Merchandising major Lauren Schmahl named NRF scholarship winner
Thursday, February 02, 2023
It was a Sunday evening in the middle of January and Lauren Schmahl was waiting for her name to be called from a stage in Manhattan. She’d just spent the weekend “in one room with the best and the brightest in the retail industry.” A senior in the Eskenazi School merchandising program, Schmahl was one of five college students in the nation to have reached the final round of the National Retail Federation (NRF) Foundation Next Generation Scholarship competition. Through this scholarship, the NRF Foundation has awarded more than $800,000 since its inception to juniors and seniors who plan to pursue careers in retail.
“Being in that room, listening to brilliant industry leaders was an incredible experience,” reflected the Indianapolis native, who had been preparing her dossier since last spring. “I felt humbled, empowered, grateful, and purposeful.”
Duly humbled, Schmahl had not made it to this stage by hewing to the tried and true. In a field that relies on moving units, Schmahl had had the audacity of proposing a goal of “end[ing] up with fewer products in our markets.” Furthermore, she had dared to suggest that companies prioritize people and purpose over profits. Far from disqualifying her, Schmahl’s insistence on inclusion, sustainability, and ethics in the retail industry earned her a place as one of the contest’s five finalists. (You can meet Lauren and the other finalists in this video produced by the NRF Foundation.)
Underwear with a higher purpose
For the first round of the competition, Schmahl had proposed two updates to Victoria’s Secret’s product offerings: both a broader shade range of “nude” underwear and a line of chest-binding undergarments.
Schmahl recognized that the lingerie purveyor was well poised for a refresh after its very public challenges stemming from exclusionary and male-oriented marketing. Schmahl’s innovations were designed to refocus the company’s commitment to the consumer in a way that would also expand its target market.
In addition to introducing shade inclusivity, Schmahl proposed that the company was well positioned to lead the industry in the development of chest-binding technology, an undersupplied market according to Schmahl. Her self-declared “passion” for the issue emerged from her high school friendships with people actively gender-transitioning. She learned that they sometimes experienced body dysmorphia or physical injury without appropriate foundation garments. “The only way they could do it was with compression tape or layered sports bras.”
Skin care that's more than skin-deep
Having surmounted the contest’s first hurdle with the Victoria’s Secret proposal, Schmahl pursued her goal for greater inclusivity in a case study for Nordstrom, which also wove in sustainability and ethics goals. “Just Good” was the name Schmahl proposed for an in-house skincare and beauty line. A suite of products for customers of all ages, genders, and skin tones, Just Good’s bona fides would include the Leaping Bunny, FSC, and B-Corp certifications, indicating its adherence to cruelty-free, environmentally friendly, and ethical business practices respectively. The line’s foundation makeup would be vegan, made in the US, and come in 40 shades. Having worked in a Nordstrom store herself, Schmahl felt personally invested in making any customer who came in the door feel welcome.
She was convinced that kind of accommodation was not only the right thing to do, but the profitable thing. “We’ve seen a big shift in buying patterns over the last few years,” said Schmahl. “Consumers are calling companies out on humanitarian and social justice issues. They want to shop with companies that are sustainable, that are people- and purpose-driven.”
Learning the ropes at Eskenazi
Having grown up with a service mentality, Schmahl says the notion of corporate responsibility comes naturally to her. Merchandising, however, was not her original field of study at IU. But it didn’t take long for the former biology major to realize that merchandising combined her passion for service and her skill for data analysis. Schmahl acknowledged how deeply her case study was informed by lessons learned from merchandising faculty, such as Mary Embry’s focus on sustainability and Minjeong Kim’s introduction of the concept of omnichannel innovation. Additionally, Schmahl said, “my experience in retail math, as well as planning and analysis, helped me to create an accurate financial analysis (six-month profitability forecast, annual profit loss statement, and promotional cost) for my product as well. Determining an accurate and extensive financial analysis for my product can be attributed to the IU curriculum.”
Merchandising faculty member Deb Pearson provided holistic preparation and support to Schmahl throughout the process and joined her for the honors in New York. “She reminded me of why I was being recognized and that I deserved to be up there,” Schmahl said.
“Lauren has a positive attitude towards everything she is involved in,” said Pearson. “She is simply an incredible individual who is smart, passionate, hardworking, and dedicated to doing her best.”
At home in the College
Schmahl has combined her merchandising major with a marketing minor from the IU Kelley School of Business. She appreciates her major’s placement within the Eskenazi School. “We have a lot of well-rounded individuals,” Schmahl said. “Beyond our studies being diverse, you meet people with a lot of different hobbies and experiences. The Eskenazi School celebrates difference and doing something unique.”
At the same time, she says, the school’s home in the College bespeaks the foundational integrity of the Eskenazi degree. “It was a relatively easy switch from biology to merchandising because the skills for a liberal arts degree are so transferable: I learned to be analytical and data-driven in the sciences and those skills are directly related to my planning classes,” Schmahl explained. “The same for the other soft skills I’ve acquired in earning a liberal arts degree: open-mindedness, communication, curiosity, and creative problem-solving.”
Going forth, with purpose
Schmahl came off the stage January 15 with a $10,000 scholarship and a renewed sense of purpose. “It was a great privilege to listen to everyone share their countless accomplishments (and failures),” she reflected. “I feel empowered by the incredible women that I listened to, spoke with, and stood beside. I feel empowered now to use this new platform of mine to make my own mark on large fashion retailers and their current practices -- as a student and as a woman.”
When she graduates in May, Schmahl plans to move to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago to pursue her career in the retail industry. While she’s becoming a retail CEO, she hopes to keep modeling, a side hustle she has picked up over the last few years. “It’s fun to be on the creative side of the fashion industry too,” said the senior, who ended up walking in eleven shows during New York Fashion Week 2021. “I love meeting new people and hearing different stories, so modeling provides a complement to the more analytical work.”
Eskenazi students finish strong across NRF contests
Schmahl is the fifth Eskenazi student to be named among the top five NRF Foundation Next Generation Scholarship finalists in the last seven years: merchandising major Sarah May was one of the contest’s five national finalists in 2022; Annie Hope Mazzola placed in 2020's top five; Aine Mattera reached the NRF finals in 2019; and Makala Hill, in 2017.
Seven Eskenazi students submitted case studies for the 2023 competition, with three progressing to the semifinal level (the top 25 in the nation), including Cameron Christensen and Ethan Roos along with Schmahl.
Eskenazi students also excelled in this year's NRF’s Student Challenge, in which teams submitted case studies for Dicks Sporting Goods’ new Public Lands store. Working with merchandising program director Rick Bomberger, two teams progressed to the top 10 nationally, including Claire Potter, Cassie Driver, and Aubrey Williams on one and Kaya Tobias, Libby Kaibas, Neely Branham, and Zoe Zvonek on the other.