Tory Burch with NRF Foundation student program participants.

As executive director of the NRF Foundation, the National Retail Federation’s nonprofit arm, Ellen Davis focuses on finding and developing the next generation of retail leaders — and she’s inspired by the new talent in the pipeline. Here, Davis shares her perspective on the current state of retail and why she’s optimistic about the future as well as goals of the foundation’s upcoming gala.

WWD: What is the NRF Foundation?

Ellen Davis: The NRF Foundation focuses on identifying, inspiring and developing the next generation of retail talent at all levels, from entry-level hourly associates to full-time, corporate career paths for college students.

WWD: Do you have difficulty convincing college students to consider working in retail?

E.D.: It doesn’t take a lot to convince them once they understand what the career opportunities actually are, but there are a lot of young people who never consider a career in retail because they worked in retail once and they think they know what retail looks like. For these students, who may be pursuing degrees in marketing, finance or technology, our focus has been helping them understand that those jobs exist within the retail industry. That’s what our Student Program, happening this coming week in New York at NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show, is designed to do.

WWD: What will the students in the upcoming student program experience?

E.D.: The Student Program brings about 800 students to New York for career advice and inspiration from some of the top retail executives in the industry, and to learn important tools like financial literacy. The program also connects participants with several mentors to get career advice and learn about what it is really like to work in the industry.

The Student Program at Retail’s Big Show last year.  Courtesy image.

WWD: How do retailers get involved with the students?

E.D.: Our Student Program is successful because of the dedication and commitment of our retail executives. Many volunteer to speak at these events because it offers them a chance to give back to the industry and develop the next generation. But many also participate because it helps them locate and recruit talent. There are 800 students that would be difficult for them to reach otherwise.

The mentor experience is a vital part of the program, and it’s been incredible to see so many c-level executives volunteer to spend a couple of hours talking to our students. I think the mentors get as much out of it, if not more than, as the students do. It makes them feel inspired by who’s coming next, but it also gives them a chance to feel like they’re contributing to something bigger.

WWD: What about the entry-level job seekers you mentioned? What programs do you offer for them?

E.D.: We launched our Retail Industry Skills and Education program, or RISE Up, about a year ago with a credential called Retail Industry Fundamentals, and last year we put 10,000 people through training. Through RISE Up, we help identify people who might have barriers to entry, who might have had a difficult time finding a job or keeping a job. This program provides them the right training and a credential that can make that process easier. Our goal in 2018 is to scale this significantly and increase the number of people in the program.

WWD: How does this program specifically help retailers?

E.D.: From a business perspective, individuals with these credentials are better prepared for a job in retail, and they’re more likely to stay in that job longer. With low unemployment in the United States, one way to find employees is to look for those that are interested in work but may have barriers to entry. RISE Up is designed to help people who are looking for their first job or their second chance get into the retail industry. Through this program, we’re actually lifting people up and bringing them into the workforce.

WWD: The NRF Foundation Gala is set for this Sunday, Jan. 14. What exactly is the gala?

E.D.: The Gala is a celebration of retail. It’s a way for people to come together to celebrate the industry…both those who are making a difference and to recognize the next generation. This year we’ll be honoring “The Visionary,” awarded to Doug McMillon from Walmart. We will also recognize individuals on The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future and award several scholarships to people who are interested in pursuing retail careers.

From a fund-raising perspective, the Gala also helps raise money to support our programs and initiatives throughout the year. Through tremendous support from retailers and solution providers, everyone from American Express and PwC to Hershey and Google (who are sponsoring the reception this year) and the 850 c-level executives who will attend the event, we’ve already raised $2.6 million. It’s been truly inspiring to see the industry and the partners of the industry come together to give back.

Mark Parker, ceo of Nike; Kobe Bryant; Mindy Grossman, formerly ceo of HSNi and chairman of the NRF board, pose with student scholarship winners at the 3rd Annual NRF Foundation Gala in 2017.  Courtesy image.

WWD: There have been a lot of headlines recently touting the death of malls and that retail’s dying. What is your perspective on this?

E.D.: People that work in retail are very confident in its future. They know it’s going through a transformation, and so do students. Most of us, including students, see this as an exciting time of change in the industry — nobody wants to go into an industry that’s done the same thing for the last hundred years.

The challenge is that the media positions retail as a battle between stores against web sites, with one destined to defeat the other. The reality is neither is going anywhere. From our perspective, it’s all retail, and we know from this holiday season that retailers are doing a good job of evolving to appeal to today’s customer, wherever they are and however they want to shop.