Kim Kardashian turned Skims into a $4 billion company. She wants to build the next generation of unicorns with SKKY Partners, her new private equity firm
This story is part of Fortune’s 2023 Most Powerful Women issue.
Kardashian, 42, shot to fame in 2007 when her California-native family—already Hollywood-adjacent with friends like the Hiltons and Kathie Lee Gifford—secured the E! series Keeping Up With the Kardashians. In those early years, Kardashian, then in her mid-twenties, hustled with the help of mom and manager Kris Jenner to become a regular presence in the media and on red carpets. At the time, Kardashian and her family were mostly famous for being famous. Yet at the show’s peak, 10.5 million viewers tuned in to see Kim chase her childhood dream of reality TV stardom and take shifts at her family’s clothing boutique, Dash.
Kardashian is now one of the most famous women in the world and has been so for the past 17 years. Her 364 million Instagram followers eat up her tips on fashion, beauty, and—more recently—entrepreneurship. Kardashian first dabbled in business by lending her image to companies, but more recently she’s built her own enterprises from the ground up. Of brands she’s launched over the years, apparel company Skims is her most successful. A unicorn four times over, it’s headed for the public markets.
With her skill set—not to mention her profile, connections, and wealth—Kardashian has “capabilities that universally no other human being on Earth has,” says Sammons. So why—of all things—private equity? “I don’t make a decision like this lightly,” Kardashian says of starting SKKY. The easy answer is that she trusts Sammons, and PE is his forte. (Another obvious reason Kardashian doesn’t mention is that it’s an opportunity to add to her fortune—$1.7 billion as of July, according to a Forbes estimate.) The more nuanced explanation is that until now, Kardashian’s success building businesses has largely been confined to the Kardashian-Jenner ecosystem, a universe of apparel, beauty, beverage, and wellness brands started by her siblings—making it easy for skeptics to credit those wins to TV exposure and Jenner’s savvy as a manager.Fame certainly gave Kardashian a leg up in business, but plenty of celebrities squander that edge; Kardashian ran with it. So far, her intuition, style, and aptitude for connecting with consumers have helped her monetize her personal brand at each stage of its evolution, from B-list celebrity to superstar influencer. Kardashian’s new private equity firm will test whether she can do for others what she’s done for herself. She’ll be assembling a portfolio of companies that don’t have the built-in advantage of featuring her likeness or her family’s now-famous name.
On a Monday in mid-September, Kardashian is in New York from Calabasas for a charity dinner with French luxury giant Kering, investor meetings, and two photo shoots. In a hotel suite in Midtown, a team prepping for a photo shoot floats around her: a stylist, a hair stylist and makeup artist (and their assistants), two Hulu cameramen, a publicist, an assistant, and a seamstress. The room is filled with racks of Skims, Louis Vuitton, and Balenciaga—even the seamstress is wearing Balenciaga activewear. Despite the hubbub, Kardashian is mellow, more laid-back in person than her onscreen persona. In her professional mode, she speaks softly and sometimes slowly. Her colleagues across her various endeavors describe her as a listener, someone who first takes in all available information and then leaps into action, asking, “What can I do? Who can I call?”She’s adopted that approach, she says, after years of being on the other side of that power dynamic and feeling like she wasn’t heard. Over the years, she’s been a part of all kinds of business relationships. The very first ones were with her late father, Robert Kardashian, a businessman and attorney best known for advising O.J. Simpson, who made his daughter sign contracts to resolve familial matters, like repaying him for a wrecked car. In her early twenties, Kardashian sold headbands she hand-made to the era’s trendiest retailer, Fred Segal. After her family landed their TV show, she signed her first endorsement deals in 2011 with Skechers and the liquor brand Midori.
In 2013, game developer Glu Mobile pitched the star on Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, in which Kardashian’s likeness guides players on the road to fame. The game earned $83 million right after its release and was downloaded more than 60 million times. (Glu sold to Electronic Arts in 2021.)Then there was the viral emoji app Kimoji, launched by platform App Social, which also used Kardashian’s likeness. That business partnership ended with a $300 million lawsuit that accused Kardashian of cutting App Social out of profits. (She won the suit in 2020.)
