The 24-hour competition pushed students of all backgrounds to practice teamwork, experimentation, and forward thinking as they brainstormed brand solutions for Ralph Lauren.

The Sheraton University City Hotel was a flurry of activity on January 24–25 for the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center’s first IDEATHON 2020. For 24 hours straight, students across Wharton and Penn joined forces with dedicated coaches, mentors, and lots of free coffee to solve one of three brand challenges issued by Ralph Lauren.

After pitching to judges, one team assigned to each challenge — personalization, retail experience and technology, and mobile — was awarded $10,000.

“For years in engineering, we have used hackathons to provide high-energy and engaging sessions of creativity and collaboration,” said long-time Wharton Lecturer and Engineering Entrepreneurship Prof. Jeffrey Babin. “The IDEATHON 2020 capitalized on the hackathon keys of short-form and intense sessions of creativity, collaboration, and outcomes in the retail context to deliver an amazing experience for students interested in marketing, branding, merchandising, and operations.”

Photo by Sara Rex.

Supplementing the Classroom

Rima Reddy, WG’22, is studying entrepreneurship and innovation, and marketing. Her team won the retail and technology challenge with their idea to put QR codes on in-store products that would lead shoppers to social media posts from influencers styling that product.

“It was great to have the IDEATHON supplement what we’ve been learning inside the classroom,” she said. “One technique for creative idea generation we learned in class is ‘brainwriting,’ where each member of the team comes up with three to five ideas on their own before the whole team discusses potential solutions. We put this into practice during the competition and felt like our ideas were much more creative. In the end, we actually combined several ideas from our team together to create our final solution.”

“It was an amazing experience working with a diverse team,” said fellow competitor Taheeb Sonekan, W’20, who’s studying economics, management information systems, and marketing. “We had many different thought processes and differences in the way we thought about things so it made for great idea creation.”

Judges (left to right): CIO Janet Sherlock and VP Digital Molly MacDougall of Ralph Lauren; Wharton professors Pete Fader, Undergraduate Vice Dean Diana Robertson, and Baker Retailing Center Academic Director Tom Robertson.

Students who used the opportunity to join interdisciplinary and diverse teams were able to expand on their experience of the typical class project. 

“The crunch of short time frames, deadlines, and the shorter fuses that come with lack of sleep can teach you about yourself and how you thrive, survive or nosedive in high-pressure team situations,” added Prof. Babin.

Inspiring Change in Retail

Ideathons have been rising in popularity as an alternative form of hackathons that don’t require coding skills. The Baker Retailing Center was inspired to bring the format to Wharton and Penn so that students of all backgrounds could be creative with their retail solutions.

For guidance, they brought in mentors like Steven Silverstein, WG’85, president and CEO of Spencer’s. Student teams could partner with a line-up of application programming interfaces (APIs), carefully selected based on their “stickiness,” or long-term relevance, for the retail industry. Many APIs at the competition supported personalization and mobile-enabled technologies to guide the customer journey.

Now that traditional retailers are fading out of the landscape, the IDEATHON 2020 was also looking forward. 

“The inception of the event was rooted in the need to bring about transformative change to the retail industry,” said Mina Fader, managing director of the Baker Retailing Center. “Successful entrepreneurs can cut through the chaos if they have good ideas, and ultimately use discipline and focus to commercialize a business. This is the kind of approach that we teach at Wharton.”

Designing the Space

From pop art installations to a neon bodega stocked by goPuff, the Baker Retailing Center and RethinkConnect collaborated to transform 11,000 square feet of space for more than 150 student participants. 

“Students were free to choose wherever they wanted to work, as long as they were working 24/7,” Fader said. “We also provided them with quiet work and restrooms, complete with yoga exercise balls and nappers to catch a few minutes of shut-eye.” 

Dana Randall, chief creative officer of experience design at RethinkConnect, said, “We want them to dream. These playful moments and quirky installations were meant to inspire creativity so they could think about ordinary things in different ways.” 

Gloria Yuen

Posted: February 25, 2020

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