Schreyer Scholar navigates global challenges while building clothing brand

Jeff Rice
September 29, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Austin Thomas had a promising startup business and a new brand gaining traction. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The Smeal College of Business student and Schreyer Scholar was forced to adapt, and the way he did kept that brand’s momentum and set the foundation for his honors thesis.

Thomas is the creator of JERPA Jeans, which are lined with Sherpa fleece but lack the bulk of flannel or similar liners. Inspired by friends tailgating at football games in cold weather, Thomas set out to create a pair of jeans that was both warm and fashionable and, after several months of product testing, launched the company in October 2019.

“I don’t really like to just come up with something and then sit around and let it happen elsewhere or not go through with it,” he said.

Smeal student and Schreyer Scholar Austin Thomas

Penn State Smeal College of Business student and Schreyer Honors Scholar Austin Thomas poses with inventory from his startup clothing brand, JERPA Jeans, in his apartment.

IMAGE: Photo provided

Thomas, a supply chain and information systems major, used the money he had earned from a summer internship with the commercialization team at Campbell’s Soup to purchase his initial product and kept costs low by using a sold-out launch model. He would order small quantities of product, promote them on social media, then announce that those products wouldn’t be available again until the next cycle.

“If you order 500 and the demand’s only 200, now you’re left with 300 in inventory which you don’t know what to do with,” said Thomas, who often slept on his couch because stacks of jeans were occupying his bed.

The goal was to build hype as much as to make sales, he said. He had several students from Penn State and other universities working as “ambassadors,” who received commissions determined by their level of involvement, helping him with both.

One of those students was Penn State advertising and public relations major Bradley Kraut, who once sold 38 pairs of JERPA jeans in 48 hours, taking product samples door-to-door in some cases and helping Thomas expand his pool of ambassadors.

“He’s a grinder,” Kraut said of Thomas. “He surrounds himself with other, motivated, ambitious people. It’s been awesome working with him.”

Thomas and Kraut had planned to launch a new line of jean joggers after spring break, but the pandemic made them shift their goals toward the fall semester while also creating delays with their overseas supplier. Thomas currently is looking for a new supplier while continuing to sell the joggers. In the meantime, the company has also sold out hoodies, cardigans and t-shirts and is currently selling face masks and beanies, all from a different supplier.

“The fact that his supply line was disrupted … I don’t think that fazed him much,” said Penn State Associate Professor of Supply Chain and Information Systems Robert Novack.

Novack, Thomas’ thesis supervisor, has encouraged him to use his experience with JERPA in his honors thesis.

“Talk about how you chose the product, the demographic you’re after, how you decided on sourcing, how you got around tariffs, transportation costs,” Novack said. “So someone can pick up his thesis and say, ‘I can start a business now. I know all of the details and all of the pitfalls.’”

Thomas will graduate this spring. The lessons he has learned about small businesses, supply chains, marketing and more have reinforced his belief that success is not a solo endeavor.

“I’ve always been a team player,” Thomas said. “I’ve seen it through my internships — supply chain is very team-oriented. You’re working with teams, with suppliers. There’s a lot of people interaction.

“Being able to work with people is something I always want to do.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.

Last Updated September 29, 2020