Wednesday, April 3, 2019
When a new group of student employees report for their first day on the job at RamTech on the Virginia Commonwealth University Monroe Park Campus, they aren’t met with training documents and housekeeping rules. Instead, the entire team gets to know one another over Raising Cane’s fried chicken and Texas toast.
“It’s a light meet and greet,” said Rod Dadzie, manager of the on-campus technology store since July 2015. “The whole team goes through a crazy recruiting process, narrowing almost 100 applicants down to five. This first meeting is a way for us to start focusing on how we function together as a team.”
This tiny break from the expected — slowing down to focus on the people — symbolizes how RamTech has evolved since opening its doors in April 2014. Its goal from the beginning was to support the VCU community, but the ways in which RamTech extends that support goes beyond selling Apple and Dell computers at education prices. It’s felt on a deeper level, among customers and employees alike. The RamTech leadership has created a unique culture of camaraderie among a close-knit group of student employees. This internal support and empowerment is projected outward in everything RamTech does, contributing to its success as a retail operation and its influence among peer campus technology stores nationwide.
Welcome to RamTech
“I generally refer to RamTech as the university’s technology showroom and resource,” said Dadzie, a VCU alum. The bright, modern storefront on West Grace Street houses everything from computers and tablets to Bluetooth speakers and podcast mics — much of it at special education pricing.
Students, faculty and staff can keep their fingers on the pulse of the latest technology without leaving campus. New students can visit RamTech to purchase the computer that has been pre-selected by their department to fit their area of study. If a student drops a can of paint on their computer — true story — RamTech’s RamSupport warranty provides coverage. There is also FixIT, the in-house computer repair desk managed by VCU Technology Services that maintains and repairs Apple and Dell computers. Students can trade in their old technology for store credit at RamTech, and full-time VCU employees can take advantage of interest-free payroll deduction on purchases.
“Over the course of the last five years, we’ve created a comfortable, convenient, zero-pressure environment at RamTech,” said Diane Reynolds, assistant vice president of VCU Business Services, which oversees retail on campus. “Our student staff is extremely knowledgeable and doesn’t work on commission, meaning there’s never any question that our Rams are getting the best technology at the best price.”
From a business standpoint, RamTech is unique. Unlike traditional retailers, the tech store is tied to a university with a set audience: students, faculty and staff. However, unlike other parts of VCU, RamTech is an auxiliary enterprise that receives no funding from the university or state. That means RamTech generates its own revenue, just like a small business. Reaching the “five years in business” mark is an impressive feat for small businesses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of small businesses fail in their first year, and about 50 percent by their fifth.
“We’re constantly evolving and staying ahead of trends, from our online computer concierge service to our custom computer bundles,” Dadzie said of RamTech’s success. “Above all, serving the VCU community is the thread that ties everything together. At RamTech, we treat our customers like family because we are a VCU family.”
Prioritizing and fostering personal connections, both externally and internally, is what differentiates RamTech from other retailers and has cemented it as a leader among campus technology stores nationwide.
“RamTech is an absolute leader in the campus technology store program,” said Justin Day, manager of ITS Support Services at the University of Michigan. “Rod [Dadzie] has cultivated a talented team of people who are both technology experts and promoters of VCU.”
Internally, Dadzie empowers his staff by aligning their personal interests with their work. “RamTech provides endless creative ways to engage their staff and give them ownership in decision making,” said Vito Vacca, general manager of the Rutgers technology store. “This allows the student staff to be enormously creative and ultimately just be themselves.”
When Brittany Dennis, a VCU fashion merchandising student, showed an interest in the store’s product displays and signage, Dadzie collaborated with Karen Videtic, former chair of the VCU Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising, to create a merchandising internship for Dennis at RamTech that would enhance her position as a sales associate. After VCU psychology student Bri Jackson mentioned sketching as a hobby, Dadzie handed her an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, challenging her to learn or create something new when she is not helping a customer or working on a project. Because of her work with the devices, Jackson illustrated numerous RamTech displays and graphics, led an on-campus Appy Hour tech tutorial on iPad art, and even used her new skills to launch a successful Kickstarter campaign and transform her senior project and senior expo booth.
