Columbia semifinalist NRF teams show the Student Challenge is about much more than winning

By Lauren Leazenby, News Editor

Vicki Lei

For the first five weeks of the Fall semester, senior fashion studies major Amaiya Sims spent all day in class on Fridays and Saturdays. But the intense start to her semester was about more than completing assignments for a grade—Sims said her experience developing a pitch and business plan for a national competition was akin to having a job in the industry.

Sims and her classmates in the “Retail Competition” course spent five weeks working in teams developing pitches for the National Retail Federation Foundation Student Challenge, and two of the teams, including Sims’, have advanced to the semifinal round.

The members of the winning team will each earn a $6,000 scholarship.

“It was an experience that I’ve never really had before,” Sims said. “Of course, you work on group projects throughout high school and college, but I feel like what’s different about this is that it makes you feel like you’re working at a job.”

In the NRF Foundation Student Challenge, teams from member schools compete with pitches to retail giants like Nordstrom, Target and the television network HSN.

Sims said each team developed a product and a business plan, envisioning their group as a small start-up company. They picked a retailer in which they would launch their product, then researched financial trends and consumer behavior to create a cohesive pitch with a video.

Sims’ team chose HSN. Their pitched product line idea—though still under wraps—includes exercise equipment with a “twist.”

Sims, who is also an entrepreneurship minor, said the experience was a great opportunity to collaborate with students from various departments including fashion, graphic design and marketing.

“[The professors] really try to comprise a team of people from different competencies, backgrounds [and] majors and create a well-rounded group to put forth the best case possible,” Sims said. “Even if you don’t make it to the competition and the final round, the most rewarding piece for me was being able to network, making connections and providing me with skills that I will be able to use in the real world.”

Laly Viveros, a senior cinema arts and science major, said she credits the strength of her team to a similar blend of disciplines.

Viveros said throughout the course she worked with students with backgrounds in fashion merchandising and animation to create a pitch for Target that focuses on the current roller skating trend.

The NRF Foundation Student Challenge was just that—a challenge, Viveros said.

Due to COVID-19 precautions, the students had to work together remotely for most of the five weeks. Even so, they were able to create deliverables that pushed them to the next round of the competition.

“As a student, you don’t really get to have an experience like this right off the bat, so it’s something that I’m excited to put on my resume or talk about in job interviews,” Viveros said.

Of the five teams in the course, work from just two can be submitted to the challenge. Associate professor in the Fashion Studies Department Dana Connell said while this year’s decision was tough, all of the teams receive the benefit of feedback from industry professionals.

“Unfortunately, the rules are we can only send two teams,” Connell said. “If you do a good job, if you work hard—just like in so many other of your hands-on, applied classes at Columbia where you’re building your body of work—this is yet another piece … you can put in your portfolio.”

Historically, Columbia teams have done well in the challenge, Connell said. In 2018, students took home first- and second-place wins, as reported by the Chronicle.

Currently, both the Target and HSN teams are working to revise their pitches ahead of a video conference with the challenge’s judges in early December.

From there, the judges—who are industry executives—will choose three semifinalist teams to move onto the finals.

Associate professor and associate chair of the Communication Department Peg Murphy co-taught the “Retail Competition” course.

The competition simulates what it is like to work in the industry, Murphy said, and Columbia students often succeed because they go above and beyond.

“They’re willing to do that extra work,” Murphy said. “Like it does in the real world, you don’t just turn it in once for a grade and it’s over. It lives, it breathes, the client gives input, things change and that’s life. So, it’s good professional practice.”

Murphy also said it is a good opportunity for students to make connections outside of their bubble.

“For the students, this teaches them … you need everybody,” Murphy said. “You need people that can run the numbers, you need people that can shoot beautiful and make beautiful things [and] you need people that can do the consumer insight work and the strategy work. So, Columbia, I always say, is at our best when we’re together.”

In addition to Sims and Viveros, semifinalists included Eryn Jones, Alfred Pell and L’oren Parker on the Target team, as well as Ben Sill, Brittany Wilson and Kristen Kirschbaum on the HSN team.