Nina Khoury is the vice president of strategic operations at SKIMS, one of the fastest growing consumer retail brands in the world.

Nina Khoury on what she’s learned about business working at SKIMS

SKIMS, the shapewear brand co-founded by Kim Kardashian, Jens, and Emma Grede, has redefined Spanx for a new generation. In the latest installment of our female founders series, NY-based Nina sheds light on what it’s like to work inside one of the world’s fastest growing consumer brands.

In 2019, serial entrepreneurs and real-life couple Jens and Emma Grede joined forces with reality star turned cultural juggernaut Kim Kardashian to start SKIMS. If Jens and Emma brought the operational side of the equation, Kim K brought that sweet, sweet celebrity brand equity.

The result of that potent equation has been that in four short years, SKIMS has proven a massive hit with American customers. Most recent figures show that SKIMS is on track to hit a total of US$700 million in sales revenue since the company started, selling millions of "units" of shape wear, loungewear and intimates to suit every skin tone.

The company’s marketing is consistently on point, featuring photo shoots bringing together women from all walks of life with a strong visual language that’s both accessible and ethereal. Since then, the company has gone on to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital to plough into its growth, with most recent public valuations putting the value of SKIMS at around US$4 billion.

And while Kim Kardashian has drawn ire for her for sometimes excessive focus on the body (see: wearing a teeny, tiny corset to the 2024 Met Gala), SKIMS role in redefining shapewear for a new generation has landed the company on The New York Times’s most influential companies list.

We spoke to Nina Khoury, an Aussie living in New York who is the VP of Strategic Operations, about what she’s learning about business from her front row seat at one of the world’s hottest retails brands.

Oh, and a fun fact about Nina? She and her friend Adriana used to run a female empowerment startup called ENID for high school students. All the more reason to love her! 

Natasha Gillezeau: So Nina. You’re working as the vice-president of strategic operations at SKIMS. What does your role involve?

Nina Khoury: The first part of my role involves building out our strategy and planning team, so thinking through how we do our long range planning, how do we think about product strategy, and that also combines building muscle around our annual quarterly business reviews, and basically building out the structure as we grow and our problems become more complex. 

The second part of my role is leading our transformation and business operations team, which sounds so crazy to say as a five-year-old company. But we’ve grown so quickly, that we need to evolve. As a company, you constantly need to be thinking about systems, tools, infrastructure, and processes. You don’t need that as a startup, but as we’ve become bigger, it needs dedicated focus. We are building for scale. 

The third part of my role is leading and running growth initiatives. That is, taking our strategic initiatives from the long-range plan and bringing them to life.

And finally, I oversee our ESG program. So, what does SKIMS need to do from an emissions perspective? What do we need to do to get accredited with the Fair Labor Association? Essentially, we’ve approached our ESG program as all about finding out how we can work with experts. We’re not experts in carbon removal, so we go and partner with the experts on that topic. We make great products, and want to keep our customers very happy - that is SKIMS core. 

I’d love to drill into what it’s like to work with Jens Grede, and what you’ve learned so far. From the outside, something that comes through is that Jens and his partner Emma have an approach to rolling out products that is really interesting and different. What have you learned?

I was lucky enough to work with Jens before starting at SKIMS across a number of different initiatives and brands that he’s started. He recognized my skillset, and that I could approach any strategic or operational problem, and help him bring it to life. I then started working more and more with SKIMS, and he was like oh, actually I want you working more on SKIMS, that’s where the growth and opportunity is.

What I’ve learned working with both Jens and Emma is they just think customer first. I’ve loved seeing how they approach certain problems and opportunities with this “I know the customer, and I’m going to put myself in the shoes of the customer, and at times, I am the customer” mindset. Watching Jens' ability in zero to 1 [MP readers: this is a reference to venture capitalist Peter Thiel's business book of the same name Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future] a distillation of - we need to make great products, and we need to be able to sell them. That is what matters. 

It sounds so simple. But if I look at SKIMS... we have product market fit, and we have excellent distribution. You need those two things to win in a consumer environment. And that’s what I think both Jens and Emma do incredibly well. 

On that first part, knowing the customer. To me, learning about “shapewear” was almost like, learning about a new category. 

SKIMS and Kim Kardashian made it cool. 

She made it cool! As opposed to this daggy, dorky thing that women wouldn’t talk about. Let’s talk about the product itself. What exactly are SKIMS, and what’s the point of difference compared to other companies making similar products? 

I think we’ve done an excellent job of growing the category and repositioning the category. To your point – it was perceived as ‘do I need this?’ It’s a bit like, I don’t want to talk about wearing shapewear, because it’s maybe saying you’re a bit curvier in places where you don’t want to be. Whereas I think what SKIMS at the start was saying – you should be proud of how you look, and shapewear is about making you feel sexy and comfortable. 

There is differentiation to what’s on the market – we used a more seamless approach. It’s also different material and fit to what you’d seen in Spanx at the time. 

