Why self-made millionaire Tory Burch used to hate the word 'ambition'

Tory Burch, executive chairman and chief creative officer of her eponymous fashion brand
Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Though she's an internationally recognized fashion designer and self-made millionaire, Tory Burch used to hate the word many might use to describe her: ambitious.

"When I got into the workforce, it seemed like anytime people described an ambitious woman, it was a bit negative," Burch tells CNBC.

The word has two meanings: having a desire to be successful, powerful or famous, and being difficult. When used to describe female professionals and their career goals, it often takes on the second meaning, Burch says.

"The word 'ambition' when associated with a man is celebrated," she says, "and with a woman it's more derogatory and it seems a bit crass."

Photo courtesy of the Tory Burch Foundation

Burch was forced to reconsider her stance after a 2004 article in The New York Times painted her as a socialite unwilling to publicly own her aspirations.

"Is she ambitious?" the article posed. "That's my new word to be annoyed by," she responded.

Shortly after the story appeared, Burch's good friend, film producer Jane Rosenthal, called to tell her that avoiding the label was a mistake.

"It really struck a chord with me," Burch says. "I always saw myself as someone that took a bit of risk and chances."

Burch, who is worth an estimated $750 million, has decided to embrace ambition anew — so much so that she's developed a campaign to inspire other women to pursue their career and entrepreneurship goals passionately and openly.

Launching Wednesday to coincide with International Women's Day, the Tory Burch Foundation's "Embrace Ambition" campaign will provide tools and resources to aspiring founders and motivated professional women alike. Through grants, the foundation has invested more than $25 million in female entrepreneurs.

Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates join a chorus of high-profile women who lend their voices to the campaign.

A video introducing the endeavor poses the question, "What's your ambition?"

Burch's response: "To help women build empires."

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