People of the Year: Kendra Scott
Founder, CEO, Philanthropist
Kendra Scott is in the eye of the storm. All around her are stylists, assistants and photographers working to making sure this chock-full day (which I am sure is emblematic of most) goes off without a hitch. Meanwhile, Scott is calm, warm (a hugger, no doubt) and friendly, unfazed by all of it. The former Midwesterner, who is known for her warmth, all well she should be, is nothing but sincere. But held alongside all this positivity, please don’t be fooled. Kendra Scott means business.
By now we all know the story: Born in Wisconsin, Scott moved to Houston at the age of 16. Post–high school, she started college at Texas A&M but left shortly thereafter to be with her family as her step-father battled cancer. This change brought Scott, who had always loved fashion, to Austin, where, in 1993, she opened the Hat Box. After working for five years to reinvigorate her customers’ passion for headwear, a trend that had last peaked in the 1920s, Scott closed the business and famously swore to never enter retail again.
Fast-forward to 2018 and Scott is at the helm of a jewelry empire with 93 stores nationwide, plus a 94th, located within Selfridges & Co. in London. And to think, all of it started right here in Austin. It’s an origin story with almost comically humble beginnings — girl loves jewelry, sees a gap in the market, learns to make jewelry, sets up shop in her guest bedroom, hits the pavement selling, baby in tow (Scott became a mother in 2001). Girl eventually hits it big.
In the 16 years since Scott founded her company, Kendra Scott has gone from the side hustle of a new mom, to a full-time but primarily local and regional enterprise, to a national phenomenon valued at more than $1 billion ($1 billion!). And while the core of Scott’s business is still primarily devoted to jewelry, working with both semiprecious and precious, the brand has a burgeoning home collection anchored by candles and decorative accessories. To top it all off, Scott’s commitment to philanthropy is well-documented, with $4.5 million given away annually.
Phew. It’s enough to make a girl need a nap. But Scott is undaunted, grateful and excited amid the growth and chaos. She strikes me as someone who was always ready for this role and just needed everyone else to catch up.
As I recently spoke with the designer and business owner during our own photo shoot, plus two others, I noticed how effortlessly she talked about the customer, describing a “her” that she seems to know quite well. And it struck me that this tactic, which could seem disingenuous from others, is eminently sincere. That’s because Scott was once, and maybe still is, the “her” that she and her team now design for.
Margaret Williams: OK, let’s start. We can talk in between shots if that’s good for you.
Kendra Scott: Yes, yes!
MW: What I’m curious about, and I suspect a lot of other people are, too, is what all this success is like. What are the challenges?
KS: Every morning I drive to work and I’m running a company bigger than it was yesterday. Every day I’m in uncharted territory. From the beginning, I was told I couldn’t have a fashion brand , and I knew they were wrong.
I think being here in a city like Austin has actually helped us tremendously. There isn’t a shortage of people that I can pick up the phone and say, “If you were in my shoes right now…”
A stylist approaches (it takes a village) with some jewelry choices. Scott’s earrings are set, but she’s not sure about adding a charm necklace. Yep, charm it is — goes perfectly with the sequins on her yellow dress. Without missing a beat, Scott makes a note of how hard it is to find the right yellow. I agree, and it’s back to the photographer.
MW: Is this community something that’s developed organically over time?
KS: Yes, over the last 16 years since I started this business in my bedroom. I had the support of these incredible businesspeople that I admired from day one. Our business has grown along with the growth of Austin. I think it’s really exciting to be part of that, because they used to say, “Hmm, Austin, what?” Now they’re like, “Oh, cool, Austin!”
But we’ve grown together. I think with any great relationship, you either grow apart or you grow together.
MW: You know, I loved listening to your interview on “How I Built This” for lots of reasons but also because it felt like a walk down Austin-memory lane. But I also loved hearing you talk about calling showrooms day after day, relentlessly trying to get a foothold in New York. And now you have a store in New York. What did that feel like?
KS: I started calling showrooms, and they were telling me they get 50 calls a day and “What’s going to make you special?” I thought, “I’m not gonna give up, I’m not gonna give up, I’m gonna show you why we’re different and unique.” And we were different and unique. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we were here and not on the coast. We weren’t so worried about what everybody else was doing.
It started here in Austin, and through Texas, and then surrounding states, and now we’re hitting New York. We were really about, Where is our customer and where can we get to her? If that meant Dallas, or New Orleans, or Baton Rouge, or Memphis, or Nashville, that’s where we wanted to go first. But today we have this customer in New York who is excited to see this Texas brand reach the big city, the Big Apple.
Quick break to change up looks. Time to move onto a shoulder-padded snakeskin number. Scott reminisces about being a child and spending time with her aunt, who worked in fashion. It was the era of the shoulder pads. As we get set for the next shot, I can’t help but note how well-dressed everyone in the office is. Scott explains that the whole office loves “dressing, but not dressing up” for one another. Back to camera.
MW: What made you decide to go into home?
KS: I design all of our stores, and we were utilizing trays and accessories to show our jewelry, and I wanted to use materials that I was using in my jewelry, and I thought, “Well, why would I buy a tray from someone else when we could design one?”
Customers would come in and want to buy the displays, so it really happened organically. We really felt like there was a need to take a jewelry designer’s perspective and create beautiful home products with all the materials that we currently use. It was a natural fit.
MW: How do you stay in the moment and yet always be thinking ahead? How do you keep those two things in balance?
KS: With anything, we are always looking to the future. We are really reading now what our customer wants more of and expanding upon that. We just launched candles — and we spent two years doing fragrance for those candles — with the thought that maybe that will be an entrée into something else later down the road.
We’re always thinking about the future, and we always have a vision of where we want to go, and then start to design the roadmap to get us there.
MW: You have designs that are iconic, but you and the brand seem to really be pushing forward with the design. I would love to know more about that process.
KS: One of the things that we want to always do is surprise and delight our customers. And that means we can never be complacent. We have to be better every day. Our fashion lines allow us to really play and experiment with new things and see what our customers start to gravitate to. Through social media and through all of our store content, we can hear from her right away. We can hear about materials that she loves, like the African turquoise earrings you’re wearing. They want more.
We custom-cut every shape, and we come up with those shapes right there in our design lab. I love playing with material. I love pushing the boundaries of what we can do. We are doubling up mother-of-pearl with crystal quartz on top so that you can see the illusion of it underneath.
We are now offering diamonds to our customer. Our customers have grown up with us in college. She’s now in the next phase of life, and ready for something else, so we are introducing fine jewelry in beautiful pavé set diamonds. So that’s really exciting as well.
MW: Do you ever still make hats?
KS: Oh my god, if you’ve seen my closet, it’s full of hats. I love hats. I keep trying to convince everybody here that we need to do something with hats.
I have old hat forms, antique vintage hat forms in my mother’s attic, and I’m like, “Mom, we got to get them down, dust them off, get the steamer out.”
MW: That would be a full-circle moment. I’m a mom. I have a six and four-year-old.
KS: The best ages.
MW: How do you talk to your kids about hard work and success? What do those conversations look like?
KS: I think for any parent, you have to lead by example. My kids see me working hard. They’ve seen me work hard their whole life, and that nothing is more important to me than my family. We do things together that are in the community, and they’re growing up with those values. Do something that you love, that you’re passionate about. Always take care of your family first, and make sure that you give back.
I tell them every day when they leave the house, have an open heart and an open mind today, and lead with kindness. You never know what someone is going through. Lead with kindness.
I think that our company is kind of the epitome of these things. We are a kind company.