Kendra Scott Wants to Change the Game for Women in Business—Starting With UT Students

Three years ago, Kendra Scott moved her company’s headquarters from Austin’s trendy South Congress strip to an office on North Lamar Boulevard, near the increasingly tony Rosedale neighborhood. The company would keep a presence on South Congress—all the cool brands do—in the shape of a dazzling new flagship store, but the North Austin office building would be the crown jewel in the Kendra Scott empire.  

Taking over 75,000 square feet of the imposing glass structure made logistical sense for the growing company. But with its branded facade and yellow-hued offices, it also reminds passersby that what was born from Scott’s spare bedroom is now a bonafide international fashion brand. Today, Kendra Scott jewelry and home decor is available in nearly 1,400 stores nationwide. The company has sales of about $360 million, according to Forbes, and employs more than 2,000 people—more than 90 percent of whom are women.   

In September 2019, Scott donated $1 million to The University of Texas at Austin to launch the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute (WEL), a program “uniquely built to address the challenges women often face in business.” The institute will welcome students beginning spring 2020, before opening the doors of its glamorous new students’ center in the Doty Fine Arts Building next fall.   

Scott’s success is the kind business students dream about, but the entrepreneur didn’t have a chance to complete her own undergraduate degree. At 19, she took a break from school at Texas A&M and moved to Austin to help care for her ailing stepfather.   

“I was here with my mom, my stepfather was battling brain cancer at the time,” she explains. “I had every intention of going back [to college] and then life kicked in. I always say I ended up going to the school of hard knocks.” Despite her own experience with higher education—or perhaps because of it—it’s Scott’s next endeavor, on the Forty Acres, that could be her most formidable.  

***

The Kendra Scott storefront on North Lamar in Austin. The company has 100 brick-and-mortar stores nationwide.

WOMEN, OF COURSE, are the center of the Kendra Scott universe. The self-taught jeweler’s signature style, bauble-like gemstones that dangle from earrings and necklaces, are statement pieces designed to appeal to a broad range of women, and, starting at $45, they have a relatively accessible price point to match. Though the collection has now expanded to include home accessories and fine jewelry (Oscar de la Renta sent Kendra Scott necklaces down the runway along with his 2006 Spring Ready-to-Wear collection), accessibility remains. Today, you’re likely to see a UT student wearing the uber-popular Elise pendant (a favorite of pop star Taylor Swift) on the way to a football game, while her mother dons a pair of Kendra Scott’s signature gold drop earrings to the office.  

It’s also because of women that Kendra Scott (the woman) has built Kendra Scott (the company) into a billion-dollar brand. Along the way, Scott has amassed an estimated net worth of $550 million and ranks among Austin’s most successful entrepreneurs of all time—not bad considering the city is also home to tech scion Michael Dell, ’83, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus; billionaire investment banker Robert Smith; and Bumble CEO and founder Whitney Wolfe Herd, among others.   

“Since the early days of my business, I have been passionate about supporting other women and helping them find their confidence—whether it’s through my designs, empowering the women on my team, or giving back to women’s and children’s causes in our communities,” Scott says. 

That passion is why adding “women” to the title of the institute was important. Though the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program is designed to be inclusive, allowing anyone from any school to take part, Scott says she “wanted a place where [women] are the majority. Where they could feel comfortable taking these courses and classes and where they would have that really amazing support around them.”  

“We envisioned something that would be very different than anything in the nation,” adds Jan Ryan, executive director of entrepreneurship and innovation in the College of Fine Arts, and one of the architects of the institute. Because of its uniqueness (no one I spoke to could point to another program like this at any other American university), UT announced the news with a star-studded on-campus affair on Sept. 24.  

Details were largely kept secret—The Daily Texan even published an entire story guessing what the event could be—and when the curtains opened on the Bass Concert Hall stage, an audience composed of mainly women was greeted by Scott, UT President Gregory L. Fenves, actor Freida Pinto, country singer Cam, and attorney-turned-Bachelorette star Rachel Lindsay, BS ’07.  

In the days following, the institute—and its launch—made national headlines, ranging from fashion bibles like ELLE and Women’s Wear Daily to the TV show Today. With all its razzle dazzle, explaining the event was easy. Explaining the actual project, however, is trickier. 

  ***

CENTER IS PERHAPS the best word for the institute, which is not a degree track, but rather a multi-faceted program open to both undergraduate and graduate students of all gender identities. Both curricular and co-curricular, it offers leadership and mentor training, hosts speaker series and workshops with industry leaders, and helps funnel campus-wide venture capital funding toward women’s business endeavors. It’s also cross-disciplined, offering classes within the McCombs School of Business, the College of Natural Sciences, and the College of Fine Arts. It is, in a word, ambitious.  

“Sometimes at a university, you feel like you’re put into a box. We want to tear down that box and give opportunities to students in any major,” Scott says. “I wanted to build a program that bridges different schools of thought—why shouldn’t science, design and fashion majors go to business classes? Why can’t a creative be considered an entrepreneur?”  

The institute offers what Scott wishes she had while building her own business, though with numbers like $1 billion and $550 million floating around, it’s hard to imagine what would have made the self-made millionaire more successful. But origin stories almost always take place out of the spotlight; what seems like the swift ascension of Scott was actually a grueling, 17-year climb, peppered with personal and professional setbacks. She started her business career at 19 with the Hat Box, a store that specialized in hats designed for cancer patients. That business eventually failed, but it didn’t stop the budding CEO. Instead, she began taking jewelry classes and setting the proverbial foundation for what would become Kendra Scott.   

