At UNF, Transportation and Logistics junior Blake Parrish learns the science of getting products from here to there. At Stein Mart’s headquarters downtown, he sees how raw material becomes a dress that makes its way to a store rack in Jacksonville and eventually to a customer’s closet. “This is what we talked about in class,” he often tells his mentor, Rick Schart, the company’s senior vice president of supply chain and e-commerce.
Parrish was one of 36 Coggin College of Business students this spring who were part of the competitive Coggin Mentor Program that matches students with business professionals to gain real-world experience and knowledge from those in the field. “I know students at schools that don’t have this. They learn what they learn in their classes,” Parrish said. “At UNF, they help us get internships and into mentor programs. That sets UNF apart because it really prepares students for graduation.”
Since the program started in 2009, qualifying standards have gotten tougher, according to Shannon Italia, founding director of the College’s Career Management Center. “It takes a lot of self-confidence to put yourself in the pool to be considered,” she said. “It’s become something students aspire to.”
In addition to the clear value to students, the program connects alumni, stakeholders and decisionmakers in the business community with the College, but there have been a few adjustments.
“In the early years, we were pairing senior level executive-types with a large majority of the students, but much of this generation is more peer-inspired,” said Italia, who interviews prospective mentees. “Now many are more likely to desire someone who was here not that long ago that they can relate to better.” It’s that ability to relate that is paramount to a successful partnership.
A common bond
“What interested me the most about the program was that I would be able to match up with another professional within the community who could actually relate to me and what I am going through,” said Leang Lim, a past mentee. Lim, who is from Cambodia, was matched up with Sichao Ni, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in China. Ni was a mentee in the inaugural year of the program and has since mentored two first-generation students from other countries.
Ni’s story was similar to other international students here at UNF. He was 8 years old and could not speak English when he moved to the U.S. with his parents. They settled in Jacksonville and Ni progressed through the public school system, excelling in English by fifth grade.
“I can relate to him,” Lim said. “I came here with my parents, same as he did, and I was in the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program. So I feel more comfortable telling him my story and he is understanding.”
During her mentorship, Lim spent a lot of time at Medtronic, the medical device company where Ni works as a program marketing specialist. He got her involved in its Asian and women’s employee resource groups. “I thought it was very important for her to understand the importance of diversity and how that comes into play in the corporate environment,” said Ni, who received two BBAs in 2012 and an MBA in 2014 from UNF, and is currently working on a master’s in international relations from American University in Washington, D.C.
Ni charged Lim with coming up with discussion topics for their meetings. “One of the biggest things I wanted to learn from him was networking. I really enjoyed it when he introduced me to his co-workers and invited me to some of their events, like the women’s events,” Lim said.
“I told her I will schedule the meetings but that’s it,” Ni said. “I’ll talk for no more than 10 minutes, then it’s your turn to engage my colleagues in whatever you want to talk about.”
“I really got to see the work environment and how people interact with each other,” Lim said.
Lim, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in finance, now works full time at Fidelity Information Systems and plans to ultimately pursue a master’s degree. Like most who have gone through the program, the two keep in touch and continue to talk about their future plans and goals.
For Carolyn Mathis, a partner at Harbor View Advisors and a Coggin mentor, the matching of students and their business partners is critical and one of the key reasons the Coggin Mentoring Program is effective.
In fact, Mathis’ mentorship was so successful that she ended up hiring her mentee. Shatara Francis-Troy, ’10, ‘13, who was paired with Mathis in 2012-13 while a graduate student, is now a vice president at the Ponte Vedra investment banking and consulting company.
Francis-Troy grew up in the Bahamas and didn’t know much about UNF. She just knew that Florida was the farthest she would travel from her close-knit family for school. “I picked it off the internet. I’d never been to Jacksonville,” she said. “From the start, it was so welcoming.” Her goal was to return to her homeland to run her father’s HVAC installation and service business. “He knew I wouldn’t,” she said.
After working at Fidelity Investments for a year after graduation, Francis-Troy returned to UNF for an MBA, torn between accounting and finance. “I wanted to be a part of the mentor program because I wanted to connect with someone on the other side, someone who made those decisions and saw how they played out in life,” she said.
Mathis spent 20 years on Wall Street including 12 with Goldman Sachs & Co. “I came into this knowing what I wanted to learn from her [Mathis],” said Francis-Troy. What I did not expect was how she filled gaps I had not realized in my development and my understanding of my career.”
“I was impressed with her immediately,” Mathis said. “Ours was successful because Shatara came into the relationship with good ideas about what she was hoping to get out of it, and she was the one who initiated our meetings.”
During the official first year of their mentorship, Mathis was careful to remain a mentor and not become a recruiter.
After the mentorship ended, Mathis invited Francis-Troy to get experience in investment banking at her firm.
“Without the mentor program, Carolyn and I never would have met and I wouldn’t have known that investment banking is something I like and am actually good at,” Francis-Troy said. “Investment banking appealed to my personality much more than I expected it to.”
Mathis said the program is an excellent way to connect students with the business community. “It’s a very strong program that gives them a better perspective of the real world and what the industry is like in their field of interest.”
From point A to B
Rick Schart, who serves on the Coggin College of Business Advisory Council, has been involved with the mentor program since its inception. Shortly after he moved to Jacksonville to help build Stein Mart’s supply chain team, he learned about UNF’s logistics program and contacted the University for potential hires. A year later, he signed up as a mentor.
Like most mentors, Schart maintains that he gets as much out of the program as the students do. “It’s fun to meet with these bright and energetic young people,” said Schart, who hired two of his mentees at Stein Mart. “I’ve been out of school over 40 years, but keep trying to learn every day. They help me with that.”
Schart’s most recent mentee, Blake Parrish has been interested in logistics since he was a child. The two met every couple of weeks, and Parrish quickly found that what he saw and learned visiting Schart at Stein Mart often coincided with what he was studying in class. “My corporate view of the world is a lot broader than what some of the other students experience,” Parrish said. “I’m able to sit in meetings with Rick and hear day-to-day problems and how they solve them.”
Parrish often would ask Schart to elaborate on concepts that he heard but may not have fully understood. In addition to bringing Parrish along on his meetings, Schart also arranged for him to shadow other employees. “Some of the younger people are out of college a year or two, so he could see what the first job looks like when you come out of school,” Schart said. “They are doing some pretty important stuff.”
As the head of supply chain, Schart moves products across the globe to Stein Mart racks all over the country. “There’s some science and art to getting that dress from wherever it was made to the store,” he said.
Schart is always pleased to share his experiences with students who are eager to learn, which he believes ultimately helps bring more seasoned professionals into the industry.
“Coggin’s transportation and logistics program is right up there with the top programs in the country,” Schart said.
“I feel lucky to have that pipeline of students.”
Since the Coggin Mentor Program began in 2009, 275 students have been matched with local business professionals — many of whom were UNF graduates.