Women and Wealth

From The Wall Street Journal: How Kendra Scott Built a Billion-Dollar Fashion Empire — Without Beverly Hills

BY Spectrum Wealth Management | Sep 28, 2022
By Rory Satran
September 15, 2022

“Hi y’all! My top is from Shein, my skirt is from Lilly Pulitzer, my shoes are from Steve Madden, my earrings are from T.J. Maxx, my bracelet is from Cartier—and my necklace is from Kendra Scott.” 

In the familiar cadence of “Bama Rush” videos, the subgenre of TikTok’s “outfit of the day” posts that grew out of the University of Alabama’s sorority-rush season, one jewelry brand comes up again and again. Earrings? Kendra Scott. Ring? Kendra Scott. Bracelet? Kendra Scott! 

“It’s almost like a cult following,” said Ms. Scott of her appeal, wearing a top in her signature shade of sunny yellow when we spoke over Zoom. 

When Bama Rush first began trending in 2021, it introduced Kendra Scott to the kind of coastal-elite audience that had been ignoring her for nearly 20 years. By the time she became a TikTok sensation, the 48-year-old jewelry designer had already steadily built an empire valued at more than $1 billion. Founded in 2002 in Austin, Texas, the Kendra Scott brand went from a single mom hand-tooling jewelry in her spare bedroom to a retail behemoth with 130 stores in the U.S., an estimated $360 million in annual sales and a devoted fan base, especially among young Southern women. In 2017, Boston investment firm Berkshire Partners closed on an undisclosed stake in Kendra Scott, valuing the company at $1 billion and with Ms. Scott retaining majority ownership.

Sitting in front of an exuberant abstract painting (in a yellow palette, of course) at her Austin headquarters, Ms. Scott shared her story with all the enthusiasm of a morning-show host after 10 matcha lattes. “It’s about more than just the jewelry, it’s the brand,” she said. “And I think our brand is representative of an optimistic attitude.”

Ms. Scott’s superfans paint their nails in iridescent jewel tones to match their Kendra Scott gemstone pieces, like the bestselling Elisa necklace, which is available in 26 stones, each for under $100. While the company now offers fine jewelry, including diamond engagement rings, it’s largely the inexpensive, colorful semiprecious pieces in the $50-$250 range that high-school and college-aged women clamor for and show off on social media. It’s not uncommon for fans to ask Ms. Scott to autograph their jewelry packaging, or take selfies with her if they’re lucky enough to spot her in one of her stores. 

The sunny Kendra Scott myth is about to expand when Ms. Scott publishes her inspirational memoir, “Born to Shine: Do Good, Find Your Joy, and Build a Life You Love,” on Sept. 20. It asks the same question countless sorority girls and aspiring entrepreneurs have wondered: How did Kendra Scott, a former public-relations executive from Kenosha, Wis., become a mogul and philanthropist—virtually all through hyperlocal marketing and word-of-mouth?

Don’t Dismiss the Mary Kay Model

Ms. Scott was raised by a lawyer father and an enterprising mother, who split when she was 9 years old. In the Scott basement, Kendra’s mother met regularly with her Mary Kay beauty saleswomen group, “Jan’s Jewels.” Wearing pink jackets and pink bedazzled accessories, the women would sit in a circle and sing “I’ve got that Mary Kay enthusiasm down in my heart!” before plotting their sales moves. To Ms. Scott, it was an early model for women supporting women that she still applies to her business today. 

“There was this unbelievable sisterhood and friendship of rooting for one another, not tearing each other down,” Ms. Scott remembers. “It’s the power of what happens when women join hands and work together.” Ms. Scott writes in her book about how the Mary Kay ethos inspires her own company’s emphasis on female empowerment, as well as its attentive customer service. 

Like Mary Kay, Kendra Scott has also grown in part by its word-of-mouth, women-to-women grass roots marketing—an approach behind its “Direct Retail” community stylist program, announced this year. Allowing women to sell Kendra Scott jewelry directly to other women and make a commission, the program is what’s known as a single-level marketing strategy. Mary Kay, which was founded by Mary Kay Ash in 1963 and became a multibillion-dollar business that still exists today, grew in part due to a multilevel marketing plan. (Multilevel marketing businesses have an added incentive for members to recruit other members, which Kendra Scott does not.)

