Austin Founders Series: Kendra Scott

Kendra Scott with her three sons.
Kendra Scott with her three sons. Photo credit: Tribeza

As I continue this Austin Founders series, I am often reminded of a quote by Napoleon: “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.” That’s not to say brands succeed without help, but you only need one person with an idea to start something great. That sentiment is especially true for this week’s Austin Founder, Kendra Scott. 

Kendra always had a passion for the fashion industry, but she felt that the jewelry market lacked stylish options that were affordable and accessible to young moms like her. In this week’s edition, I’ll explore Kendra’s origins, her grassroots jewelry advertising strategies, and her ascent as the CEO of a billion-dollar jewelry empire.

Founder Story

Unlike previous founders in this series, Kendra’s story begins far from Texas in the northern reaches of Kenosha, Wisconsin. When she was 16, her family moved to the Lone Star state. After graduating from Klein High School in Houston, Kendra left the nest to pursue her education at Texas A&M University. However, Kendra’s journey took an unexpected turn when she made the difficult decision to drop out of school and relocate to Austin to assist her stepfather, who was battling cancer.

After spending time with him during his chemotherapy treatments, Kendra noticed how hats could inspire patients suffering from hair loss. With this idea, she started her first company, Hat Box. Her idea was to bring back the fashion styles of yesteryear, hoping that hats would make a comeback as a daily fashion staple. Scott was only 19 when she started this business, and with a lot of motivation and optimism, she managed to open her first retail location in Austin.

Kendra Scott in her original store, Hat Box.
Kendra Scott in her original store, Hat Box. Photo credit: Kendra Scott

To sustain Hat Box, Kendra kept the doors open seven days a week, offering a diverse range of hats to appeal to a wide audience. From wedding and derby hats to fedoras and fishing hats, every style imaginable was available alongside Kendra’s handmade jewelry. Despite her efforts, hats failed to regain their former popularity.

Scott managed to keep Hat Box afloat for five years, but she eventually had to close its doors. Dejected, Kendra continued to make one-off jewelry creations for her friends and family, but she was unsure of her next career move. 

After a period of soul-searching, Kendra took a position at a travel company in Austin, where she contributed articles to the company’s magazine. Constant travel provided Kendra with ample downtime during flights and hotel stays, which she utilized for sketching jewelry designs. Little did she know, this creative pursuit would lead to the next exciting chapter in the Kendra Scott story.

A Jewel of an Idea

In 2002, Kendra became pregnant with her first child and was confined to bedrest. She could no longer travel, but this provided the perfect opportunity for her to dedicate herself full-time to jewelry. Armed with her wooden tea box of jewelry and a newborn baby on her hip, Kendra went to work. 

At Hat Box, jewelry was sold as secondary merchandise, and it always flew off the shelves, so Kendra decided to follow the money and make jewelry her primary business. With all $500 of her savings, Kendra threw herself into her new venture. Kendra became a one-woman show, going door-to-door in Austin, trying to sell her wares to local shops and boutiques. 

Initially, she aimed to make $500 back, but she faced rejection almost immediately. She was quickly dismissed by her first buyer, and that painful rejection almost made Kendra quit altogether. She managed to push that feeling aside and drive to the next store, hoping for a different reaction. And this is where her luck began to turn. 

The next buyer placed an order, and two more after that. Her confidence was again boosted when her fifth buyer bought all of her samples for an upcoming fashion show, sending Kendra home with $1,200. It was at this moment she realized that Kendra Scott Jewelry had a chance.

Kendra Scott’s Jewelry designs. Photo Credit: Kendra Scott Blog

Building a Brand

Her grassroots jewelry advertising strategies continued to pay off as demand for her designs grew. Over time, Kendra assembled a small team of women, including her mother, and dubbed them the “super seven.” With her trusted team, Kendra Scott continued to build her company year after year.

By 2005, Kendra’s family life was changing, and she needed to pivot once again. Now a freshly divorced single mom, Kendra hoped to expand her jewelry line but struggled to find investors. Everyone told her she needed just one “angel investor” to bring much-needed capital to the brand. Kendra was frustrated by the idea that her company could only expand with the help of some magical benefactor. Kendra refused to wait around for a miracle and continued expanding her brand as much as possible with no investors and a line of credit. She had to do this herself.

At this point, Kendra Scott Jewelry was purely wholesale. Once bitten twice shy after Hat Box, Kendra hesitated to open another brick-and-mortar store. Then, the 2008 recession forced her to make another strategic shift. Her client list began to dwindle as more and more businesses closed their doors. Amidst these challenges, she faced a particularly harsh blow when she shipped a $25,000 order to a retailer that had been in business for 100 years, only for the chain to file for bankruptcy ten days later.

For less tenacious business owners, this could have been the death knell for Kendra Scott Jewelry. But Kendra took this opportunity to squash her fears and pivot back to retail. Until now, other retailers were speaking for Kendra’s jewelry, but now it was time to connect with her customers like never before.

Personalized Glamour

Despite the inherent risk during an economic downturn, the first Kendra Scott Jewelry store opened in Austin in 2010. Kendra understood that opening a conventional store wouldn’t attract customers grappling with financial uncertainty. She aimed to transform the retail experience into a memorable event. If people were going to spend their hard-earned money, she wanted them to feel it was worthwhile.

