Elizabeth and David Tate are paving the way for today’s college students—and ensuring the future of the promotional products industry. The Tates make up the leadership team behind Memphis, Tennessee-based distributor Signet, Inc., where Elizabeth serves as chairman and CEO, and David serves as president.  The company was founded by Elizabeth’s stepfather, Ray Devine, in 1976.

Signet’s services span custom- branded merchandise and corporate apparel, company stores and microsites, warehousing and distribution, event logistics, management, kitting, collation and gift-wrapping.

The Tates were recently recognized as Distinguished Friends of the College by the University of Memphis Fogelman College of Business & Economics and named to the university’s Hall of Fame for developing an internship program to introduce students to the promotional products industry. The program emerged as a partnership between Signet, University of Memphis, of which Elizabeth is a proud alumnus, and PPAI’s Promotional Products Education Foundation (PPEF). PPEF awards scholarships annually to children of parents who work, full time, in the industry. Signet’s internship is officially known as the PPEF-Signet Scholarship at Fogelman.

“It is much more than an altruistic ‘feel-good,’” Elizabeth says. “This is a unique opportunity to present our industry and our own company to future employees, as well as customers.”

Elizabeth shares more about how the internship works.

How does this partnership between PPEF and Signet provide scholarships to students at the University of Memphis Fogelman College of Business and Economics?

Each spring PPEF funds the scholarship for the next academic year, starting in the fall. PPEF provides the support to ensure all is set up properly, legally, etc. Signet sets the criteria for the scholarship, i.e. needs-based, marketing or supply chain major, minimum grade point average required, etc. The Fogelman College of Business at the University of Memphis fields applicants and makes the selection. They then notify us of the recipient.

How long has the internship been running, and how many interns have participated?

We are starting our fourth year and so far, we have had eight interns. We have also filled approximately six temporary, part-time positions with non-internship students from the school, resulting from our engagement. Interns have worked in merchandising, purchasing, social media/marketing and sales support.

How do prospective interns qualify?

We attend the internship fairs at the University of Memphis, so we can meet most prospects during that time. We set up a display of products and explain our industry to them. Most students never realized that promotional products make up such a big industry. We receive resumes at the fair and glean them from the ‘speed interview’ we give them. Prospective interns are also encouraged to submit resumes directly to us, here at Signet, via the University of Memphis employment portal.

What inspired you to create an internship program?

There were two reasons. First, David Tate, my husband and business partner, was on the board of PPEF. During that time, PPEF had proposed an additional scholarship model—The University Scholarship Model. (The University Scholarship Model encourages financial assistance for students of parents in the industry, in addition to exposing the industry to more prospective employees.) We agreed to do a test, along with two other companies, to determine the feasibility of taking this model industry-wide. Prior to that, we had discussed creating an internship program for several years and finally took the step. We were a bit reluctant at first, because we thought it might be too time-consuming to train some younger folks who would only be with us for a short time. However, we have met some amazing students at the internship fairs. Many of the students are upper-classmen and graduate students, and are ready to work.

Why did you choose the University of Memphis?

We chose the University of Memphis because it is close in proximity and it is a large, public university—proximity being a key part of the University Scholarship Model. As an alum of the university, I have stayed engaged and have been impressed with the direction in which it has gone. University of Memphis has a passionate faculty and dean and has been assertive about promoting students. The faculty welcomed us to conduct classroom lectures a couple of times each semester to talk about what we do. The response of the students has been very positive.

Tell us about the induction into the university’s Hall of Fame and being named Distinguished Friends of the College.

We were very surprised and honored to receive these designations. We feel like we have gained more than we have given. We started the relationship with the university in hopes of establishing a win-win scenario—to offer scholarships and internships in return for exposing our company and our industry to possible future employees, or maybe even future customers. The engagement grew into so much more than just an internship fair. As they noticed us more, we were invited to participate in panels, lecture in classrooms and be on an advisory board. That ‘engagement’ is part of the PPEF University Scholarship Program and that same engagement is what caught the eye of the university. They told us that our engagement, combined with our scholarship donation and our significant support of the athletic department (Go Tigers!) was what influenced them to include us in this honor.

What is unique about Signet’s workplace environment that benefits interns?

We have a great mix of generations here and we all learn from each other. Also, students can see how our business works, since we have so many capabilities under one roof. Our facility is 50,000 square feet, which includes warehouse and fulfillment space. We also have accounting, graphic art, merchandising, web design, etc., all in-house, so they can experience the ordering process from start to finish.

What do you think the three most important skills are that people can learn in an internship, and why?

Professional communication, independence and confidence. They learn how to conduct themselves in a professional work environment and gain real-world application to compare against the textbook.

Have any of your interns been hired by Signet?

We have hired four interns as full-time employees and five as part-time or seasonal employees. Another one of our recent hires told us that she remembered our class lecture from a few years ago and sought us out to apply. Our current warehouse manager, Chris Brisentine, was an intern and part of the veteran’s program at the university. He started out in our purchasing department, worked in the accounting department and advanced into a management position after only one year.


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.