Closing The Gap

How Tory Burch aims to challenge gender bias and empower women around the world

(L-R): Glamour editor-in-chief Samantha Barry; Tory Burch; and her mother, Reva Robinson, at the Embrace Ambition event in Philadelphia on March 4, 2019
The Tory Burch Foundation

Across America, Tory Burch has women talking. Not about her iconic Reva flats or Kira handbag collection. Or her signature fragrance and vintage-inspired home decor.

Today she is pushing a new conversation: fighting for gender equality in the workplace. Through her Tory Burch Foundation Embrace Ambition Series — a five-city initiative focused on challenging unconscious bias, shattering stereotypes and empowering women — she is confronting the issues women face in the workplace, and it's resonating among female entrepreneurs across the globe.

"Ambition does not have a gender. The days where women are expected to limit themselves and their ambitions because of what someone might think are behind us, or should be," said Burch.

The Embrace Ambition campaign launched in 2017 as a celebrity-studded public service announcement addressing the double standard that exists around ambition — often seen as a positive attribute in men and as a negative one in women — then transformed into a one-day summit in New York City in 2018. This year Embrace Ambition has grown into a weeklong series of two-hour intimate conversations with inspiring leaders, artists and politicians across multiple cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and New York. Sponsors include SAP, Bank of America, PayPal, the Trott Family Foundation, Fossil Group and BDT and Co.

Applications, along with an essay, were required to attend. "Because we believe these conversations are so important, we do not put a price tag on them," said foundation president Laurie Fabiano. "Instead, we invite people to apply to attend. Within a day we had more than 1,200 applications."

The event kicked off in Philadelphia on Monday and will conclude on March 8 in New York to coincide with International Women's Day. Along with the many female entrepreneurs featured onstage this week are Glamour editor-in-chief Samantha Barry; Rep. Jahana Hayes, D. Conn.; a 13-year-old scientist and inventor and Burch's most inspirational role model, her mother, Reva Robinson.

On stage, mother and daughter reflected on Burch's childhood. "There were many times when I had so much self-doubt growing up, and I hear my mom's voice saying, 'You're Tory Robinson. Don't you know who you are?' Building up yourself and building up your children or your friends and your loved ones is so important, but you have to believe in yourself, and I learned that from you," she said.

The inspiration is evident: Burch's iconic, timeless classic — the Reva flat — is named after her mother.

Ambition does not have a gender. The days where women are expected to limit themselves and their ambitions because of what someone might think are behind us, or should be.
Tory Burch

"We all need to stick together because, as we know, women together are the future. And I learned that from my mother," said Burch. "Every time people say, 'What was the inspiration for your company?' It was: 'My mother.' 'Where did you come up with designs?' It was: 'My mother.' Every single thing comes back to my mom."

'Women are great investments'

The fashion mogul has made her mark on the fashion world with her boho-chic lifestyle brand of shoes, handbags, accessories, beauty, home décor and watches and is currently worth $800 million, ranked No. 29 on Forbes' 2018 list of America's Richest Self-Made Women. Her company, which launched in 2004, has expanded to more than 150 freestanding boutiques around the globe and is present in more than 3,000 department and specialty stores.

But Burch still struggles with the fact that so many women entrepreneurs lack the confidence, business networks and training they need to see their ideas through.

Forty percent of businesses are women-owned, yet only 2 percent of venture capital dollars are going to female-led businesses. "That's pretty stunning, and that's why we're addressing it," said Burch on CNBC's Squawk Box on Friday. "Women are great investments," she added, pointing to the fact that data reveals that more than 90 percent of women pay back their loans.

So in 2009 she created the Tory Burch Foundation to advance women's empowerment and entrepreneurship through loans, mentorship and entrepreneurial education. Drawing on her experiences and conversations with businesswomen from around the world, she and the foundation staff developed programs and initiatives that invest in the success and sustainability of women-owned small businesses. The foundation's Capital program with Bank of America offers access to affordable loans through community lenders; their partnership with Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program provides women small business owners with business and management education. A smaller group of selected fellows have the opportunity to pitch their business to industry influencers.

To date the foundation has provided $46 million to more than 2,500 female entrepreneurs in a variety of fields. On Thursday, Bank of America announced it is pledging $100 million to the Tory Burch Foundation Capital Program to help female entrepreneurs get access to much needed capital.

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'Know that no one can take you down'

"When I went to raise money for the company, I said, 'I want to build a global business so I can start a foundation, and I was looking at men on the couch, and they were looking at me, and they were almost patting me on the back as if it were charity work. And one person in particular looked at me and he said, 'Don't ever say business and purpose in the same sentence.'"

But this didn't stop Burch. "You have to like yourself and you have to have a goal. It may change as you move on, but you have to know that you're a terrific person inside and no one can take you down," she said.

Burch said she is particularly inspired by the candidates who have "purpose-driven visions." She points to two fellows in particular: Emellie O'Brien, who is reducing the carbon footprint of the film industry by making green production sets with her company Earth Angel. And Tea Drops founder Sashee Chandran, whose company creates whimsical shapes of compressed tea, spices and organic sugar that dissolves in a cup of hot water.

"It's like a bath bomb but for tea," said Chandran, who won the $100,000 Tory Burch Foundation Fellows Pitch Competition. WIth the grant, she said she was able to expand Tea Drops' online presence and co-build a community on and offline. "I'm so excited about the impact we are making bridging connections and creating magical tea moments with these new resources," said Chandran.

For Burch, using her platform and success to advocate for other women in the workforce has been "truly extraordinary."

Jennifer Morgan, co-president of global customer operations for SAP, at the Tory Burch Foundation's 2019 Embrace Ambition event in Philadelphia.
The Tory Burch Foundation

"It's a wonderful thing when someone uses their own achievements to create opportunity for others. And Tory is such an example of this for all of us, because she reminds us that the best kind of success is shared success," said Jennifer Morgan, co-president of global customer operations for SAP, an Embrace Ambition sponsor. "Combine a woman's talents with a sense of confidence, purpose and the encouragement of other women and there's no end to the good that will follow."

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