"When I started this, I had people tell me I had to get out of Austin and move to L.A. or New York City to be a legitimate fashion brand," remembers Kendra Scott. "But something in my gut told me to stay." Smart move: Scott's eponymous jewelry and lifestyle company is now valued at $1 billion, and she still owns a majority stake.
That kind of success was unimaginable for Scott as recently as 2009, when the financial crisis almost killed her company. She founded the business in 2002, designing jewelry out of her spare bedroom and toting her 3-month-old to local boutiques to persuade them to carry her accessibly priced statement earrings. Eventually, she had distribution in mostly independent stores around the country--until the bottom fell out of the economy and many of those businesses shuttered. Even at her major retail partners, buyers were getting laid off or canceling orders. "Business went down 40 percent in a year," she says. "It was chaos."
Desperate for a way forward--and, at the time, recently divorced with two small children--Scott decided to make the least logical bet: open her own store. She decided if she was going to build a brand, she needed to forge a direct relationship with her customers, both in person and online. But bank after bank rejected her for a loan, until Texas Capital took a chance on her. "I will always bank with them," Scott says now. "They looked at me not as a loan number but as a human."
Scott opened her store on Austin's South Congress Avenue, the city's hippest shopping strip. But it was different from other jewelry stores, which she generally found creepy, with their locked glass-enclosed cases and hovering security guards. "I hated going into jewelry stores," she says. "I wanted customers to engage with the product and have fun, to touch and feel the pieces and try them on, like how we shop for clothes." So she did away with the typical trappings, instead creating a Color Bar, where shoppers could mix and match materials to personalize their pieces, while sipping champagne.
If Scott's first store proved her retail prescience, her second store gave her a lesson in staying authentic to her Austin roots. In 2011, Scott debuted her second location on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, only to discover that no one there knew or cared about her brand. The store flopped, and she decided to open her next store back in Texas. When Scott raised her first round of venture capital in 2014, she doubled down on opening stores around the South and the Midwest, catering to a multigenerational clientele that the fashion elite in New York and Los Angeles largely ignored. "Being away from those big cities gave me a unique perspective on what was happening in fashion, and then I put my own spin on it," says Scott.
In late 2016, Scott sold a large minority stake of her company to the private equity firm Berkshire Partners, at a valuation of $1 billion. By then, having established her brand on its own terms, she was ready to storm the coasts and beyond. She now has a thriving e-commerce operation and 92 stores, including a shop inside the London luxury department store Selfridges, and her first New York City outpost, a 1,700-square-foot store in SoHo.
But Scott gives as much credit for the growth that followed her original store to the mutually supportive business community in Austin. Just as local boutiques had given her a start and Texas Capital had given her a lifeline, other entrepreneurs in Austin stepped in as mentors. Clayton Christopher, who created and sold both Sweet Leaf Tea and Deep Eddy Vodka, advised Scott when she took her first equity investment. Steve Hicks, a radio entrepreneur, was her first investor. Now Scott invests in and advises younger companies in Austin, such as Helm Boots and Darbie Angell dinnerware. Austin, she says, has kept a kind of outsider mentality, and that has spurred the city's entrepreneurs to band together. "The way we see it, we are not competing with each other but competing against the world," she says. "So why not lift each other up?"