There’s a term venture capitalists use to describe a private business valued at over a billion dollars: a “unicorn.” And Kendra Scott certainly fits the definition with her eponymous Austin-based jewelry company. Walking into one of the 108 Kendra Scott retail stores across the country definitely feels magical. The displays drip with gleaming necklaces, bracelets, and earrings faceted with candy-colored gems and glittering crystals in signature geometric designs. When you flip over the tag to read the price—gasp—you realize you can actually afford it. The flagship store on Austin’s trendy South Congress Avenue even features a café selling lattes, wine, macarons, and mini-cupcakes.
Lest this all sounds a little too darling, Scott, the company’s founder, CEO, and designer, will remind you her career hasn’t been all rainbows and glitter. The first business she started after dropping out of Texas A&M University, a hat shop called Hat Box in Austin, closed after five years. Along the way, though, Scott started making jewelry, and in 2002, while pregnant with her first child, she launched a new company with $500. Baby in tow, Scott pitched her pieces to Austin retailers. But by 2008, just as her line started to make it into department stores, the recession hit, forcing many of those retailers to shutter.
“It taught me to meet challenges with strength and learn to adapt to change,” Scott says. “It forced me to take a risk when I wanted to give up.” That risk was opening her own stores and betting on the direct-to-consumer business model. It paid off. Scott’s pieces, made from semiprecious stones (many priced under $100), became a hit with everyone from sorority girls to moms to celebrities like Taylor Swift.
Since her company reached the billion-dollar valuation in 2016, Scott has worked to give back to causes such as breast-cancer research. She also launched the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2020, Scott appeared on the reality TV show Shark Tank, taking her place alongside fellow Texan Mark Cuban as a “shark,” advising and investing in startup concepts pitched by aspiring entrepreneurs. The show’s 12th season is currently airing on ABC.
Q: What are the particular struggles facing a retail business in this moment?
A: Our business model is rooted in interaction and experience. At most other jewelers, the jewelry is behind locked glass cases—I want people to be able to touch and try on and have fun when they’re in our store. Now, in the wake of this pandemic, we are working to create a new experience for our store customers that feels innovative and engaging, while keeping safety and comfort top of mind.
When COVID-19 started to threaten our business, we worked quickly to fast-track initiatives and programs that we hadn’t planned to roll out for months or even years, like curbside pickup and virtual try-ons. I had the honor of joining Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s Texas Strikeforce, working with medical and business experts who provided advice and insights on how to reopen Texas safely and quickly.
We are all learning as this situation continues to evolve. There is an opportunity for experience and connection with physical retail that can’t be replaced digitally, and I think there will always be a market for that. I also believe we will continue to see new innovations in technology, like virtual reality and augmented reality, that will allow customers to interact with brands in new ways.
Q: Why have you kept your company in Texas?
A: In the early days, I had people tell me all the time that if I wanted to succeed, I had to get out of Austin and move to Los Angeles or New York City, but I knew that wasn’t right for us. It has been nearly 19 years since I began my business, and 10 years since I opened the doors to my first store in Austin. From the very first day, this city has shown me overwhelming kindness and support. As we’ve grown, so has the city around us. Austin has blossomed into a metropolis of innovation and positive change. Now, the world is looking to us as one of the leaders in business. I think we’ve also helped put Texas on the map in terms of fashion.
Q: Why did you start your Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute for women?
A: I’ve seen firsthand the challenges that women often face in the workplace. Women are so strong, and I wanted to create a space for the next generation of female business leaders to be guided by mentors and network with each other. It was important to me to create a community of diversity, inclusion, and entrepreneurship, empowering women to advocate for themselves and find the space to make their impact.
Q: What makes a good leader or boss?
A: Decide what core values are most important to you and your business, and build from there. If it’s what you believe in, that will translate to your work and how you lead a team. I also think it is key to operate with kindness. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do. We want to show everyone we can do it all, that we have it under control. But the reality is asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s the greatest sign of strength as a leader.
Q: What do you do to spark creativity or inspiration?
A: Spending time with my kids really helps me not only connect with my family and have fun, but take a break from the office and really tap into the self-care that is so important.
Q: Where do you like to travel in Texas?
A: I love hiking around Austin with my kids and my pups, Duke and Gracie. Whether we’re walking the trail around Lady Bird Lake or venturing out to a park in the Hill Country area, I love spending a day outside with my family.
Q: How do you approach your role on Shark Tank?
A: Put yourself in their shoes. Seeing those entrepreneurs walk into the Tank, I saw myself in them. I remembered what it was like to be in those early startup struggles, and I kept that in mind when I offered advice. I tried to give them the guidance I wish someone had given me.
Q: What are the challenges that come along with being the face of a brand?
A: What started as a business out of my kitchen has grown to over 2,000 employees and 108 standalone stores across the U.S. It is amazing every day to walk into an office surrounded by immense talent. Of course, having my personal name attached to this billion-dollar company can be daunting. The best advice I received that helped me get where I am today is to be confident in yourself. I believe wholeheartedly that no one can do whatever it is you set out to do better than you. When you exude confidence, others will naturally follow you.
I also find it important to receive advice and support from mentors. I continue to seek out advice because what got us here may not get us to the next great place. In every stage of our business, there will always be a need for me to learn from other great leaders.
Kendra Scott is featured as a guest “shark” on the 12th season of Shark Tank, viewable on abc.com or hulu.com. The flagship Kendra Scott store in Austin, also home to Sips & Sweets Café, is at 1701 S. Congress Ave. kendrascott.com