“The managers at RamTech encourage me to bring what I love to do in to work every day,” said Jackson, a double major in psychology and communication arts. “They want you to shine in your own individual way. They’ve opened up so many opportunities for me, and I am so thankful for them.”
“As part of a university, we have a responsibility to help these students learn and grow professionally,” said Jay Phinizy, manager of retail services in VCU Business Services. “Rod [Dadzie] works hard to be a mentor, giving critical feedback on student portfolios, resumes and helping his employees learn how to present themselves outside RamTech in the professions they aspire to pursue. He takes VCU’s mission to heart and does everything in his power to equip his team with everything they need to thrive in their future careers.”
RamTech extends that passion and support into the VCU community, actively seeking ways to engage with customers. Every August, RamTech welcomes new students to campus with the RamTech Compass Cookout, a block-party event where the staff serves hot dogs, popcorn and ice pops to more than 1,500 new students in a fun, relaxed setting with a local DJ and mobile photo booth. RamTech’s 10 student staff members are available to field not only questions about technology, but also questions about campus life. Every November, RamTech hosts a special Faculty and Staff Appreciation Day featuring the best deals of the year just in time for the holidays.
“The team at RamTech is very creative in how they connect with their campus community,” said Aicha Walde, manager of the University of Minnesota technology store. “They’re always thinking outside of the box. From their legendary block parties to their social media, everything they do is engaging, fun and relevant.”
Above all, serving the VCU community is the thread that ties everything together. At RamTech, we treat our customers like family because we are a VCU family.
Recognition for RamTech
Since 2014, RamTech has been recognized repeatedly for its innovation, customer service and operations.
In its first two years, RamTech was the recipient of two national awards: the Excellence in Technology Retail Award at the 2015 Campus Market Expo and the Innovative Use of Technology Award from the National Association of College Auxiliary Services. Dadzie and Phinizy were invited to be part of a panel at the Apple Campus Store Leadership Forum in 2016, then invited back as keynote speakers in 2017 and 2018.
For the 2018 keynote, RamTech’s long-standing employee Erinn Budd joined as a speaker. A member of RamTech's inaugural student staff, Budd is one of VCU's most recognized faces. In addition to holding RamTech's record for the most customers helped, Budd also creates and leads most RamTech Appy Hours: free on-campus technology training events held monthly for the VCU community. Budd’s relentless creativity and drive to make shopping at RamTech a fun and personal experience led to promotions into the roles of student store lead and ultimately RamTech’s assistant manager of customer experience.
“I always look forward to connecting with RamTech at the various trade shows and leadership forums we attend together throughout the year,” said Dawn Karls, senior product manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tech store. “It is always inspiring to hear from their team, and when it comes to the phrase ’best practices,’ I always think of RamTech and the passion and creativity that they put into their store promotions, events, team building and training.”
RamTech will celebrate its fifth anniversary on April 5 with an event for students, faculty and staff. The daylong celebration will feature an Apple flash sale, giveaways and, of course, cake. But while five years is a milestone, Dadzie emphasizes that RamTech’s focus is on the immediate future. How is the smart-home trend evolving? What more can be done to make a new student’s transition to VCU easy and stress free? With activities such as gaming and podcasting at an all-time high, how can RamTech be a better resource for the VCU community.
The RamTech management team works hard to find the best answers to these kinds of questions through discussions with peers and vendors at conferences and events. However, before any of that, Dadzie always starts with his staff. “I think one of the easiest missteps you can make in university retail is making assumptions about what students want and need. Why not just ask them?”
By challenging their student staff to think about the technology that makes an impact on their lives, RamTech’s leadership gets great insight into how VCU students engage with technology creatively, academically and for fun.
“When we bring in a product that was selected, developed, or had its marketing designed by our student team, it creates a level of product diversity and personal investment that you can’t get any other way,” said Justin Carrico, RamTech's assistant manager and buyer. “It’s uniquely VCU, and that plays a big role in shaping our customers’ experience.”
Dadzie and the team at RamTech aren’t resting on their laurels. “We’re proud of the work that we’ve done and connections we’ve made over these last five years,” Dadzie said, “but this is really just the beginning for us. We’ve hit our stride and are so excited about a number of new products and initiatives that we hope will make an even bigger impact on the VCU community. Stay tuned.”