“Kendra doesn’t forget what it’s like to be in the early stages,” Ryan says, and the institute is very much designed to help young women identify the avenues that lead toward success.   

Among them is working with other women. Scott credits influential women—including Kerry Hall, BBA ’83, an executive at the Austin-based Texas Capital Bank—who stepped in at pivotal times to not only change the course of her business, but in some cases save it. During the height of the Great Recession, with her growing company mostly financed on small business loans and personal credit cards, Scott was told the bank was calling in one of her credit lines. “Having the ability to go in and work with [Hall], a woman in banking, a leader … I finally felt like someone was actually looking at my business, looking at my possibility, and not judging me because I was just a woman who didn’t finish college or all the other things,” Scott says. “She knew me, she knew my product, she knew what we were doing. I wasn’t just a loan number to her.”  

Creating a space to foster future relationships like these is integral to the institutes’s curriculum, which includes speaker series and leadership summits, as well as the physical lounge. Personal relationships are critical to young entrepreneurs as they navigate the early stages of their careers, but they’re also likely to translate into what business leaders need the most: capital.   

Raising capital has been a challenge for Scott who, like many CEOs, was sometimes overlooked because of gender. She famously launched her business with $500 in cash and spent the next decade maxing out credit cards and pouring any spare money back into Kendra Scott. It wasn’t until 2012—a decade after the business launched and six years after that Oscar de le Renta show —that Kendra Scott even received its first round of funding. 

That fact doesn’t surprise Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, who began her tech company in 2014 based around the radical idea that women deserve a safe space online. “I wanted nothing less than to change thousands of years of behavior between men and women, which is no easy feat,” Wolfe Herd says. Consumers agreed, and less than five years later, the Austin-based company is valued at $3 billion. Throughout her own wild ride through entrepreneurship, Wolfe Herd has witnessed how women struggle to snag that all-important funding.  

“There’s a huge discrepancy between men and women entrepreneurs who are seeking access to money. The stats on venture funding for women is staggeringly low—women entrepreneurs only get 2 percent of venture funding,” Wolfe Herd explains. “For black, Latinx, and other women from underrepresented groups, the number drops even lower.”  

That’s precisely why, Scott says, learning how to navigate the male-dominated world of business is critical. “As a female entrepreneur, unfortunately I’ve often found that people don’t take me or my business seriously,” she says. “I’ve been in boardrooms where no one looks like me. I started my company with no capital behind me, and getting funding and getting taken seriously were major roadblocks.”  

***

 ALONGSIDE GROWING KENDRA SCOTT, the CEO was also navigating a growing family, including raising two young sons as a single mom. And though she remarried in 2014 (to Playa Real Tequila founder and CEO Matt Davis), Scott says “there’s really no such thing” when it comes to balancing the demands of modern parenthood and a booming business. “Kendra knows firsthand the obstacles women face today in business, and she is committed to giving this next generation the tools they need to overcome them,” says Tom Nolan, president of Kendra Scott.   

Chief among those tools is how to balance family and business. Along with fashion and philanthropy, family is actually one of the three main tenets of Scott’s business, and she wants to outfit the students of the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership with the skills to succeed in both their personal and professional lives.   

And with boardrooms continuing to skew male—in addition to accounting for 2 percent of funding, only 17 percent of venture-backed companies are female-owned—arming modern-day women with the resources to navigate questions about pregnancy, maternity leave, single parenthood, and child and elder care is critical. The institute wants to help women think about these questions while they’re still in school, and have what Ryan calls “a soft place to land.”  

“Some women are thinking into the future of a family [they] don’t even have yet. How do you balance that and plan for that?” Ryan says. “There is no right answer, but [the institute] gives them permission that they can figure this out.”   

Being in college is, of course, about figuring things out, but it was UT Austin’s reputation as a world-class institution and its ability to attract top-tier talent that made it the ideal partner for the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership.“UT Austin is a big component of this city, and the success entrepreneurs have had here—their forward thinking, innovative mindset—has propelled Austin’s incredible growth,” Scott says.   

Beginning this spring, UT Austin students will have another place to incubate, to learn and test things that will grow them into the next generation of leaders both inside the city and beyond. It’s a place that understands leadership extends beyond the boardroom, and wants to equip all students, regardless of gender, with the skills to navigate the world. And it is a place built by a woman who has had an unconventional path to success, who understands that, in the end, life isn’t about work, it’s about all the details in between—moving to Austin at 19, opening a hat store, choosing, every single day for 10 years, to bootstrap your business because you have a vision.   

“Everyone’s journey and path is different. Success doesn’t have to look one way,” Scott says. “You have to find a life that gives you joy and that gives you happiness and gives you purpose and to think about your life in those terms.”  

Photos courtesy of Kendra Scott

An earlier version of this piece stated that Whitney Wolfe Herd began her tech company in 2015. Bumble was founded in 2014.

[Stories like these are supported by membership in the Texas Exes.  Join today to receive the bimonthly Alcalde magazine, and help keep alumni connected to UT.]

 
 
 

1 Comment

Post a Comment


 

 
 
Menu