Kendra Scott on Personal Challenges in 2020, Feeling Stronger & Giving Back – Exclusive
Stay true to your core values, says the CEO, jewelry designer and UT Professor of Practice
By Hannah J. Phillips
After growing her jewelry brand from bedroom startup to household name, Kendra Scott launched the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at the University of Texas in 2019. The Institute’s mission is to empower young female leaders by equipping them with the community and tools they need to succeed. Scott, who is now a Professor of Practice at the university, sat down for an exclusive interview with Tribeza to share what the Institute has been up to and the obstacles she faced during the pandemic — as a brand and in her personal life. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Hannah J. Phillips: Hi Kendra, it’s great to connect. I actually almost tried to sell you your own earrings once when I was a personal stylist at Nordstrom. I realized it was you later and couldn’t believe I’d almost try to sell you your own products.
Kendra Scott: I would have loved that, are you kidding me? I would have given you a hug.
HJP: That was almost a decade ago: it’s fun to see how much your brand has grown since then.
KS: Thank you! We celebrated my son’s nineteenth birthday in the fall, and I started it when he was just three months old, which is crazy.
HJP: Speaking of the fall, tell me about your partnership with UT and the WEL Women’s Summit back in November.
KS: When we launched the Institute in September 2019, we started planning an in-person event at the Bass Concert Hall for 2020. Clearly that had to shift, but it was a blessing in disguise because we were able to reach students from 19 countries. We also had the most amazing speakers because they could participate from their home. The content was amazing, and I left feeling like we got to share such rich information—not just with UT students, but with women all over the world. Anyone can watch the Summit recordings now, and I love that UT was willing to share that with the world.
HJP: What were some of your highlights?
KS: I did a great panel with Maria Menounos and Nastia Liukin, who is a five-time Olympic gymnast. In general, I loved being able to showcase women who have overcome obstacles to become these unbelievable leaders. Our focus on leadership is why we are cross-disciplinary at UT. As an artist, I was told I could never be a CEO, and business classes weren’t really available to a lot of students previously. We want to change that because I believe anything is possible with the right tools, and creatives have a unique opportunity to be disruptive.
HJP: What are your highlights from the Institute’s initiatives so far and how have you pivoted during the pandemic?
KS: Everything had to pretty much go virtual: we hosted two courses during the Spring 2020 semester, and then I had my first semester as Professor of Practice. We’re teaching virtually and I’m doing the Women in Entrepreneurship class again this spring because I love it so much. We’ve also hosted different workshops and networking opportunities, and our student lounge also opened in the fall. There, we host in-person workshops, connect students with mentors and let them see the power of what it looks like when women hold hands and work together.
HJP: What kind of feedback has the Institute received since it launched?
KS: We’ve received so much community support, which proves to me how needed this was. We are in a city full of amazing entrepreneurs and providing access to them through the Institute is something I’m really excited about. Dell provided all the technology for the Institute, and they’re an amazing partner.
We also created an advisory board of 23 students to make sure we’re creating a program they want and need. Listening to them and learning how to provide what they’re hungry for has been one of our biggest accomplishments. That’s how I grade us at the end of the day. The reason we’ve grown so quickly — and in a pandemic — is because the students are so passionate, which just drives all of us to make things happen.
HJP: I saw that the Summit was aimed at arming young female entrepreneurs with tools to combat financial, cultural or personal barriers they may face in the world of business. What barriers have you faced on your own road to success?
KS: As a woman, I walked into boardrooms all the time and no one looked like me. I always knew right away I had to prove myself, and while I’m not going to say those obstacles and roadblocks aren’t still there, I want to give other women the confidence they need. One way is by showcasing women who do look like them, who are leaders and can share stories of both failure and success. My story is not all rainbows and butterflies. I went over 10 years without investment capital. I did it all on lines of credit and couldn’t get someone to believe in me and invest in me. We have more access now to female-led firms and networks than in 2002, but we want to get those resources together and hear how people overcame setbacks.
At the Summit, Nastia Liukin shared her story of falling flat on her face during the Olympic trials. She got up and completed her whole routine, landing her dismount even though she was disqualified. She knew she had to finish, and it was the first and only time in her career she got a standing ovation. I loved that story, and it’s so symbolic because you will fall flat on your face, but you get up and get back on that bar. That’s exactly what Nastia did and it’s what I’ve done many times, and those are the kind of stories I want to expose students to. I had great mentors in different fields, but they all had the same ability to be resilient and disruptive and unafraid of being yourself. Sometimes we’re embarrassed by our struggles, but we need to harness those difficult stories for success instead of shame.
