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Making connections, building careers

NRF Foundation Student Program draws 1,100 students from more than 130 universities
By Lottie Watts
Published Jan 11, 2020

The highest-attended NRF Foundation Student Program to date wraps up Sunday, with more than 1,100 students from more than 130 universities across the country participating in four days of career-building opportunities.

The annual event in New York City is the only one of its kind designed specifically for undergraduate students and is open to all majors. This year’s Student Program featured 44 speakers across the main stage, along with new breakout sessions. It kicked off Thursday with the “Future of Retail: Powered by Technology” and company tours across the city.

Friday began with a presentation by Macy’s Inc. Chairman and CEO Jeff Gennette, who also serves as the chair of the NRF Foundation Board.

“If you’re committed, you can go very far,” Gennette said. “If you’re ready to soak this in, with your head and your heart, this business will take you places you’ve never dreamed of.”

Students attended a panel discussion with NRF Foundation scholarship participants from previous years who now have thriving careers in retail. “With career development, it starts with you,” said Christian Sopoco, a merchandise analyst at Nordstrom and a 2017 Next Generation Scholarship semi-finalist. “When it comes to your first job, it’s pivotal that you take charge.”

On Friday, students also heard from Emily Chang, who has more than two decades in the industry and mostly recently served as senior vice president of  marketing at Starbucks. She discussed her philosophy of saying yes to opportunities and embracing a love of trying new things.

Other keynote speakers included Kelly McGinnis, SVP and chief communications officer of Levi Strauss & Co.; Jane Blaine Gilbertson, second-generation owner and CEO of Blain’s Farm & Fleet; and PetSmart CEO J.K. Symancyk. “The most impactful thing about our business is our people,” Symancyk said. “Technology is an awesome thing, but your ability to create lasting connections with people is what sets you apart.”

Alison Hahn, senior vice president of merchandising, color for Sephora, shared that she wasn’t intimidated by the move to beauty with Sephora in 2011, even though it was a new category for her. “The hard part isn’t the product piece,” said Hahn, whose experience spans three decades. “It’s the critical thinking you need to run a successful business.”

Friday afternoon included breakout sessions, added this year to give students more flexibility to explore potential career paths. A keynote from KIND founder Daniel Lubetzky closed the day.

Students began Saturday with The Home Depot’s Vice President of Home Services Stacey Tank, who spoke to students about her unconventional journey to her current role — from personal trainer to traveling the world working for GE, to a stint in the beer industry before landing in retail. Rather than thinking about the next best short-term move, she encouraged students to think long-term and build experiences that enrich their careers and emphasized the importance of taking risks. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, to take risks,” Tanks said. “When you’re out of your comfort zone, that’s when you’re learning the most.”

Students also participated in the Executive Mentor Experience with 125 leaders from 60 top brands, a career fair and breakout sessions on personal branding, Rent the Runway’s rise as a viral brand and Procter & Gamble Beauty’s belief that doing good is what propels its growth.

Sunday morning includes more company tours and on-site interviews with recruiters. Student programming concludes Sunday evening with the sixth annual NRF Foundation Honors, a night for retail executives to celebrate the power of retail to build extraordinary careers and spark incredible change.  All proceeds from the Honors support the Foundation’s educational programs, student scholarships and RISE Up.

The night features the naming of the top recipients of the Next Generation Scholarship and the 2020 Student Challenge Competition. The Honors also recognizes Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass — NRF’s The Visionary 2020 — and The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future.

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