Sarah Nelson’s bosses needed her to take on a new project.
The owners of birddogs, an online clothing brand known for its little “b” and a big dose of irreverence – with pants named “Wayne Regretzkys” and “Tiger Woulds” – wanted to get the company’s upscale drawers onto retail shelves.
Part of that strategy was acquiring licenses for a collegiate collection that could be sold in bookstores, sporting-goods stores and department stores. Nelson, a 2020 University of Virginia graduate who heads birddog’s strategic wholesale division, skimmed the plans handed to her, which included the company’s first proposed university partnership:
“I was so excited,” Nelson said. “The UVA culture and birddogs are a perfect fit.”
If you’ve logged onto Facebook or Instagram in the past six months, you’ve probably seen a birddogs advertisement. The company specializes in pants and shorts that, it says, are suitable for several occasions. A reviewer for The Daily Beast said of the joggers: “I could easily wear these pants to the office or other nice functions without being wickedly underdressed.”
While Nelson says UVA and birddogs are perfectly paired, it’s harder to imagine the UVA graduate and the quirky apparel company suited for each other. After all, Nelson’s degree is not in fashion or marketing, but rather systems engineering. However, she said it all makes surprising sense.
“A systems engineering degree prepares you well for just about anything,” she said.
That’s because while a company like birddogs may look like it’s run by freewheeling fraternity bros, behind the scenes “it is way more complicated than that,” she said. There are analysts dissecting reams of data including pricing strategies, consumer behavior and customer-acquisition costs.
“In a world of big data, and where everything revolves around being able to understand and make sense of data and numbers, system engineering prepares you for that,” she said. “It might seem simple like, ‘Oh, let’s sell some more shorts and pants.’ But to keep a growth-stage company growing, there is a lot of engineering going on in the background.”
After getting her degree in a virtual Final Exercises because of the pandemic, Nelson started work in management consulting at Bain & Company. A few years later, she had an opportunity to explore working for birddogs through the Bain network.
“I had shown an interest in retail and apparel, and it just seemed like a good opportunity for me to test out that space, and it’s been really awesome,” she said.
Starting this week, UVA birddogs shorts and sweatpants will be available online and soon in retail stores. While the Wahoo-branded britches are the first collegiate effort, Nelson says it won’t be the last.
“My goal would be to see this happen in over 30 or so schools, not just UVA,” Nelson said. “But knowing that it all started with UVA would make me even more proud.”