I agree with the turnaround of shapewear from the fringes of discount bins to the epicenter of cool. That said, the product itself does raise some questions around female empowerment, and what that actually means. How much should female empowerment be focused on the body, fashion and beauty? Or should it be focused on care, justice, and collaboration? I’m not saying those two ideas are mutually exclusive - but critics of SKIMS would say the company is far more focused on the body and appearance side of that equation. How do you feel about that? 

At our core, our job is for you to buy our products and love them. For you to feel comfortable and sexy. So that’s our job - we want to customers to be really happy in their SKIMS.

More broadly, I think we have a responsibility as a corporate citizen, which means we have a role in doing what’s good for the world. We talk about our ESG program - when you go through anything as a company, you ask why are you doing it? You are doing it because the right thing to do. Why are we embarking on Fair Labor Association accreditation? Because we believe when it comes to our vendors and factories, we want to create the highest standard possible. [MP confirmed that SKIMS was approved for FLA membership in December 2023].

On female empowerment, I actually think we were one of the first companies to really authentically believe, and to show in our marketing, different sizes, shapes and skin tones. It wasn’t an afterthought. It was at the very start of the thought process. SKIMS isn’t designing for one size, one shape, or one skin tone.

And where has that come from? Who drove that? 

It was Emma, Jens and Kim Kardashian. They decided at the outset that “this is what we’re going to build our company about.” 

I’ve seen SKIMS in Nordstrom department stores. What are the main channels of distribution in the United States right now? 

The vast majority of our sales are still e-commerce. But we are growing our wholesale business, and that is growing exponentially. We are opening our first permanent retail stores in the US as we speak. At the end of the day, there are a number of people that still shop through a physical environment. We have a big opportunity in the US market through expanding physical retail stores.

Epic. Were there any bad work habits that you needed to break, that you realized from watching Jens and Emma Grede operate?

Maybe not “bad habits”, but definitely habits I had to evolve. I’m naturally quite a long term thinker. Where I really shine is I can hear five different things going on in a company, I’m able to hear five teams talking about something, and connect the dots. I can say wait: if we’re thinking about doing X, we need Y, and Y will take Z months. Therefore, we need to think about it, we need to make a decision on that end goal, to be able to set the steps to get there. That comes naturally to me – and that’s long term thinking. 

Now, zero to 1, pre-product, you don’t need to think long term. You just need to be thinking about how can we make a great product, make sure it has product-market fit. Is this serving what I see as the addressable market? Am I solving a problem? Am I serving a need? How do I sell it? 

Watching Jens and Emma’s relentless focus on that meant I had a couple of learnings early on. I remember stepping out of a meeting with Jens once, and texting him later saying, "I missed the mark there." I was too long-term focused on a very early idea. I needed to think about today/tomorrow, not months out.

Is that because from your previous work experience at Bain, it's more the type of place where you focus more on the long term? Or is that more of a you-Nina thing? Because I would have thought that long term thinking can be really helpful.

At Bain, you’re working with big clients. They’re rarely early or growth phase companies. It’s a different skill set. If you look at Jens, he’s a serial entrepreneur. He’s done this a number of times, he’s also had a number of failures, and he’s just learned from each one.

That makes sense. In terms of where you’re hoping to go, would you ever want to start your own company? Or do you want to be more in this scale-up phase? Do you have a vision? 

For now, I’m learning a lot. I work with some exceptional people who are very specialised and experts in their field. I’m learning and growing, and part of one of the hottest retail brands on the planet. It’s a very fun stage - we’ve got product market fit, we’ve got a substantial amount of revenue, we’re not cost-cutting, it’s like, we’re in growth mode. So I’m soaking up as much as I can – on what’s next ... I’ve always wanted to do something entrepreneurial. But right now is good. 

Thank you so much for your time Nina. This has been super inspiring.

Nina Khoury on … 3 products that make her feel the most empowered 

  1. The Fits Everybody Triangle Bralettes

    “As someone that really liked wearing bralettes growing up, but always felt so lame to be wearing them because they were a ‘bralette’ not a bra, and they were in all these colours – you felt like a teenager. When we released bralettes that are sexy and in nice colours - and I wear them all the time. The design team has been very kind, and they’re helping me ‘upgrade’ to bras, so I now have a fits everybody t-shirt bra and it’s my step up from bralettes.”

  2. The Seamless Sculpt Bodysuit

    “I would not have worn shapewear before stepping into the SKIMS world. And now wearing it, I feel so cinched, I feel super sexy in it. I’ll wear it under a dress, smooth lines, all just a normal bodysuit. No one knows I’m wearing it - I just love that feeling.”

  3. Not a product per se - but the SKIMS way of operating

    “We’re empowered to make a lot of decisions quickly because we’re growing so quickly. I think being able to have such ownership over such big decisions, there’s something in that way of operating that makes me feel empowered.”