HJP: That resilience sounds more needed than ever right now. Can you share some of the personal or professional barriers you’ve faced since the beginning of the pandemic?
KS: Professionally, 2020 threw us a lot of curveballs. I made the tough decision to close down all stores in March 2020, and I don’t know if I slept the entire week. We had to get very creative and focus on what customers needed, so we launched curbside pickup and AR virtual try-on features and hosted thousands of virtual styling appointments where our retail employees still had the opportunity to work by introducing new collections online. All of this enabled us to act like a startup again with that sleeves-up, collaborative feeling of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.
The biggest thing for me was staying true to our core values: When I think about my brand over 19 years, my core value is being a mom first; I created a business that treated my customers and employees like family. Our second value is creating attainable products to surprise and delight, and the third value is giving back. During the pandemic, we hosted thousands of Kendra Gives Back events online and donated over 5 million meals to Feeding America. We got super clear on our values, and that’s what every entrepreneur needs to remember: don’t sway from your values because they are the north star that will guide you through the roughest waters.
HJP: How were you able to personally cultivate some of those core values while processing everything that happened over the past year?
KS: 2020 was a crazy year both personally and professionally. I’m a mother of three boys, so I juggled homeschool, Zoom business meetings and I went through a divorce in 2020. My father had two heart attacks, so I started 2020 by getting him into the hospital and he stayed there until we had to bring him home to live with me during lockdown. From a personal standpoint, I went through a lot, but my Kendra Scott fam is also my family and being able to get through this so remarkably well with them has just blown my mind.
As hard as everything has been, I realized I have so much to be grateful for and there’s an unbelievable silver lining. I do believe we’re going to be a better company coming out of Covid, and I’m in a better place as a human. So while I look back at 2020 as a year of a lot of difficulty, I also see a lot of amazing, happy moments and clarity around a lot of things.
HJP: I know one of those happy moments was being on Shark Tank: Tell me about that.
KS: It was so fun! We filmed in Las Vegas, and they created a bubble to keep everybody safe. We couldn’t leave our rooms, but to be on that set with the sharks—I sat between Mark Cuban and Mr Wonderful, Kevin O’Leary—I just had the time of my life. What that show has done for entrepreneurs is so incredible, and to be able to be a small part of it as a female founder supporting other female-founded companies was so great. On top of that, the entrepreneurial spirit of each contestant just gave me so much hope in our country and in our future. Entrepreneurship is alive and well, and it was electric on set.
HJP: Any major highlights from the experience?
KS: My perspective felt unique because I started a business out of my bedroom. So many entrepreneurs are starting from their garages, and I had a different empathy than the other sharks because I bootstrapped my business from day one. As a Texan, it was also fun to hear that Texas viewership was one of the highest it’s ever been for those episodes. I was so proud because Texans have always supported Texas brands and that was amazing.
HJP: I can see how that was a welcome silver lining for 2020. What are some of your hopes as we settle into this new year?
KS: For the brand, I’m excited about new things we launched due to Covid. We partnered with Tiff’s Treats so you can order earrings when you buy cookies in Texas, and we partnered with Favor for same-day delivery so you can get sparkles to your door within hours. We had to think creatively about those services, which will continue to set us apart as we move out of the pandemic. And from a community perspective, these virtual connections enabled us to reach more customers than we ever could have connected to before, which will also benefit us as a brand moving forward, without a question.
For the WEL Institute, I’m excited to add more courses. We’re launching a women in STEM course and will continue hosting workshops on communication skills and how to get clarity on your vision. The biggest thing I hope to see is real results: Five or ten years from now, I want to see the women in our program excelling in their careers and still getting support from us. Then, it’s just about how we can access as many women as possible to provide these opportunities.
HJP: We can’t wait to see that, too. It’s been great to connect all these years later—and not at Nordstrom this time.
KS: Hey, if you ever see me there and want to style me in Kendra Scott, I would be thrilled.
HJP: It was definitely my go-to outfit trick, and I stand by it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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