals you have made connections with in the past as they often can give you helpful and relevant advice about the current retail climate as it pertains to the case challenge.
The mission of the “Aspire2Retail” Intercollegiate Retail Challenge is to build awareness of diverse career paths in retail by engaging university students in a competitive, collaborative role play with support from retail executive mentors to implement a multi-tiered business strategy.