NRF Foundation Student Program brings retail tech, store experiences and diversity to the forefront

It was a cold Saturday in January and I was apprehensive — teetering between thoughts of “will they?” or “won’t they?” We had never done this before. Could we, the philanthropic arm of NRF, really create a pipeline of talent for the retail industry? What if no one showed up?

And then, they did. Just after 7 a.m., nearly 200 college students from around the country walked into a meeting room at the Marriott Marquis in New York City to join us for the inaugural NRF Foundation Student Program and learn about career pathways in retail.

Karen Katz of Neiman Marcus at Executive Mentor Experience at Student Program 2018
Karen Katz of Neiman Marcus (second right) speaks to students at the Executive Mentor Experience at Student Program 2018.

That was five years ago, and the Student Program has grown tremendously since then — more than 1,000 college students are projected to attend in 2019. While the increased attendance certainly speaks to the program’s popularity among college students nationwide, what strikes me most about this experiential learning event is the deep retailer engagement. From our trusted Board of Directors to the retail champions that make up the Talent Acquisition Group (TAG), more retailers than ever are attending the Student Program to mentor, share career advice and recruit our students.

This year’s students are eager to connect with these retailers through educational sessions such as the Executive Mentor Experience, entrepreneurship panel and inspirational keynotes, and we can’t wait to expose them to new experiences that will prepare them for a retail career in today’s landscape. Here’s what I’m most excited to share with students at the 2019 Student Program:

Supply chain and technology-focused sessions

As technology continues to drive the industry and new and sophisticated supply chain models emerge to meet consumer expectations, the demand for top talent in these areas has grown tremendously. This year’s Student Program will include more than 300 attendees majoring in supply chain and computer science. These students will have access to an exclusive “Tech Talk” with technologists from The Home Depot, Walmart, Wayfair and more, as well as panels that include innovation managers and software engineers from brands like PetSmart and Nike. Retail giants are tech giants — and we can’t wait for the students to see this firsthand.

Retailer-led “tours and talks” around New York City

Rebecca Minkoff smart mirror
Smart mirror at Rebecca Minkoff's SoHo store.

As ecommerce has evolved within the retail industry, so have bricks-and-mortar stores. Last year we hosted a “Tour and Talk” with Rebecca Minkoff at her SoHo store location, which features “smart mirror” technology. The results of this minor addition to the Student Program were major: We learned that students have a keen interest in understanding more about the in-store experience. As a result, we have expanded the “tour and talk” concept — and retailers have embraced the idea with arms wide open. This year, Kohl’s, Macy’s, PetSmart, The Home Depot, FAO Schwarz and will host groups of students for a private tour of their NYC (and surrounding) locations to learn more about career paths and opportunities.

A mixed bag of brands

If you ask a college student who they want to work for, they will most likely name a brand they patron frequently, one whose mission statement they believe in or one their parents will recognize and respect. One of the Student Program’s great successes is its ability to persuade students to pursue careers at companies they may not readily think of. In fact, six in 10 students often identify different retail companies they’d be interested in working for after attending the Student Program. By positioning big-name brands such as Amazon, BJ’s Wholesale Club, H&M, Kroger, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Nike and PetSmart along with newer, breakout brands such as Bonobos, Mented Cosmetics, Saje Natural Wellness, UrbanStems and Wayfair, students can see retail the way we do the industry includes online as well as bricks-and-mortar and offers a career path in virtually every field, for every major.

Important conversations on diversity and inclusion

More than the latest buzzwords, diversity and inclusion are top of mind for many of our retail career champions — and students. Through an important partnership with PwC, we’ll be able to teach our students how to “check their blind spots,” or unconscious biases, that can potentially influence behaviors in the workplace.

Retail’s largest hiring event for college students

A female student shaking hands with a Target recruiter
Career Fair at 2018 Student Program.

The Student Program takes place in January, and nearly eight in 10 students came to the program in 2018 without having a job or summer internship lined up. With almost 30 retail companies participating in the upcoming Career Fair, students don’t only have the opportunity to see what’s happening in the retail industry, they also get a real chance to be part of it. At the career fair, retailers will be interviewing and hiring for entry-level roles and internships that range from software engineering to store management to supply chain. Enabling students to connect with retail recruiters and empowering them to share their resume has led to countless job offers and success stories like Garrett Ledbetter and a group of former students who got the chance to sell their product on HSN.

As the new year approaches, I look forward to the 2019 NRF Foundation Student Program with similar anticipation as in 2013. Only this time, it isn’t because I’m uncertain about whether students will show up. This time, I’m hoping there are enough seats for as many college students as possible to learn what we already know: Retail has the most exciting career opportunities of any industry, and its future — especially with these 1,000 students in it — is particularly bright.