In 2017, Kardashian decided to put her own concepts front and center rather than defer to the ideas of others. The launch of beauty brand KKW Beauty (later renamed SKKN by Kim) marked her graduation from businesses that relied on outside partners to her own companies. The brand was a hit: She sold a 20% stake in KKW Beauty to beauty giant Coty Inc. for $200 million in 2021 (and now is reportedly looking to buy that stake back; she declined to comment).Recently, she and her team have struck deals with Skims’ venture capital backers that include Thrive Capital, Lone Pine Capital, and Wellington Capital Management. Through it all, she’s seen what works and what doesn’t. Her worst experiences involved potential business partners who wanted to capitalize on her name and image but didn’t value her input. “I’ve always found that the most successful ones are where I don’t have a lot of middlemen, where I’m really close to the partners,” she says. She learned to go into business only with someone who would listen, and collaborate. For years, Sammons has lent Kardashian his ear. The two met a decade ago, after being introduced by Anastasia Soare, founder of beauty brand Anastasia Beverly Hills.
They bonded over their shared obsession with consumer brands that tapped into the cultural zeitgeist. Kardashian, an early Twitter adopter, had turned her millions of followers into a minute-by-minute focus group: What should she wear? How should she paint her nails? Users’ responses gave her insight into consumer behavior. Kardashian, her mom, and her four sisters used that knowledge to be at the forefront of trends, from over-lined lips to shapewear as outerwear.Sammons, too, has a knack for spotting the next big thing. The 47-year-old, who now lives near Boston with his husband and children, ran point on Carlyle deals buying stakes in streetwear brand Supreme and headphone brand Beats by Dre. He led Carlyle’s 2017 investment in music manager Scooter Braun’s company Ithaca Holdings, and Carlyle later supported Ithaca’s purchase of Big Machine Records, the owner of Taylor Swift’s masters. (After the deal, the superstar singer began releasing re-recordings of six albums.)
The active nature of private equity investing is one reason she found the industry so appealing. However, compared to venture capital, PE is stodgier and often more ruthless. It’s less a game of chance and more a game of chess. PE investors in the consumer category examine brands that have already found product-market fit to identify the ones that, with the right help, could scale from, say, $100 million in revenue to more than $1 billion, becoming household names. With Supreme, Carlyle invested 23 years after the brand’s founding; its value had doubled to $2.1 billion by the time Carlyle exited in 2020. And Kardashian and Skims cofounder and CEO Jens Grede, an e-commerce and marketing whiz known as a cofounder of denim brand Frame, conceived of their brand as a Nike, not another direct-to-consumer flash in the pan.That process takes time; PE firms generally forecast five-year holds for their investments and typically raise more than one fund, requiring a decade-plus commitment. “You need to believe enough in the promise of this consumer product or service—that it’s in line with what consumers are going to want over time, not just today,” says Tricia Glynn, managing partner at the private equity firm Advent International, an investor in brands including the hair care products Olaplex and fashion label Zimmermann. The process also often involves making dramatic changes, which is one more reason that PE tends to attract hands-on operators rather than check writers.
Such a time commitment is enough to scare off most investors with a day job, whether or not that job is in Hollywood. But Kardashian has always taken the long view. “I’m an eight-to-10-year-out-plan kind of person, and I think it’s really important to have that patient mindset,” Kardashian says. And for most celebrities, business is a side thing. For Kardashian, it’s the thing. In that case, she doesn’t mind waiting.The top selling point for Kardashian was that Sammons was all in on the idea, willing to ditch his cushy job at Carlyle for their shared venture. “I explained to him what kind of fund I would really want to be about,” Kardashian says. “He really understood and got it.” That trust ran both ways: “I would never have left that type of position to join forces with someone in whom I did not have the level of confidence I have in Kim,” Sammons says, “not only in her skills and capabilities, but in her commitment to what we’re building and her drive to do so.”
