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As fall semester of her senior year drew to a close, Delawit Assefa was feeling discouraged. Despite a successful start to her supply chain management internship at a Fortune 300 company, pursuing numerous opportunities in her the field and going on several promising interviews, the business management major feared her job search wasn’t gaining traction. She took her concerns to her mentor, Adjunct Professor David Berdish.

“I promised her, ‘We will get you placed before you graduate in May. We’ll make this happen,’” recalls Berdish. His assurances quickly proved unnecessary. The very next day, Assefa learned her hard work had already paid dividends: The Fashion Scholarship Fund had selected her for a coveted scholarship and named her one of eight finalists – out 648 applicants – for their top award. “It was a huge opportunity for her,” says Berdish. “She bawled her eyes out when she found out. I think I did too.”

In January, Assefa traveled to New York City to present her case study to the FSF board of governors and fashion industry executives. Incredibly, she was not the only VCU student selected as a finalist. Jane Terrell, a fashion merchandising student from VCUarts, also was invited for an all-expense paid trip to the annual FSF Awards Gala. Both ultimately were selected to receive $15,000 academic scholarships.

A coveted fashion scholarship

Each year, the Fashion Scholarship Fund awards scholarships ranging from $5,000 to $35,000 to students from 62 member colleges and universities that offer degrees in fashion design, retail, and business. VCU is the sole FSF member school in Virginia. 

The FSF Case Study Scholarship proposes an in-depth student challenge focused on real issues facing the fashion industry. Students may approach the Case Study challenge from any one of four fashion disciplines, including:

·      design & product development

·      merchandising & marketing

·      analytics

·      supply chain

A winning idea that marries fashion and technology

“Each discipline had a different prompt,” Assefa recalls. “For supply chain, it was to create a collaboration between a fashion company and non-fashion company. My case study was centered around the fashion retailer Zara and Adobe.

“Adobe has this ‘bag of the future.’ It’s basically a digital smart bag. Since brick-and-mortar retail stores can’t really compete with online shopping, my goal was to bring Zara’s customers a better in-store experience and help Zara capture data to increase customer insights and significantly reduce their lead time.”

In an executive summary of her proposal, Assefa stated:

International retail store Zara … has outplayed every other fast fashion retailer with its impressive supply chain processes. Its six-week lead time, vertically integrated supply chain and highly customer-centered focus has set Zara apart from its competition for decades.

Zara’s collaboration with computer software company Adobe has the capability to change the way people shop with a ‘bag of the future.’ This smart shopping bag uses RFID and Bluetooth technology to automate the entire checkout process. Customers can put their items in the bag where radio frequencies ‘scan’ each item and keep a running total until customer simply ‘check out’ by removing the attached inner bag. Customers also will have access to all product information through Zara’s mobile app.

This collaboration will not only improve the customer experience but will also gather important data that has never been captured before. It will reduce inventory, gather unique customer insights and buying behavior, move information up the supply chain faster than ever, reduce customer and material lead time, and contribute to Zara’s focus on their omni-channel and customer-centered strategy.

VCU success story combines academics with mentoring

“When I first came to VCU, I was struggling to find where I fit best. I took a few business courses my first year and liked them. In my second year, I decided to concentrate in supply chain management and analytics. From there, I just needed to figure out what part of supply chain I wanted to get into. In Mr. Berdish’s Global Supply Chain Management class, I found a perfect fit between my passion for fashion and my interest in business.”

Helping students pursue their goals is a passion for Berdish, who returned to his alma mater as adjunct professor after a successful 30-year career as manager of Social Sustainability at Ford Motor Company.

“When I first started working at VCU, I saw more and more female students who were interested in fashion retailers and omnichannel distribution. One of my guilty pleasures is that I really like the fashion industry. As a supply chain person, I’m fascinated with it,” he says.

“I realized the best way for my business school students to gain access to companies like L’Oréal, Macy’s and Nike would be to collaborate with VCU’s fashion department. Supply chain management can sound pretty dull as a title, but it can take you to some pretty exciting environments with really cool companies.”

After learning of the FSF scholarship in Berdish’s class, Assefa approached him with her ‘bag of the future’ idea and asked if he would mentor her. Berdish coached her on numerous aspects of her case study, particularly research and cost benefit. After learning Assefa was a finalist and would be traveling to New York to present to fashion executives, Berdish enlisted help from his colleagues in the fashion department. “Presentations in the fashion industry are a lot different than those in business school,” he explains.

While in New York, Assefa also gained valuable access to FSF partner companies and corporate recruiters. “She met 12 or 14 companies that she’s interviewing with to get full-time employment,” Berdish reports.

“I never dreamed that I would be able to find a career that I was both passionate about and good at,” she says. “I’ve always tried to be independent, but this experience taught me the importance of making connections. I found a home and family in the School of Business. Mr. Berdish and so many others at VCU went above and beyond for me. Understanding that there are people who are invested in your success and willing to help is so important.”

“‘Creativity at work’ is essentially VCU’s brand,’” says Berdish. “What could be more creative than pursuing a business degree while collaborating with one of the best art schools in country and succeeding like she did? I’m so proud of her. I can’t wait to see where she goes. As alumnus of VCU, I want everyone at VCU to succeed. There are so many faculty members here like me. Our whole purpose is to nurture students and help them achieve their dreams.”

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