Dashawn Hightower grins broadly as a customer approaches him at Old Navy’s flagship store on 34th Street. The customer, a young man, has traveled all the way downtown from Harlem, where he first met Dashawn back in 2013 when he worked at the store on 125th Street. Four years later, the man regularly journeys almost 100 blocks to shop with Dashawn.
This is normal for Dashawn. Dozens of his longtime customers do this.
“It’s just amazing to feel that connection,” Dashawn says of his regulars, “to have that bond with a customer, that they come back just to see you because your customer service lit up their day or you make their day a little bit better.”
That kind of loyalty makes Dashawn a retail company’s dream.
Most of that positive attitude is just Dashawn being Dashawn. But how he became a customer magnet is part of a larger story taking place in over 300 Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic stores around the world. Four years ago, he entered Gap Inc.’s paid store internship program, This Way Ahead. Unlike most intern programs, which tend to show teens and young adults the door once their stint is up, Gap Inc. is hiring them at unprecedented rates—75% of interns get job offers—and seeing significant benefits. Employees hired from This Way Ahead stay with the company twice as long as their peers, reducing turnover costs, and their customers are thrilled.
“Honestly, in the field of workforce development, I don’t know of anything like it, not anything of this scale with this level of employer and corporate commitment, and with these kinds of success rates,” says Julie Shapiro, executive director of The Door, one of the many nonprofit groups that Gap Inc. works with in different cities to recruit and train candidates for the internships.
Coming from Shapiro, who has spent her entire career focused on job creation, that’s noteworthy. The story of how the program has excelled can serve as an important lesson for a retail industry currently in the midst of a historic struggle to retain employees.
The First Steps
This Way Ahead germinated back in 2006, when leadership changes at the company’s philanthropic arm, Gap Foundation, caused the organization to reevaluate its focus. Up to that point, the foundation mainly provided grants to nonprofit organizations—a traditional approach to corporate philanthropy. But after studying the work of various thought leaders, including Jane Knitzer at Columbia University’s Center for Children in Poverty, and Northeastern University’s Andrew Sum’s extensive research on how a first job could improve the career trajectory and earning potential of teenagers from low-income communities, the company decided to make job readiness and mentorship for teens and young adults one of their core strategic focuses.
“We acknowledged that there was a lot more we can do as a company when we thought about all the resources that we represent,” says Gail Gershon, the executive director of community leadership at Gap Foundation.
This Way Ahead’s pilot program started with 25 youths in New York City, and a modest goal: Give participants some experience to put on a résumé. The program was originally pitched to company leadership as a way to invest in youth. A couple of years after activation, though, the company discovered an undeniable benefit when it hired graduates from This Way Ahead. “What we started to see, both through the data and also through qualitative interviews and focus groups, was that these are amazing employees,” Gershon explains.
The former interns did a great job explaining new products, such as Gap’s stain-resistant fabrics, to potential buyers, meaning even more qualified employees on the sales floor.
With results like that, scaling up the program was a no-brainer. In 2017, This Way Ahead doubled the number of slots for the 10-week, paid internships at Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic stores, and expanded to two new cities for a total of 15 across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
“We have to go where the talent exists, and This Way Ahead is absolutely a talent play for Gap Inc. brands,” says Brent Hyder, the company’s executive vice president of global talent and sustainability. “I learned that early in my career as a store manager, and this is just a larger-scale manifestation of the same tactic: Find the best pool of talent and help them grow. These interns are incredibly talented and ambitious.”
Dashawn Hightower embodies that ambition. He first learned of the program when a recruiter came to his Harlem high school in 2013 and told him Gap Inc. would pay him to learn business acumen.
“I didn’t know what that meant,” remembers Dashawn, “but it seemed like something you needed to grow.”
Just getting to the training sessions, which teach participants how to construct a résumé and conduct themselves professionally, was a challenge. Because of his lengthy commute and having to drop off his two sisters at school, Dashawn had to wake up at 5 a.m., but he was raring to go. The son of a working single mom, he had been diagnosed with kidney cancer at the age 3, then gone on to beat it. The hardest part was convincing his mom, who was understandably overprotective, to let him go alone.
“She never let me do anything by myself,” he laughs.
It didn’t get easier after he started his internship at the Old Navy in Harlem. After he made a few mistakes on the job, Dashawn’s manager pulled him aside.
“She sat me down and had, like, a career conversation with me about what I wanted to do, because I was slipping a little bit,” he remembers. “She asked me, ‘What do you really want to do with this opportunity? There’s more to the store than just folding the T-shirts.'”
That early mentoring sparked Dashawn’s curiosity. He wanted to discover what that “more” was all about, and he reinvested. He ate up the attention and encouragement, got hired into a permanent position, and ran forward into a new role full of possibility, that of a leader. Dashawn doesn’t just attract customers to New York City’s flagship store; he now manages his own group of interns.
“I see myself in my interns,” he says. “People used to overlook me. ‘Oh, he’s just an intern. He’s not staying that long.’ But I see the drive they have. My interns come and work harder than most of my people who are seasonal.”
In the same way that those interns see Dashawn as living proof of the program’s success, Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic stores that don’t have This Way Ahead interns want in. Tracy Sartin, a regional director for Gap, oversees 118 stores across 15 states in the Midwest. In the three years since This Way Ahead came to Chicago, the number of stores with interns has doubled. For Sartin, who has worked for the company for 26 years, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “What’s really cool is I have my district manager saying ‘When do I get it in Minneapolis? When do I get it in Cleveland?'” she says. “There’s so much runway for what this program really offers.”
Ten years after This Way Ahead’s launch, the biggest challenge is to make sure that growth can keep up with demand. Perhaps it’s little surprise that, last summer, when Bob Fisher, the chairman of the board of Gap Inc. and the son of the apparel giant’s cofounders, Donald and Doris Fisher, walked into an Old Navy store in Chicago, the first thing he asked to do was meet with the interns.
Other companies are frequently reaching out to Gap Inc. to find out more about This Way Ahead and to ask how they can implement similar initiatives. Gap Inc. even worked with the White House Council on Community Solutions under President Obama to create a toolkit that other corporations can use to hire more talent from communities that are often overlooked. The company isn’t really worried about the competition stealing its internship knowledge.
“There are currently 5.2 million 16- to 24-year olds in the U.S. who are not working and are not in school,” says Gershon. “We can’t hire all 5 million.”
The company is certainly doing its part, though. Gap Inc. has committed to hiring 5% of all new entry-level store employees from This Way Ahead by 2025. And that is just the beginning. Says Sartin, “I think that [percentage] is conservative.”
It is still just the beginning for Dashawn Hightower as well. He is still discovering more “more” every day. Recently he was invited to speak at Old Navy’s Field Leadership Conference in Orlando, Florida. Thousands of store managers were in the audience, but Dashawn was focused on one attendee in particular: his mother.
“She cried the whole time because she was so proud of me,” he says. “For her to see me talk in front of 2,000 general managers, and for me to shout her out so everybody knows who exactly is my support system, it felt so good.”
This story was created with and commissioned by Gap Inc.