Coming full circle: Future retail talent and industry CEOs sound-off

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For the 102nd edition of Retail’s BIG Show, it can be hard to find a true “first” for the event. But the NRF Foundation’s Student Program did just that on Saturday afternoon. The first-ever student program united the future talent of retail with some of the best CEOs in the industry. And in the end, it was safe to say both groups learned a lot from one another.

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay kicked-off the program which had over 200 students and faculty members representing schools from the NRF Student Association. His message was simple: the next generation of innovation in the industry included the students who sat before him. Referencing the heralded career path of Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren, Shay also noted, it doesn’t matter where you start in retail because the opportunities to find your dream job are endless.

Macy’s Macy’s VP of Talent Acquisition Anne Voller (left), talks life after graduation with Victoria Secret’s Erin Donley, Kohl’s Brittney Huppert, Macy’s Brian Malkin, and Belk’s Amanda Varnadore.

This idea carried over into the first panel of recent graduates who are already making their mark on retail. Moderated by Macy’s VP of Talent Acquisition Anne Voller, four NRF Student Association alumni discussed what it’s like to make their first steps in the real world. After replacing the cap and gown with professional business attire, each panelist suggested one key fundamental – to remember that every day is an interview, and networking symposiums like this one are an invaluable launching pad to a career in retail.

Covering their day-to-day responsibilities to their transition into full time retail careers, the panelists Erin Donley, Assistant Merchant at Victoria’s Secret, Brittany Huppert, Trend Coordinator at Kohl’s, Brian Malkin, Manager of Fine Watches with Macy’s and Amanda Varnadore, Human Resources Coordinator with Belk, shared tidbits of both optimism and caution. The fast-paced environment of retail cannot be simulated in the classroom, Malkin advised, but the team-building aspect of group assignments is a perfect fit for working with the different work styles each student will encounter once they enter into the workforce. But it might have been Donley’s advice that resonated best. “Know your strengths. It’s important to not become overly concerned with the opportunities you may or may not get. Focus more on what you’re good at that sets you apart from your peers and own it.”

This sage counsel was followed by thoughts from some of the brightest and tenured CEOs in the business. HSNi’s Mindy Grossman, Rent the Runway’s Jennifer Hyman, BJ’s Wholesale Club Laura Sen, and Tractor Supply Co.’s Jim Wright honed in on three key elements in the industry. Culture, communication and the appreciation of innovation are elements driving retail that won’t disappear anytime soon, they said. Sen reinforced the importance of communication skills at all levels in one’s career. “Communication is the key to everything. It establishes you as a person and your relationships with your peers. Thoughtful use of communication is key to success.”

NRF Foundation Executive Director Ellen Davis (left) discusses what makes one successful in retail with CEOs Mindy Grossman (HSNi), Jennifer Hyman (Rent the Runway), Laura Sen (BJ’s Wholesale Club), and Jim Wright (Tractor Supply Co.).

Recapping her transition to HSNi six years ago, Grossman revisited the comments from those who wondered why she moved to the brand. She felt that the next wave of retail revolved around the direct-to-customer experience that HSN could offer. So when a student asked which digital experiences should be highlighted on a resume, Grossman countered that it’s not a bad thing to know a little bit of everything. “I have to know enough about each area of business to ask the right questions. I don’t need to be an expert, but I need to know to ask the right questions.” And it was through the concept of what Grossman called “intra-preneurialism” – establishing a culture of open creativity that fosters avenues for internal growth – that has helped HSNi find much success with their associates at all levels.

In closing remarks, Wright stressed the importance of life-long learning and setting goals for establishing traits that would differentiate each student from others looking to start their career. Hyman reiterated this notion by explaining her own strong belief that “No means no – for now,” as in the feedback and constructive criticism from your peers who may initially say no to your ideas should fuel your food for thought. “As opposed to turning around and shutting down and saying no, engage them in a conversation. Ask, ‘What scares you about this?’ and ‘Why are you saying no?’  It enables you to transform your ideas into something better. You have to be willing to walk away and re-approach later on.”

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