When not directing the National Retail Federation’s strategic initiatives and ensuring her industry is at the forefront of market trends, Ellen Davis heads the NRF Foundation and brings together educators and retailers to help develop career opportunities in retail for everyone from high school students to veterans. A valued partner of Barnes & Noble College, who recently sponsored a live-streamed NRF career event for college students, Ellen shared five minutes with us to offer her thoughts on a career that she loves, why Millennials want mentors and the surprising benefit of coloring books.
What was your first job?
My first paying job was de-tasseling corn on a farm in my hometown when I was fourteen years old, but I aspired to work in retail when I was very young. I think I’ve always loved the idea of working with people and the excitement of working in a store environment — and after doing manual labor on the farm, being in air-conditioning!
How do you describe your current role in your company?
My role is to help people find jobs that they love at any level, be that high schoolers looking for their first job, students who are trying to figure out what they’d like to do with their lives and careers, or veterans who are coming back into the workforce and trying to understand what opportunities exist for them in retail. The role of the NRF Foundation is to help people become successful and to help them find the kinds of rewarding, creative jobs they’ll love.
What specific projects are you working on right now?
We just came off of Retail’s BIG Show Student Program and our wildly successful Foundation Gala, which is our biggest fundraiser. Now, we’re planning ahead for 2017 – creating career opportunities for our various audiences and working on an initiative to promote tech in retail. It’s a pretty exciting time of year for us, right now.
What do you think is the most significant thing you’re learning about students’ attitudes towards a career in retail?
A lot of what we hear from students is this strong desire to be mentored — to find a company who will not just gives them a paycheck, but also offers them significant opportunities to grow and to learn. A message we’re constantly trying to get across is just how often those kinds of opportunities occur in the retail industry.
In your work with the nation’s top retailers, what role do you see Barnes & Noble College playing in helping to support student career preparedness?
I think the reach that Barnes & Noble College offers is truly just incredible. They not only offer great job opportunities in their campus bookstores, but they also offer fully supportive learning and development programs to help grow careers. There’s a lot of power in that. Barnes & Noble College is also positioned to be able to articulate some of the career opportunities available to students and help them bridge that sometimes very anxiety-ridden gap between school and the workforce.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
The thing I love about working for the NRF is that I’m working in an industry that I love — for a cause I believe in— so if I wasn’t doing this, I think I’d have to be working for another charity or another retail company.
Favorite part of our bookstore?
You would probably find me in the children’s section. I have two little boys and we read a lot. This past holiday season we had a gift exchange at work and a very popular gift this year was adult coloring books and colored pencils. I love that concept of being able to concentrate on something, but letting your mind go at the same time. I think that’s when you get some of your best ideas.
Favorite book or book you’re currently reading?
I’m finishing up my Executive MBA at Georgetown University, so most of my books are required reading at the moment. Next on my nightstand is Uncontainable, the autobiography of Kip Tindell of The Container Store. That’s going to be next up on my list after I graduate.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned in your career so far?
I’ve learned the importance of the need to listen to other people when they believe your potential is bigger than you yourself might realize. I’ve had some great mentors who have helped me take on different roles and enabled me to contribute in ways that I couldn’t have imagined without their insight.
Best day at the NRF?
In January 2015, we held our inaugural Fundraising Gala, and in that first year, brought in over one million dollars to help advance retail careers and help students find jobs. I think the impact we can make is so powerful, and to see our industry really come together in supporting career opportunities is really a testament to everything we’d been working towards.