The original Kendra Scott store in Austin.
The original Kendra Scott store in Austin. Photo credit: Kendra Scott Blog

Kendra Scott stores purposely display their jewlery on top of the counter rather than under glass. This encourages customers to interact with the products and feel the craftsmanship firsthand. The Color Bar is the distinctive centerpiece of every store. Here, customers select their preferred settings and gemstones. These bespoke creations are promptly crafted into a finished piece by store staff, ready to be worn or gifted without delay. Customers can enjoy a delightful pairing of cupcakes and champagne as they watch their jewelry designs take shape. 

Blending style and affordability is a hallmark of her product line. Kendra Scott Jewelry is priced from $48 to $198. Bridge sterling silver/vermeil ranges from $38 to $300. For those seeking finer pieces, prices start at $150 and climb up to $4,000. These accessible pricing opinions encourage women to layer their jewelry and create personalized looks that speak to their individuality.  

All of these factors set Kendra Scott’s retail experience apart from any other jewelry store. The overwhelmingly positive response soon led to long lines outside her store. The initial success of her South Congress location prompted her to go out of state and open her first store in California—but not just anywhere in California—she opened her second store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Having a store in one of the country’s most glamorous locations would be a significant milestone for any brand, but for Kendra, it was short-lived. The Beverly Hills location remained open briefly before she ultimately had to shut it down.

The inside of Kendra Scott Jewelry.
The inside of Kendra Scott Jewelry. Photo credit: Kendra Scott Blog

After the Beverly Hills closure, Kendra redirected her focus to regions she knew well and where her customer base thrived. The first Kendra Scott store opened in Houston in 2012, quickly followed by Dallas. She achieved consistent online and in-store success, culminating in a valuation of $1 billion by 2016. 

By then, she had demonstrated such remarkable success that she no longer needed an “angel investor.” In 2016, the private equity firm Berkshire Partners acquired a substantial minority stake in her company, marking the most significant investment in her company to date. This proved to Kendra that she was no longer a small fish in a big pond.

Kendra Scott’s Jewelry Advertising Mastery

Kendra Scott’s marketing strategy has undergone a dynamic evolution, transitioning from traditional door-to-door sales to one driven by digital innovation.  At the heart of this evolution lies Kendra’s commitment to meeting the evolving needs of her clientele.

In contrast to a challenging jewelry retail market where overall sales have steadily decreased, Kendra Scott stands out as a growing presence. The biggest players in the jewelry industry, including Signet Jewelers (the owner of Zales, Kay Jewelers, and Jared), have been closing hundreds of stores since 2019, so Kendra Scott’s expansion signifies a bright spot in the industry. 

When COVID-19 hit, Kendra Scott demonstrated her hallmark adaptability. Her team quickly rolled out initiatives like curbside pickup and virtual try-ons. Kendra also worked alongside Texas lawmakers to provide insights on swiftly and safely reopening Texas businesses.

Kendra Scott working on jewelry designs
Kendra Scott working on jewelry designs. Photo credit: Kendra Scott Website

Another notable highlight in Kendra Scott’s digital journey came through an unexpected avenue in 2021: TikTok. The brand sparked a viral sensation during sorority rush weeks nationwide, earning it a coveted spot in the cultural phenomenon dubbed” Bama RushTok.” Sorority recruits from the University of Alabama began posting “outfit of the day” videos with the #kendrascott hashtag, boosting the brand’s visibility even more. Building upon this success, Kendra Scott’s marketing team targeted back-to-school campaigns, seizing the opportunity to further embed the brand into the lives of their core demographic.

Empowerment in the Heart of Texas

Despite the temptation to move her fashion empire to Los Angeles or New York City, Kendra remained resolute in her belief in the spirit of Austin. With a desire to give back, she became deeply invested in supporting its growth and creating a community for female entrepreneurs. With a workforce composed of 98% women, Kendra has consistently emphasized the importance of female empowerment.

At every Kendra Scott store, each manager enjoys the autonomy to sponsor events benefiting local causes and individuals in need. For instance, every store features a pad on the sales counter where customers can nominate causes close to their hearts. The company hosts thousands of events annually, actively contributing to local community groups.

Kendra at the opening of the Kendra Scott Center. Photo credit: Kendra Scott Blog

Kendra continues establishing platforms for aspiring female leaders to network, mentor, and champion their ambitions. This effort materialized in the form of the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. The institute also offers an entrepreneurial program open to all majors, allowing anyone to explore their potential, regardless of their academic background.

In 2023, the Kendra Scott Foundation was established to create enduring support for women and young people. Through partnerships with local and national organizations, the foundation focuses on healthcare, education, and entrepreneurship initiatives. From advancing cancer research to championing women entrepreneurs, the Kendra Scott Foundation is instrumental in shaping a brighter future for individuals in Texas and beyond. 

Kendra Scott’s Austin Legacy

Kendra Scott’s journey teaches us the invaluable lesson of trusting your instincts and taking initiative. With over 2,000 employees and 108 standalone stores across the United States, Kendra Scott Jewelry is a beacon of entrepreneurship and innovation. 

Beyond its impressive growth, Kendra Scott’s brand has played a pivotal role in putting Austin on the map for fashion. As our city continues to evolve, I hope that Kendra’s story will encourage more fearless entrepreneurs to contribute to Austin’s rise as a hub of style and creativity.

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About
Dan Ben-Nun

Dan Ben-Nun is a successful entrepeneur and digital marketing guru. He’s founded & grown 2 companies from zero to multi-million dollar businesses and has helped hundreds of companies grow with digital marketing.

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Austin Founders Series: Kendra Scott

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