Getting to a $4 billion valuation in four years is no small feat, and Grede says Kardashian has been an active partner through each phase. “We’ve gone through every stage, from incubating an idea to raising money from mutual funds and sovereign wealth funds,” Grede says. Kardashian came up with the idea for Skims based on her own experiences cutting up and dyeing shapewear to better fit her body, and she trusted her instinct to sell riskier products like the one-legged shapewear. Grede credits Kardashian for Skims’ marketing campaigns that reunited former Victoria’s Secret Angels and featured the Italian stars of The White Lotus. He’s seen Kardashian go from “idealistic to pragmatic” as Skims has grown, improving her understanding of “what makes something commercially viable.”
SKKY Partners aims to help other startups achieve the kind of rapid scaling that Skims has pulled off. SKKY has so far hired eight staffers, some from Sammons’s old competitors Blackstone and L Catterton. It recently brought on former Burberry CEO and Apple SVP Angela Ahrendts as a senior operating advisor. “We’re a brilliant complement to each other,” Ahrendts says of the Kardashian-Jenner-Sammons-Ahrendts quartet. Ahrendts was impressed by Kardashian’s expertise in content and culture in their first meeting at Kardashian’s office in Calabasas.SKKY will be dual-headquartered between Sammons’s and Kardashian’s homes in Boston and Los Angeles. The managing partners say they defer to the other’s areas of expertise—the same dynamic Kardashian shares with Grede at Skims. SKKY started fundraising in March. Its limited partners will likely include high-net-worth individuals, sovereign wealth platforms, and family offices. (Sammons and Kardashian are also personal investors in the fund.) It’s a tough fundraising environment, especially for first-time funds, says Kelley Morrell, a former Blackstone senior managing director who worked on the firm’s Spanx deal (and is now CFO for the food delivery startup Wonder). Between 2008 and 2021, emerging managers—those raising a first, second, or third fund—earned 26.8% of total capital in private equity, according to data provider PitchBook. In 2022 and early 2023, they received 13.9% of capital. But the rules may not apply to SKKY given the notoriety of its founders. Sammons and Kardashian are aiming to make eight to 12 control or active minority investments over the next four to five years, focused on the North American market to start and reportedly taking stakes between $100 million and $500 million. They haven’t made their first investment yet, but they’ve narrowed in on a few prospects. They’re defining their “consumer” focus in broad terms. They’re interested in Kardashian’s specialties, like fashion and beauty, but are also considering other sectors like media, food and beverage, and hospitality. The firm could even invest in a Skims rival—there’s no legal rule against doing so, and the firm founders believe there can be multiple winners in each category. Still, the fund is unlikely to invest in any Kardashian-Jenner businesses directly. In a September phone call from her Calabasas home, Kardashian painted a picture of her ideal portfolio company: It will have an active founder who puts their “heart and soul” into the company. “I want to hear their vision. I want to hear their dreams,” she says. She’s looking for the “magic sauce” that tells her a brand has something special. Also on her wish list is “authenticity,” not a startup that resembles her own brands. “It’s not like they’re going to start working with my fund and all of a sudden their whole brand is nude and beige, like a Kim-branded company,” she says. Instead, she wants to show founders how to find their own niche that resonates with consumers. What Kardashian doesn’t want is any association with private equity’s reputation as a corporate raider. At its worst, the industry is known for buying up struggling businesses, laying off workers, and selling what’s left for parts. Sammons agrees that SKKY can avoid that approach. “There are a lot of great private equity firms that are excellent at fixing things that are broken”—also known as buying “distressed” businesses—“and financially engineering in a way that creates value for their investors. But it’s a very different way of creating value than we do,” he says. The duo says they have been inundated with interest in their fund—including from some mature brands that surprised them. “Modern founders of brands in the marketplace today recognize the unique capabilities we have,” Sammons says. “Many of them are contemporaries of ours and have been building their businesses in parallel with Kim building hers.”
This article appears in the October/November 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Reaching for the SKKY.”