Reinventing Retail In 24 Hours: The Baker Center Ideathon 2022


The hackathon-style competition challenged students to pitch bold business for MCM Worldwide, based on real-life data from the famed luxury

The Pressure Was On

On Friday, September 30 th , an Inn at Penn ballroom was transformed into a creativity think-tank. It was the Baker Retailing Center Ideathon, where student teams competed for a total of $30,000 in prize money. In the 24-hour hackathon-style event sponsored by luxury brand MCM Worldwide, judges presented retail challenges for which teams would have to come up with polished presentations by morning. The luminous, neon-lit space was abuzz with excitement and anticipation. Student groups reclined on beanbag chairs, talking animatedly or listening attentively, framed in the glow of their electronics. The ten teams had given themselves colorful monikers such as Team Bunny,the Power Nappers, the M&Ms, Hexagon, and Baker Besties. Plentiful sweet and salty snacks abounded, sustaining the contestants through the marathon event. Later, there would be a dinner; a game room with virtual reality, ping-pong, and air hockey; inspiring talks and mentoring from industry experts; and a late-night dance party with DJ Hummus, as well as quiet spaces to work, nap, or just chill. Outside the ballroom, an Ideathon photo backdrop awaited the smiling faces of the four lucky (not to mention talented!) teams who would walk away with prizes.

Inspiration From the Top

The students were treated to a fireside chat with MCM’s Dirk Schoenberger, Global Creative Officer, and Misa Hylton, Global Creative Partner. The executives shared insights into the world of a high-powered fashion house. Schoenberger traced the origins of MCM back to hedonistic, disco-fueled 1970s Munich. MCM has always been deeply connected to the music scene, he said, including punk, new wave, the club scene, hip-hop, K-pop, and rap. A relatively young luxury brand, it has transcended industry concepts, introducing non-traditional items like backpacks into the luxury space. Today the brand is a heady brew of German, Asian, and American influences. “I always think about the brand as an airplane,” Schoenberger said. “MCM fashions are for people on the move.” Formerly creative director at Adidas, Schoenberger joined MCM in 2018. He said he was drawn to the company because of his career-long interest in melding different kinds of styles. “I have really looked into this idea of traditional tailoring and fashion, but also the deconstruction of the wardrobe through sportswear and streetwear.”

Joining Schoenberger was designer Misa Hylton, who since the 1990s has styled hip-hop and R&B artists including Lil’ Kim, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Combs, and Missy Elliott. A pivotal moment in her career was being tapped to design an MCM custom outfit for Beyonce for her 2018 Apesh*t music video. “I had no idea what it was for,” she said, noting that Beyonce’s new projects are always kept secret. “And I had to get it done in three days, and ship it to Paris on Memorial Day weekend.” Hylton designed an ensemble that included a bustier, jacket, and matching hat and earrings decorated with the MCM logo. She was ecstatic when she discovered the look had been used in both the video and the marketing stills. “I almost passed out [when I realized],” she said. “It was everywhere: Times Square, LA, every train station, every bus stop. It was a magical moment.” Praising Hylton’s talent, Schoenberger commented, “Really giving the key to the house—giving you, Misa, whole creative freedom—is one of the great assets of MCM.”

A Peek At the Fast-Moving World of Retail Tech

Speaking next was Cathy McCabe, Co-Founder and CEO of the London-based retail tech firm Proximity Insight. A cornucopia of notable brands use Proximity’s services, among them MCM Worldwide, Gap, Mikimoto, Tumi, Selfridges, Orlebar Brown, and Lafayette 148. McCabe explained that Proximity Insight is the only native clienteling solution built on Salesforce, and that it enables a business’s retail staff to see a complete customer profile—merging physical and digital touchpoints—on an intuitive interface. With all the ways to serve customers today—whether online looking at products, shopping in the physical store, or via a live stream—she said, “How do you actually join it all up so that you can know who that customer is, what they like, and why they’re interacting with the brand?” Proximity Insight provides data, insights, and analytics to help firms pinpoint this critical understanding.

The technology also helps sales associates become more productive and efficient, McCabe said. “Instead of spending 15 minutes crafting an email or sending multiple WhatsApp messages, we give them the scale to do that really quickly” through an automated program. McCabe shared some of the challenges facing technology companies. “We are constantly [evaluating] what’s hype and what’s not,” she observed. “Blockchain, AI, augmented reality, metaverse. How do we stay abreast of all of that so that we can help our brands to be successful?” She left the Ideathon students with an inspirational thought: “Entrepreneurs [like myself] are very diverse. In my early fifties I didn’t think I was going to be running a tech company. So, anyone can have an idea, and anyone can really bring that to fruition.”

And the Winners Are…

The Power Nappers (1 st place) and the Baker Besties (2 nd place) won the first challenge. For the second challenge, there was a tie for first place between The Usual Suspects and the Techno Bears. The excited winners took turns posing with a large presentation check—shoulder to shoulder with MCM’s Schoenberger and Hylton—against the neon-studded Ideathon photo backdrop. Techno Bears team member Thea Ngo, a Wharton undergraduate senior, described her team’s business concept: “There is a lot of heritage in hip-hop for MCM. So why don’t we make music their identity, and expanding it further to pop, R&B, and soul, as secondary music categories.” She believed the Techno Bears had garnered their win because “it’s not just one initiative. It’s about creating a DNA that will resonate with consumers of today.” Ngo added that she had a great time at the Ideathon. “I came here not having a team yet, and bumped into some friends. We got to work closely together, and it was a very collaborative experience, just shooting ideas and talking to a lot of amazing mentors who know the business very well.”

The Usual Suspects team members were all students in Penn’s Integrated Product Design (IPD) program. Team member Alexa Chomat summed up their winning idea: “To create a digital community, where a social token would give customers access to a tight-knit group of like-minded individuals that all share the same values and espouse MCM’s values.” Georgina Chiou credited the win to the thoroughness of her team’s research and presentation. “We spent a lot of time working out every single bit of our idea… including all of the fine visual details as well as the conceptual details.” Team member Madeline Warshaw, a former designer for Martha Stewart, thought the Ideathon was “great training” for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Opportunities like this are so amazing to get that practice for conceptualizing, pitching, and fully fleshing out an idea in such a short amount of time. Super useful for the future.” All in all, Ideathon 2022 was clearly memorable for all who participated—getting their creative juices flowing and challenging them to sharpen their retail innovation skills.