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How Fashion Can Build Its Own Tech Talent Pipeline

Waves of Silicon Valley layoffs may create an opportunity for companies in other industries to staff up. Retailers like Nordstrom are looking to the next generation by sponsoring college courses.
A new partnership between Nordstrom and Morehouse College will produce university courses such as Computing Career Exploration and Intro to Tech Product Management.
A new partnership between Nordstrom and Morehouse College will produce university courses such as Computing Career Exploration and Intro to Tech Product Management. (Shutterstock)

By early 2023, several Nordstrom executives will have added a new title to their resumés: College course curriculum writer.

Over the past year, a handful of leaders and technologists from the department store have been working with professors and faculty at Morehouse College, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Atlanta, to design a set of product management courses that will be offered at the school starting in January.

For Nordstrom, the objectives of the programme — a new curriculum track for the college sponsored entirely by the department store — are twofold: boost its employee diversity and recruit more, and better-prepared, tech talent in a historically challenging area for fashion.

“One of the gaps we see in the academic world is there just aren’t a lot of universities that are teaching product management,” said Jessica Agahi, Nordstrom’s vice president of product management. “These are lucrative careers for students coming out, and we’re having a hard time getting talent.”

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For decades, fashion firms have struggled to compete with tech giants to attract professionals who can help them keep up with an increasingly digital world where e-commerce websites and mobile apps are expected to run glitch-free. Few retailers could offer the lucrative benefits packages and fancy perks doled out by start-ups, or match Silicon Valley’s salaries and signing bonuses. Lately, they’ve also been on a recruiting drive to find developers who can outfit 3D avatars for the metaverse.

In the last month, a wave of layoffs across the tech industry — including at Microsoft, Twitter, Meta and Salesforce — has signalled at least a temporary pause in big tech’s decade-long hiring spree. November job cuts alone leave about 51,000 tech workers without jobs, per layoffs.fyi.

It remains to be seen whether those workers will give retail a chance, but the tech sector’s volatility opens up the possibility for fashion companies to better negotiate for talent, experts say. Even so, rushing to tap scores of seasoned tech professionals may not be the most effective way for many fashion firms to boost their product innovation.

Today, when fashion companies are able to land tech talent, they’re often choosing from a non-diverse candidate pool — for instance, only 8 percent of the US technology workforce is made up of Black technologists, per research from Brookings — for whom fashion may be an afterthought. What’s more, many of the areas where fashion products and processes need the greatest attention and innovation — such as sustainability and the metaverse — are still very nascent, meaning a lack of deep expertise exists in the first place.

The solution, experts say, lies at the very beginning of fashion’s corporate talent pipeline.

“Oftentimes, fashion programmes are a little behind what’s going on in the industry,” said Jessica Couch, co-founder of retail tech research firm Fayetteville Road and curriculum advisor for fashion technology programmes at Cornell University and Parsons School of Design. “And now that tech is catching up, it’s hard to really pinpoint the correct curriculum to give students.”

A Historic Need, A Critical Intersection

The professionals that will design innovative products for fashion companies — in areas such as merchandising, customer experience and order fulfilment — need academic and professional training that cuts across a range of disciplines. Many colleges and companies have failed to connect the dots, particularly when it comes to showing those in non-fashion programmes (like engineering, business and computer science) the breadth of opportunities available to them in the industry.

“This is the first step in making sure that you have an institution where students are learning about this and being prepared to go directly into those roles,” said Kinnis Gosha, executive director and chief research officer of the Morehouse Center for Broadening Participation in Computing who will help oversee the Nordstrom-sponsored courses at the college. “It’s been [challenging] because a lot of this is very interdisciplinary.”

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The Nordstrom and Morehouse partnership will offer courses such as Computing Career Exploration and Intro to Tech Product Management, and will feature the department store’s leaders and executives as regular guest speakers and “mentors,” the company said. Part of the programme’s curriculum will include a visit to a local Nordstrom store where students get to see “how technology is integrated into the everyday shopping experience,” said Gosha.

While the classes will be taught on Morehouse’s campus and led by the school’s faculty — in areas like computer science and engineering — students from more than a dozen schools that comprise the Atlanta University Center Consortium (including HBCUs Spelman and Clark Atlanta University) and the Atlanta Regional Council of Higher Education (including, Emory University, Georgia State University and Savannah College of Art and Design) can enrol.

A Chance to Diversify and Improve Fashion Tech

The decision to have the programme sit on the campus of an HBCU, though, is crucial for a number of reasons. For one, it signals a long-awaited acknowledgement by fashion companies of the value of Black students beyond purely creative roles. And, perhaps more than that, it represents a step-change in how companies engage with students at predominantly Black schools.

“A lot of companies come to Morehouse wanting to recruit our top students, but they don’t want to build partnerships with us,” Gosha said. “But this is a true partnership and we’re talking about the issues and [Nordstrom] is actually listening.”

To get the most out of a new academic programme that merges multiple disciplines — with technology at the centre — it’s important that industry leaders and college professors keep an open mind about everything from their expectations of students to the puts and takes of the coursework.

Fashion industry leaders will need to do their part to break down stereotypes “that equate retail with what you see at the mall” and they will have to challenge their own assumptions about the kind of person best suited to work in their tech departments, said Kyle Rudy, senior partner at executive recruiting firm Kirk Palmer Associates.

For instance, organisational diversity is a critical factor in driving product innovation but fashion companies will miss the mark if they fail to appeal to minority students or, in programmes like the one at Morehouse, aren’t able to help students majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and Math) see the fashion industry as lucrative and stable, he said. (It remains to be seen whether recent tech layoffs will disrupt the narrative that tech is a more secure career path.)

“What I’ve seen is that when we go into the HBCUs, oftentimes, the students feel pressured to go into STEM, even though they may be passionate about something more creative,” Couch said. “What we’ve learned from talking to students is that there isn’t a ton of awareness that you can have a STEM-based creative career.”

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It’s equally important for instructors and industry professionals to forgo assumptions and deep-rooted biases about the appetite and aptitude of Black and other minority students when it comes to tech-based careers and skills, said Brandice Daniel, founder and chief executive of Harlem’s Fashion Row.

“Black students are actually far more technologically advanced than I believe companies realise,” she said. “The innovation is there at HBCUs but so many companies aren’t tapping into it because it requires them to build a relationship with students.”

Since interdisciplinary functions and pathways like the one being developed by Nordstrom represent uncharted territory, industry professionals must be wary of “teaching at students” and be open to learning and listening, said Couch.

“A lot of these programmes use the traditional method of ‘I’m just going to be giving you knowledge in one direction,’” she said. “When this happens, they’re missing out on the talent, creativity, and the information that the students have … you need the professionals who can guide the students, but not cap their creativity.”

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