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Tory Burch: 'I got my fair share of patronizing pats on the back when starting out'

Tory Burch
Source: Brigitte Lacombe

Tory Burch, the fashion icon who launched a preppy-chic lifestyle brand in 2004 that now tops $1.5 billion in sales, is on a mission: to advance women empowerment and entrepreneurship by shattering stereotypes and creating new norms.

Inspired by her own experience as a working mother launching a business, in which she says she received her "own fair share of patronizing pats on the back," Burch started the Tory Burch Foundation in 2009. Its mission: to invest in the success and sustainability of women-owned small businesses so that every woman could fearlessly follow her dream.

In just little more than a decade, the foundation has been making huge strides toward that end. Through a program with Bank of America, the Tory Burch Foundation has provided $57 million in affordable loans to more than 3,500 women entrepreneurs. Ten thousand women have submitted their business plan to the foundation, and 50 fellows participate annually in the Tory Burch Fellowship Program — a one-year program designed for women entrepreneurs that provides the necessary support to grow a business, including access to capital, mentoring and networking opportunities and education.

On Thursday the foundation will host Embrace Ambition 2020 at Lincoln Center in New York City, an all-day event focusing on overcoming the negative attitudes about ambition in women and addressing other harmful stereotypes that impact gender, race and sexuality. Among this year's leaders, activists and performers who will be driving these powerful conversations are Ashley Judd, Gloria Steinem and Diane von Furstenberg.

This week CNBC spoke with Tory Burch — the American fashion mogul, businesswoman and philanthropist — about her foundation, what she believes are the biggest challenges women face today when it comes to chasing their ambitions, and the new norms she envisions for women in business. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced being a woman and trying to get your fashion line off the ground?

I got my fair share of patronizing pats on the back when I was first starting out. I remember when I was meeting with potential investors — all of whom were men, by the way — I presented my business model, which had our foundation built into it. Purpose-led business was unheard of then, and it was dismissed as "charity work." They only made me more determined.

Men have to be part of this conversation. ... We won't make progress in an echo chamber.
Tory Burch
executive chairman and chief creative officer of fashion brand Tory Burch

What advice would you give to aspiring women entrepreneurs?

I always tell our entrepreneurs and my stepdaughters to believe in themselves and embrace their ambition. We need to have the courage to dream big and own our bold ideas. And, of course, help other women along the way. 

How far do you believe the pendulum has swung for women in business, if you think it has swung at all?

Only 2.2% of venture capital in the United States went to women-run businesses last year, and 95% of CEOs in the S&P 500 are men. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do. We believe that starts with ambition. The systemic inequalities we see in business stem from unconscious gender bias. We need to get to the root of the problem. Until we get rid of the underlying biases, nothing will truly change.

What key takeaways do you hope people will gain from the 2020 Embrace Ambition Summit?

There are so many, but one is that men have to be part of this conversation. I go to a lot of conferences for women and they're great, but we're talking to ourselves. We won't make progress in an echo chamber. In order to create real and meaningful change, we need to get men engaged. No one cares more about this than fathers of daughters.

You have some very impressive people speaking at the event — Diane von Furstenberg, Ashley Judd, Gloria Steinem. What do you hope their presence will bring to the summit?

We have an incredible group this year, from trailblazers like Gloria Steinem and Claudette Colvin to new voices, like 24-year-old Tierra Fletcher. She is an aerospace engineer and co-founder of Rocket With the Fletchers, a nonprofit that promotes STEM programs in underrepresented communities. Each of our speakers has a unique story and point-of-view. I hope that people walk away feeling inspired, ready to combat unconscious bias in their own communities. 

What "new norms" do you hope to create through your foundation?

There are many. First and foremost, we want to change the double standard that exists around ambition. Ambition should be perceived as a positive attribute, regardless of gender.

Closing the gap: How the world's top companies are working to improve gender equality
Closing the gap: How top companies are working to improve gender equality

What amazes you about the women who participate in your fellowship program?

Our Fellows program brings together 50 women from across the country who are going through very similar challenges. Their support of one another is profound. They buy each other's products and promote each other on social media. It's just incredible.

We have some extraordinary entrepreneurs in the program. One who comes to mind is Sashee Chandran, who founded a great company called Tea Drops. She received a $100,000 grant through our Fellow's Program, which she used to create new product lines and packaging. She later closed a $1.9 million round of seed funding, and now her sales are incredible. I've heard Michelle Obama is a fan.

How do you envision your foundation in the future?

We hope to eventually take our foundation international and continue to expand on our global #EmbraceAmbition campaign. This is a message that is relevant to all women, from all around the world. In fact, our launch video reached 98% of the world's countries. We look forward to continuing this important conversation.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.