She left college to start a billion dollar business. Now she’s building a school for the foundresses

“I feel like I’m on the set of Shark aquarium Right now, it was so good! “Kendra Scott gushes to the sound of a room full of cheers from college-aged women.

It’s the last day of the Women in Entrepreneurship class at the University of Texas at Austin, where Scott announced in 2019 the creation of a new institute focused on women in business: The Kendra Scott Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership for Women, or WELI. After a difficult first year of Zoom courses in the Age of Covid, the institute is finally finishing its first semester of in-person classes and fully realizing its vision, and this latest class is a day of start-up pitch demonstration.

“What I like, like, like,” Scott tells the group of five students who just introduced the first student startup of the night, “is that you’ve found white space in an industry of. $ 511 billion, and your idea is disruptive. ”The pitch offered a range of makeup and beauty education for pre-teens ages 8 to 11. Scott asks the group to wonder if they think too small. Should they be aiming for an even larger share of the market for their concept of “clean, confident and carefree beauty”?

WELI is one of the few nationwide university programs that aim to correcting gender disparities in entrepreneurship and corporate leadership. Only 2.3 percent of venture capital funding has gone to businesses founded only by women in 2020. Of the 3,000 largest companies in the United States, only 6% have women CEOs. Less than 40 percent of MBA students are women.

At the same time, research shows that women-led businesses perform better than those headed by men: according to S&P Global, they are more profitable and their stocks perform better.

The statistics are all too familiar. Scott, 95 percent of whose employees at the eponymous jewelry company are women, decided a few years ago that it was time to apply his entrepreneurial instincts to the problem. In 2019, she announced a donation of $ 1 million to UT to create the institute. Since then, she has handed over her CEO role to a longtime executive at her company, Tom Nolan, and has put her energy into education, including co-teaching (with serial tech entrepreneur Jan Ryan) the class culminating that night.

Open to everyone

An hour before the pitch session, Scott sits in a creamy white swivel chair next to the geometric, gold-hued desk in his corner office at his namesake company and explains his vision and how it grew.

A college dropout who started her business without formal business training, Scott eventually enrolled in a course run by Organizing Entrepreneurs at MIT in which renowned founders teach the fundamentals of their success. “And I remember coming into that class,” she said, “still struggling with this idea that I was a jewelry designer, an artist, I couldn’t really be a CEO – that idea that you have left and right brains – brain people, business people, and artistic people. But I also wanted to learn business. “

This frustration that she remembers – and the feeling that it persists today for many young women – is at the heart of how she envisioned WELI. “Seeing how many women don’t even sign up for some of these classes, because they’re intimidated to walk into the classroom where they’ll be a minority, shocked me,” she says.

A deterrent to exploring business education, argues Scott, is one of the causes of the under-representation of women in the entrepreneurial elite. (Besides, she says, a parallel argument could be made on engineering or other male-dominated topics.)

His solution is to encourage experimentation, not only to offer a range of courses in the new institute, but to negotiate with leaders from other parts of the university to open some of their courses to WELI students who could not. not follow them otherwise. . “One of the things I’m trying to do with this institute is allow these women to take a course, even if they’re not enrolled in McCombs Business School or going to get a graduate degree. It could open up a new opportunity or new interest. ”

She imagines a political science major taking courses through WELI and emerging in a more comprehensive manner and with better honed leadership skills – not only to understand political issues, but also to have some of the tools to be an effective politician. Or, say, a talented jewelry designer emerging with the ability to turn her designs into a brand.

Rather than integrating it with McCombs, Scott established his institute as an interdisciplinary program open to students from any part of the university. Its physical center is at the College of Fine Arts. From 2022, the McCombs school will offer a new WELI specialization within its minor entrepreneurship.

Concrete steps

The official description of course FA371, the Women in Entrepreneurship course ending with pitch demonstrations, promises “to provide practical and tangible tools to equip and empower women entrepreneurs … The objective of this course is to confront prejudices and common gender conditions. “

It’s both a noble and a utilitarian goal, and it’s something Scott says she has sought to address in her business as well. Because Kendra Scott is a business dominated by women, “we are creating a kind of utopia,” she says. “It’s not the real world, and I’ve heard a lot of our female leaders, if they go into another business, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, my god, this is so different.'”

To take an example of how she trains students to overcome prejudices, she cites the tendency of women and men to be asked different types of questions in pitch meetings with investors. (Harvard business review called prevention or promotion issues; women are asked about barriers to success, while men are asked about potential for success.) “How do you control this conversation? Scott said. “Are you going to let them run the narrative, or are you going to be able, halfway through the presentation, to say, ‘Let’s talk about the opportunities”?

“Or when you walk into the room and they kind of look at each other, sometimes you have to attack them in the face and identify them, like, ‘Well, I’m the only one wearing a dress here today. Great. Let’s talk. ‘”

Scott says one of her most common teaching techniques is to draw inspiration from various scenarios she’s encountered during her decades of experience building a billion dollar brand, then role-playing with his students. She’s playing the tough guy.

Other WELI courses have included a practical internship in which students create a collection of Kendra Scott jewelry and bring it to market, learning each step of creating, making and selling a new product; an introduction to the commercialization of STEM technologies at the college of engineering; and a female leadership course.

Authorized access

Returning to the end of semester presentation session, Scott is seated at a long table alongside three other women who essentially act as his co-Sharks: Kathryn Cavanaugh, Managing Partner of Capstar Ventures, a venture capital fund in which Scott is involved; Beth Goff-McMillan, CEO of fast-growing office furniture dealer SKG; and Sara Brand, founding partner of True Wealth Ventures, a fund that invests in businesses founded by women.

Notable student startups include Gal Garage, which aims to certify auto repair shops for transparency and solid service; Cherry Picked, a universal shopping cart for new moms; and Fresh Face, the pre-teens beauty brand. There are 31 students in the class and six companies. Afterwards, Scott is still buzzing about some of them; Gal Garage, in particular, got all the bogus investors excited and asked them about how this could work.

But perhaps the biggest priority for Scott, now that the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute has a good semester under their belt, is figuring out how to grow it. “I want to see more women who go through this program to be able to start and build their own businesses, so that we can start to have more female founders,” she says. “And I want to be able to follow that over time to see that the things that we teach, the tools that we give them, make these things actually happen.”

These results will take time, but in the meantime there will be more courses offered directly by WELI, and more courses in other disciplines that are open to WELI students. Perhaps there will be brother institutes which will take shape in other great universities; several have already inquired, says Scott, and she and UT started discussing how to replicate the program and export it.

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