Kendra Scott on Fashion, Family, and Philanthropy
Kendra Scott started her iconic brand with $500, a spare bedroom, and a newborn—and now her company is valued at over a billion dollars.
The 1st Annual Scalable Impact LIVE took place in Austin, TX in early November of this year, and Kendra Scott was one of the big-name guests. She sat down with Roland Frasier to talk about how she started her business, how it became so wildly successful, and why she’s so passionate about giving back.
Listen in for some inspiration and brilliance from this woman on fire.
How It All Started
Kendra’s first son was born on 11/11/01, just two months after 9/11. She vividly remembers what it felt like to be given this tiny human being in such an uncertain time. No one knew what the world was going to be like going forward, but there was an incredible opportunity for hope and connection.
Kendra knew she wanted to be the best mom she could be, but she’d also loved fashion and design since she was a little girl. “If I could do what I loved,” she says, “that would be the greatest thing in the world.” Her first business failed, then her stepfather died, leaving her with this thought: “We have one life, and it is short and it is fast. While we’re here, we need to use the gifts we’ve been given to do good.”
She started her business very quietly, because she didn’t want people to see her fail. She was terrified that people would laugh at her.
How She Worked Through That Fear
Fear is real, Kendra says, and it is okay to be scared. “I wake up every morning, leading a business that is bigger than it was the day before. I’m walking in uncharted territory every time I get out of bed.”
It helps knowing she doesn’t have to do it alone. She’s not afraid to ask for help. Mentors are huge for her. And she has built “the most awesome team ever.” She has 3000 employees, and 96% of them are women. The brand is the DNA of all the people who work with her at her company. It’s her name, but they’re truly a team. She was alone in it for a long time. Now, when she has a problem, everyone puts their heads together and rolls up their sleeves, excited to help solve the problem.
Choosing entrepreneurship means not choosing the easy route. It is so fun when it’s fun and so scary when it’s scary. Entrepreneurship is peaks and valleys, just like life. When you’re in the valleys, you think this is it. I’m going to lose my business. When you start realizing you can get out of the valley, and you have a team doing it with you, it’s so cool. You overcame something together, and your bond is so amazing.
The Kendra Scott company is on a mission to do good. Their core values are family, fashion, and philanthropy, and their customers share those values. They’re caring, optimistic, and fun, and have a heart that beats for their community. “You can put your team and your community first and still have a fiscally successful company,” Kendra says. “And now I’m teaching others how to do it.”
What 2020 Was Like For Her Business
In a retail business where you have 120 brick and mortar stores, “a pandemic isn’t great,” Kendra says. She remembers all the news channels with their doomsday pronouncements of “brick and mortars have seen their last day.” She didn’t sleep for a couple days in March 2020. She and her team went back to the white board and started completely over. They changed everything overnight.
The only thing that didn’t change was their core values. How do we stay true to our core values? was the only question that mattered. They did all their Kendra Gives Back events virtually. They created new connections with their customers—sending them letters, calling people and checking on them, making masks, delivering things to people’s homes.
They fought the urge to over-strategize. “We have to paint this train while it’s moving,” Kendra told her team. They couldn’t stop the train. They knew they might make mistakes, but they were determined just to learn from them. You can’t be inflexible and unwilling to change your plans. You’ve got to be agile. You’ve got to pivot. Or you won’t survive.
How She Managed Growth While Maintaining Control
When Kendra first started her company, no one would invest in her. She had two small sons, went through a divorce, had no investors, and was doing everything on lines of credit. She signed everything she owned up for collateral. Her sister, who had a good job, moved in with her to help with rent. She couldn’t pay for her tiny team and couldn’t afford to lose anyone. She sold her car to pay a vendor for stones and jewelry.
Looking back, she says she’s not really sure how she did it. But she would look at her sons’ little faces and think, “Failure is not an option. We are going to figure this out.” She didn’t get any investment capital until 10 years after she started her business.
After 10 years, she wanted the cadence of going to a board on a quarterly basis and getting feedback. So she set up an advisory board with three people and gave them an earned-in, very small equity position over a four-year period. One of them became her first investor. He gave her a very generous $20 million evaluation and bought 5% of the company.
Building a Team and Stepping Away from CEO
Bringing on a COO changed everything for her. She read a book by Marcus Buckingham called Now Discover Your Strengths that talks about writing down everything you love and loathe. She loved the customers, engaging, design, marketing, and creation of the experience. She loathed dealing with vendors and negotiating marketing contracts. She knew she needed a team that loved the things she loathed. She hired a COO and everything elevated, because she was no longer doing the things that sucked the life out of her.
She knew she wanted someone with a personality that fit with hers, a winner, someone with passion and drive, who gets excited about this age and stage of a business. He got an offer from Whole Foods at the same time that Kendra couldn’t match, but he saw something in the Kendra Scott company that he believed in. His equity position turned into $40 million.
Kendra recently stepped away from CEO into a chairwoman position. After 20 years, her strengths have changed. “The biggest impact I can have is to be out there and focus on our core pillars,” she says. “I’m out in stores, I’m on calls. I want to learn so I can make this brand better every day. The philanthropy pillar is huge for me. My mission is to get more women entrepreneurs funded and help them be successful in their businesses.”
She sees the Kendra Scott brand as a pre-teen. Ralph Lauren did men’s ties for 25 years before he branched into other things. This doesn’t happen overnight. She knows there are opportunities to expand beyond jewelry, but she doesn’t want to do just anything. She wants to do it thoughtfully. She wants to see where the white space is, where the gaps are. Where are things her customers need and desire that they can’t find? It’s got to be something disruptive, and that excites her.
We all have the opportunity to change the world, she says. Lead with your heart. Let your team fly. Give them the tools to soar. When they become leaders like you, that’s how you’ll know you’ve become a true success.
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