Forget Beverly Hills

In 2011, after the success of her first bricks-and-mortar retail store on South Congress Street in Austin, Texas, the previous year—which she said had lines around the block “like a nightclub in Las Vegas”—Ms. Scott decided she was ready to open her second store. She landed on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the luxury mecca. Except Kendra Scott wasn’t exactly luxury, at least not in the way that Rodeo shoppers were accustomed to. “It was a different cultural environment than, you know, kind of what we were experiencing here in Texas,” mused Ms. Scott. The store tanked within a year. 

To this day, it’s the only store that she’s closed. She said that at the time, she got caught up in the idea it might make her “legitimate.” But her customer lived in the less glitzy, more down-home corners of the country, such as Plano, Texas, where a Kendra Scott store once did $7 million in sales in one year. To Ms. Scott, it’s a lesson in being realistic about your business. “Brands sometimes engage in what they think they’re supposed to do,” she said, to their detriment. 

Release the Butterflies

Evincing luxury at an accessible price point is retail gold (think: Lululemon yoga pants in their shiny reusable tote, or a gift-with-purchase from a Lancôme counter). Kendra Scott, with its polished yellow-and-white boxes and bags, curvy golden medallion logo and pristine stores, has got a lock on the budget-luxury look. 

Daphine Bush, a hair stylist in Houston who often buys Kendra Scott gifts for her friends and family, said, “When they see that little yellow box, they’re always going to be excited about it.”

That sense of escape from the everyday was instilled in Ms. Scott by her mother, who used to say that, “It should be a butterfly release” when women open their Mary Kay packages. With her packaging and the store experience, Ms. Scott said, “I want her to know, she’s valued and appreciated and she’s seen.” Ultimately, the point is to drive sales. Or as Ms. Scott put it: “Connection before transaction.”

Embrace the Bama

When the “Bama Rush” videos first took off, often featuring Kendra Scott jewelry front and center, Ms. Scott was barely on TikTok. The week of rush in August 2021, traffic to the Kendra Scott TikTok page increased by 790% from the previous week. Ms. Scott said she was taken completely by surprise—but the company immediately embraced the bump. That month, Ms. Scott and her colleagues filmed reactions to all the Bama Rush content, spurring on the trend. 

“The TikTok audience likes this kind of fourth-wall-breaking that brands like Kendra Scott are doing more and more,” said Biz Sherbert, culture editor for The Digital Fairy marketing agency. It all became very meta. 

But even before TikTok, Ms. Scott recognized that college students, particularly those in sororities, had influence in their communities. Since Kendra Scott was started in Austin, where University of Texas mania runs deep, the brand offered pieces with Longhorn-orange stones from the get-go, and would roll out similarly spirited colors in other university areas around the south. 

“That is what started to really put us on the map,” remembered Ms. Scott. “Even in the early days, there would be 50,000 students in that stadium, and every other girl was wearing Kendra Scott.”

Create a Three-Year Vision Board

In 2020, with the pandemic closing her physical stores, against the backdrop of a second divorce, Ms. Scott met with a life coach. Together they set a three-year plan, something she’d done since she first heard of the practice from the author of “Vivid Vision” Cameron Herold. “Like most people, the chaos of 2020 had put me into a tornado of shifting needs and demands; even with solid core values I felt like my internal compass was constantly trying to find its way North,” she writes in the memoir. So she sat in the sunniest corner of her living room and outlined goals to do more teaching, more philanthropy, spend more time outdoors, and attend fewer unnecessary social events. She wanted to spend more time with her three sons, Cade, 20, Beck, 18, and Grey, 9. 

While Ms. Scott still retains the title of founder, executive chairwoman and chief creative officer, she promoted Tom Nolan from president to CEO in February 2021. These days, she’s focused on design, philanthropy and applying that same three-year-plan to her business. 

She asks her employees, “What do you see yourself wanting to do in three years?” The question extends beyond business to include life goals, including motherhood. In an almost evangelical way, she hopes the book will help other women find their way, too. “I wanted to share my failures even more than the successes—because I think it’s so important for people to know that that’s real life,” she said. “They can do exceptional things, and they all have innate ability on this Earth to do something awesome.”

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on September 15, 2022, and written by Rory Satran.

  1. https://www.wsj.com/articles/kendra-scott-jewelry-book-memoir-bama-rush-11663101255
  2. Photo by Beth Garrabrant for WSJ. Magazine

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