By Jan Ryan
One of the highlights of our Women in Entrepreneurship class in the College of Fine Arts is the introduction of outside role models to surround students with strategies for success. I was thrilled to have hometown hero Kendra Scott with us for an intimate fireside chat on Sept 16. What an hour of inspiration! It was a class no one wanted to miss!
As chairman and CEO of Kendra Scott Inc. Kendra has built one of the most unique brands in the nation, with over 100 stores and 2,000+ employees, with a strong DNA for giving back and building community. Her story is iconic: from a humble start with $5,000 in her bedroom, Kendra pursued her passion as a designer and was able to balance her abundant creativity with the demands of an executive leadership role, all without losing her values of family and philanthropy.
How did she do it?
I asked Kendra to take us back to the beginning—back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she grew up, and she shared with us the backstory of early childhood influences from her mother and aunt. Kendra’s mom, who still works with her today, was a Mary Kay consultant with a flair for outstanding customer service. Her aunt was a buyer for a department store at the time, exposing her to high couture and the desire to make fashion accessible to the everyday woman.
But the road was not always easy. She discussed how she came to live in Texas after her stepfather was diagnosed with brain cancer. This led to the launching of her first business, Hatbox, which was a response to what she observed at hospitals with cancer patients.
Though Hatbox had to close after a few years, the lessons she learned were invaluable. Failure was not fatal and in fact became the stepping stone to success. She was gaining valuable experience in the retail industry, and it led to her discovering that she loved making jewelry.
“It was funny that the answer to my future was really in front of me, and I wasn’t paying any attention to what was working. I was so focused on making something work that wasn’t working.”
“You do good.”
Kendra’s stepfather before he passed away made this statement to her: “You do good.” This phrase has stayed with Kendra throughout her career and drives everything the company embodies today, as well as her passion as an entrepreneur. “That entrepreneur’s fire inside of me wouldn’t just go away. I wanted to do something great. Our personal brand is as unique as your fingerprint. Each of us has a special gift that is unique to us.”
The first Kendra Scott retail store opened in 2010. From the beginning Kendra looked at the business from a customer’s perspective with fresh eyes every day, observing what they like or don’t like about the jewelry shopping experience, what they might find intimidating. She adds, “The minute you compare yourself with others and copy them, your customers stop trusting you. I love it when someone says, you cannot do this. It gets me going. It stokes that fire in me. There were a million reasons why I couldn’t succeed on paper. You may be told that your ideas are stupid. You cannot let any of this stop you.”
Community and customer experience are part of the DNA of Kendra Scott. Though the company has great customer data, Kendra mentioned that they also pay close attention to the importance of the personal connection with customers. This is why at a time when other retailers are closing their retail outlets, Kendra Scott is continuing to expand. They believe that customers come into their stores to seek connection and community.
She added that as the company continues to scale, the decisions you make with 2,000 employees versus 20 are different, and if you get too overwhelmed or afraid, you lose that entrepreneurial spirit that made you special in the beginning.
Kendra adds, “It takes a lot of humility, being an entrepreneur. It takes being able to ask for help. That doesn't show you're weak, it shows that you're strong. It's okay to be vulnerable, and it's okay not to know something and call on someone. “I have mentors still. I’m running a company bigger than it was the night before, every single day. And I call people who I respect and admire and say, ‘Okay, I'm in this position. What would you do? Or do you have any advice for me?’ And I think that's really important.”
Kendra also emphasizes the importance of creative thinking and empowering her organization to come up with new solutions. She believes in allowing her employees to have the entrepreneurial spirit.
She adds, “This allows the people who are told they're not creatives to become creative. I was a creative and was told that I couldn’t be a business person. If you are left brain you cannot have a right brain. Well, I say boo-hoo. You just have to build a bridge for the left and right side of the brain. You find the tools, the knowledge, the ability and the chance to do it. It is amazing when those things happen.“