Behind the Desk

Co-founder of $1.6 billion brand Skims: 'I have a rule — you have to do things that scare you'

Good American co-founder and CEO on launching a size-inclusive denim brand with Khloé Kardashian
Good American co-founder and CEO on launching a size-inclusive denim brand with Khloé Kardashian

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

For Emma Grede, growing up in East London during the late '80s and early '90s meant one thing: a dream of making it big in the fashion industry.

"It was all about the supermodels," Grede, 39, tells CNBC Make It. "British fashion was really booming."

Today, she's arguably achieved that dream. In 2018, she co-founded Culver City, California-based shapewear brand Skims with Kim Kardashian — who told the New York Times in April that the company has a $1.6 billion valuation.

Grede is also the co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Good American, a size-inclusive brand she launched with Khloé Kardashian in 2016. The company is on pace to bring in $155 million in 2021 sales, according to a company spokesperson.

But Grede's journey wasn't straightforward. In 2008, seven years after graduating from the London College of Fashion, she decided to launch an entertainment marketing agency, ITB Worldwide. She was only 26 years old, with little-to-no industry experience — and it showed.

As she tells it, the agency took off after she spent countless hours on the phone sharpening her deal-making skills, securing brand partners like Dior and clients like Kris Jenner and Natalie Portman. In 2018, ITB Worldwide was acquired by marketing agency Rogers & Cowan for an undisclosed sum.

Today, Grede also sits on the board of 15 Percent Pledge, a nonprofit encouraging retailers to pledge at least 15 percent of their shelves to Black-owned businesses. Last month, she became the first-ever Black woman investor to appear on ABC's "Shark Tank."

Here, she discusses why she took that entrepreneurial leap, how she honed her deal-making skills and why she prioritizes supporting other women — especially women of color — in business.

On starting her own business: 'You have to do things that scare you'

I never, ever had an ambition to start my own company. I didn't know anyone growing up who had their own business. The frustration of being poorly remunerated [in my entry-level job after college] and feeling like I wasn't in control of my own destiny is ultimately what led me to starting my own thing.

And I have a rule: You have to do things that scare you. I think that's so important for growth.

For six or seven months, I had to do everything myself from scratch. I would go out and win the business, service the business and then go back to the office late at night and make the invoice to get paid. I hired people that I was paying more than myself, because I needed to compensate for my own inadequacies or gaps in my knowledge.

Some people, they'll be like, "I'm the CEO. I'm the top dog. I should be getting paid the most money." For me, it was never about that. I wanted to win by any means possible.

At the end of ITB, we had offices in New York, Los Angeles and London, and over 150 members of staff. I was able to sell that company, which was a huge milestone. You make your own luck, right? It's where preparation meets opportunity, and I was just very prepared. I knew everything about my space.

On sharpening her deal-making skills: 'It's all about relationships'

It's all about relationships, and I'm very good at creating and nurturing them.

You have to park your ego at the door and be humble. You're essentially there to win somebody else's business. That means knowing everything about them and [your] competition.

Growing up, I learned to listen more than I speak. It's a really big skill in building relationships: You've got to hear what the client is saying, and speak it back to them. I can't tell you how many pitches I have won in my life by just speaking it back to the client. They'd be like, "You understand exactly what we need."

Be super nice to everyone, no matter where they are in the food chain. Some of those kids that I was working with 15 years ago were assistants at the top agencies then. Now, they're running their own agencies.

I'm an interested person. I actually care about your story. When you come from an honest and authentic place — clients, customers, business associates — they feel an indescribable connection.

On uplifting women in business: 'I'll support as many Black women as I can afford to'

People say, "Wow, [Good American] feels like such a diverse company." Well, the decisions are being made by a Black woman. I have Black women in positions of management.

Part of your responsibility when you're successful, especially as a woman, is to understand that journey for other women. It's so hard for women, regardless of where they come from, to raise [start-up funds], especially for female-centric ideas.

For women of color, the numbers go down even further. Part of the reason I wanted to go for "Shark Tank" [was] so we could start to see how many Black women are out there with incredible ideas, and bring them to the forefront.

It wasn't so many years ago that I was trying to raise funding. To have the opportunity to sit in front of incredible female entrepreneurs and get their business ideas out into the ether, that was incredible.

I'll support as many Black women as I can afford to. But it's really about it becoming the norm.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect a Good American spokesperson's comments on the company's projected 2021 sales.

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