Marketing & Communications  

AQ Grad Takes on Product Management for The North Face

In a dynamic, ever-changing job market, diversity of knowledge and experience are important factors when seeking out employment. After graduation, many students discover their liberal arts education empowers them to be successful in wide-ranging fields. At Aquinas College, student development is a key part of formation, creating effective leaders and inspiring minds to attempt new challenges. Take Laura Zimmerman, Aquinas alumna and product manager for women’s outdoor at The North Face headquarters.

A 2007 graduate of Aquinas College, with majors in English and art, Zimmerman hails from Grand Rapids. Following her graduation, Zimmerman moved to San Francisco, California, and began working retail for The North Face, a company producing outdoor gear, coats, equipment, and more. “I moved to San Francisco because I had a friend from AQ who had moved out for a job at GAP corporate,” Zimmerman said. “I had an interview with the GAP that fell through, and ended up working in The North Face retail store downtown.”

While working at the retail store, Zimmerman quickly made an impression on those around her. In three months’ time, she made connections with employees at The North Face corporate offices, and it was during this period she expressed an interest in the work done at headquarters. Soon, she was transitioning into other work for the company. “I started working in the color department as an assistant, basically entering in information, then I became a color analyst, which means I looked at all fabrics under two light sources to make sure the colors matched outside as well as indoors,” she said. “When a product coordinator position opened up, I applied - and from there I've moved up to product manager.”

What does a product manager do, exactly? “The season starts out by me preparing the briefs for our designers, which give them parameters to design within, for example price points, feature sets, competitor products to get inspiration from,” she said. “Then the designers design their jackets, and I review the designs with a large group to verify if it's commercially viable.” The work is time-consuming and challenging.

Zimmerman’s responsibilities don’t end there. “We go through several design reviews, until we can agree on a seasonal language,” she said. “From there we start to prototype the garments, getting actual samples in the fabric we are going to use. We create a workbook with all relevant information that we're responsible for getting accurate, and we have a large sales meeting where I present the products in a runway show in front of about 400 sales people.” In short, Zimmerman works on with potential products from what she described as “conception to completion.”

While Zimmerman’s life post-graduation has been a success, the outcome wasn’t nearly as obvious to her when she first began planning for the future. When asked if she had once seen herself doing this kind of work as a graduate, she admitted she hadn’t. “I didn't honestly imagine myself doing anything career-wise in school or when I graduated,” she said. “I really struggled with picking a major and trying to decide my life path. What I ended up doing to finish college and stay on track without getting discouraged was to take classes I really enjoyed, like English and art. I figured as long as I was doing something I was interested in, I would end up in the right place. I believe that really paid off for me.”

At Aquinas, Zimmerman built relationships. Of particular fondness to her are memories of studying abroad. “I knew I wanted to study abroad and hoped to make friends there,” she said. “I went to Ireland, and made some (hopefully) lifelong friends.” In her experiences, Zimmerman developed a passion for the Dominican charism of service. Since graduation, this passion has been maintained and her employer also appreciates its value. “Service, and giving back, is something that's important to me,” she said. “I've volunteered at local museums and parks. The North Face gives its employees three service days, in addition to their vacation; they also sponsor volunteer days to go help clean up a local community or park that I've participated in.”

As for unique challenges as a North Face employee, Zimmerman described learning to coordinate many responsibilities without getting too stressed or feeling overwhelmed. “My job is incredibly fun and interesting on a daily basis, but I'm responsible for a lot of moving parts of the process,” she said. “We are on a tight calendar of deadlines that we have to hit weekly or our product doesn't get into the stores on time. It takes a lot of trusting yourself to make the right choice, and have a team that is understanding when you do make mistakes, because everyone does.”

Having experienced success following graduation, Zimmerman hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to be an undergraduate student: taking classes, thinking about the future and wondering anxiously what it holds. She offered some advice for students on the cusp of graduating. “Don't stress about what you are going to do when you graduate, just get through school; you can always go back,” she said. “Take classes that you are passionate about, and do the best you can in them.”