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Penn State Smeal graduate competes in “The Investment”

May 12, 2021

STATE COLLEGE —As a freshman, Penn State Smeal College of Business student Austin Thomas was inspired with a business idea. Four years later, his clothing company JERPA is among six student startups competing for a share of $30,000 on WPSU’s Shark Tank-style TV show “The Investment,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday. 

The show follows the top six Penn State student startups from the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program’s 2021 Inc. U Competition as they pitch their businesses in hopes of securing funding.

 This will be Thomas’ second year participating in the competition and he’s hoping that he can impress the esteemed panel of judges with his business’ growth. According to Thomas, since competing last year, JERPA has increased from $19,000 in revenue to $84,000. 

Thomas’ inspiration for his business came from attending tailgates as a freshman, where he noticed friends wearing thermals under their jeans to stay warm. He realized the potential of a two-in-one product that would not only keep customers warm but also be seen as stylish. 

In October 2019, Thomas officially launched JERPA Jeans, selling Sherpa-lined denim jeans that aligned with the company’s core values of warmth, comfortability and style. 

Thomas, who graduated Saturday, emphasized that his coursework as a supply chain and information systems major has helped him with his entrepreneurial endeavors, especially as he grew close with faculty and took advantage of Smeal mentorship. 

Thomas credited Robert Novack, associate professor of supply chain management, as being one of the mentors who has helped him throughout the process of starting and expanding his company by lending his supply chain expertise and knowledge of the industry. 

Novack said he’s seen Thomas’ work ethic through how he’s managed to navigate obstacles such as sourcing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It takes a very unique individual to start a business while attending college,” Novack said. “Austin had the business acumen and motivation to turn his vision into a successful company.” 

Thomas emphasized how the resources Smeal provides for its students has made the process of creating his startup more manageable. As a Smeal student, Thomas took advantage of resources like Penn State’s Happy Valley LaunchBox, which provides no-cost resources to help students launch their startups.   

Initially, the JERPA Jeans brand revolved around it’s Sherpa-lined jeans. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the company’s jean supplier went out of business, Thomas was forced to adapt. 

“COVID really opened my eyes and I began thinking of other ways we could compete,” Thomas said. “The goal was to rebrand from JERPA Jeans into just JERPA and try to create a name around the brand that will get people excited. We now have a better direction and have become much more focused.” 

This realization inspired the business to diversity its product and begin selling Sherpa-lined hoodies, beanies and cardigans — all of which he said were met with tremendous demand, especially as loungewear grew in popularity during quarantine. 

Thomas also took note of how the pandemic directly contributed to an increase in social media usage among his target customers, since people were stuck at home with little to do. 

In response to this, he created a marketing strategy revolving around social media influencers to help the brand gain exposure. He also launched an ambassador program that includes more than 100 people across 23 universities promoting the business with personal discount codes. 

Notable influencers who have promoted JERPA include New York Giants running back and Penn State alumnus Saquon Barkley and former “Dance Moms” star Kendall Vertes. The brand logo was also recently sported by boxer Vito Mielnicki Jr. in a fight that aired on Fox in February. 

Although JERPA has grown tremendously over the past year, Thomas said all the revenue earned goes right back into the business. He’s hoping “The Investment” will help speed up his business’ growth by providing him with that extra capital. 

With his revenue tripling since his last pitch, Thomas is optimistic that demonstrating the ways in which his company has progressed will help him win the largest share of the $30,000 allotted funding — which he plans to use for influencer and social media marketing, licensing agreements and third-party warehousing. 

“I want the judges to see how we’ve grown and show them that we are now so much more than a jeans company,” Thomas said. “Not only are we selling unique products, but we are also evolving as a brand. The Investment will help us continue to innovate within the clothing space.” 

Judging the pitches are Lou Childs, co-founder and chief operating officer of Dovetail Essentials, Robert E. Morgan, founder and CEO of Talaria Media, Sheri Collins Sr., director in the Office of Corporate Relations at the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Development and Jordon Rednor, executive director and chief operating officer of Decoded Advertising. 

The show, which includes each of the six startups’ pitches and Q&A, will run from 8 to 9 p.m. on WPSU-TV and can also be streamed on live.wpsu.org. To learn more about The Investment, visit the WPSU-TV website.

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Andy Elder
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