Sarah Fowler came to the University of South Carolina and its Department of Retailing with an eye on a career in the world of fashion. As she prepares to graduate, that remains the plan, but technology has become a bigger part of her education and her future than she ever expected.
Fowler, who grew up in rural South Carolina not far from Columbia, attended the prestigious South Carolina Governor's School for Science & Mathematics in high school, but realized that she did not enjoy science or math enough to continue that path in college.
“I was looking at more creative programs that still kind of had job security. I was debating between business and the retailing program, and I ended up choosing retailing because it's basically a business degree, but a little more specialized and a little more fun,” she says.
Fowler chose to pursue retailing with a specialization in fashion merchandising and digital innovations, and quickly became fascinated by the increasing importance of technology in retail.
She learned about Adobe design tools and their uses in fashion merchandising, and that led to her choosing to minor in graphic design and discovering a range of new career options.
“There are so many jobs in fashion that I knew nothing whatsoever about,” she says. “Like art directors for brands and for fashion magazines. It’s a really good mixture between graphic design and typography and layouts and everything else.”
Fowler’s next big opportunity came thanks to her mom, who was first to spot the news that the university’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management would be leading the way in opening an Apple Authorized Campus Store, only the second in the nation to incorporate experiential learning into its business model.
“My mom was pestering me to apply. She kept saying, ‘Come on, you’ll get hired,’” Fowler says. She was less certain, with her previous work experience having been in fashion stores, but she listened to her mother’s advice. “I figured when in doubt, apply and see what happens.”
Her mother was right. After an interview process, Fowler was hired for the first team of student workers as part of the Gamecock iHub experiential learning model. Soon after, Store Director and Faculty Liaison Michael Watson and Store Manager Saundra Koesters chose her to be the store’s first team leader. She would later earn a promotion to keyholder.
“Sarah established herself as a leader by authentically connecting with her peers and by her consistent willingness to take on, elevate and successfully complete projects. In both cases, peer collaboration, and project development, Sarah contributed not only practical and measurable solutions, but meaningful ones that aligned with the Gamecock iHub's vision and core values,” Watson says. “She was a foundational element of our store's success from concept to creation, due to her persistence, insights and infectious energy. Her ability to successfully perform daily operational tasks and make connections, personally, professionally, creatively, allowed myself and Saundra to focus on our jobs knowing and trusting that the store and our customers were both seen and heard.”
Fowler, among the first hires, began work months before the store’s grand opening, at which she was chosen to speak, taking the stage along with dignitaries including South Carolina Interim President Harris Pastides.
“That in itself was a different experience than a regular internship,” she says. “And I was excited to work with Apple, a leading global brand that everyone knows.”
Fowler says that in addition to gaining valuable leadership experience, she found on the job and in her classes that the technology side of retailing is tied to fashion and every other kind of retail business, and becoming more and more important every day.
“The pairing is a big deal. In our retailing program you’re using technology all the time. I use JDA space planning. I use Adobe in both my major and my minor, and Adobe and Apple have a great partnership. Making a great experience inside a store has been changing into more of a technology. Like how can I make this innovative space inside of the store? So it's constantly interacting and I think it's great to have experience in both fields because they're colliding in many different ways.”
Fowler says the blend of traditional retailing and technological innovations helped make her career as an undergraduate student special.
“All that stuff has made UofSC a really great all-around experience,” she says. “I’m just really grateful for the experience and for the opportunity to do my internship at the store.”
While serving as Gamecock iHub’s team leader, Fowler never slowed down in the classroom. She will graduate summa cum laude this May, and earned the Department of Retailing’s Academic Excellence Award as a senior.
Koesters, who worked so closely with her at Gamecock iHub, says Fowler will be missed.
“Sarah is the epitome of the ideal student: passionate, hardworking, dedicated to learning, and an all-around fabulous person,” Koesters says. “She was instrumental in launching this innovative project and any store success was made possible because of Sarah and her team. We wish her the best in her future endeavors and look forward to watching her from our hub, the Gamecock iHub.”