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Tory Burch has women across the world talking — and wants men in on the conversation

Fashion mogul Tory Burch speaks at the 2019 Embrace Ambition event in Brooklyn, New York
Source: Tory Burch

On Thursday, visionary leaders in Hollywood, business, science, entrepreneurship and youth movements will be gathering at the Tory Burch Foundation's 2020 Embrace Ambition summit at Lincoln Center in New York City for powerful conversations surrounding the issues women face in the workplace.

Twelve hundred people will be in attendance, with millions more tuning in to the event's live stream. Women entrepreneurs will tell their stories; musicians will perform; CEOs will reveal how they are breaking barriers against gender bias — all to inspire and empower women to fearlessly follow their dreams.

Yet Burch says it is the presence of one particular demographic that will make the most impact: men. They need to be part of this conversation, she says.

"I go to a lot of conferences for women and they're great," the fashion icon told CNBC, "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."

Blazing a trail for women entrepreneurs

Tory Burch, one of the richest self-made women in America, is used to blazing her own trail. Just 16 years ago, up against established brands like Coach, Michael Kors and Kate Spade, Burch launched an apparel line from her kitchen table. Now she has more than 250 boutiques across North America, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, and her clothing and accessories are available at over 3,000 department and specialty stores worldwide. Last year sales reportedly topped $1.5 billion.

Today Burch is blazing a new trail: creating new norms for women in business by shattering stereotypes and confronting gender bias.

"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," she says. "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."

Her mission is personal. As a working mother launching her own business in 2004, she quickly learned about the obstacles that women in business face, claiming she got her "fair share of patronizing pats on the back." So in 2009 she created the Tory Burch Foundation to support the empowerment of women entrepreneurs.

By providing access to capital, entrepreneurial education, and mentoring and networking opportunities, the foundation has helped thousands of women scale their businesses.

Tory Burch and foundation president Laurie Fabiano speak with one of the women entrepreneurs showcasing her products at Embrace Ambition.
Tory Burch

Bank of America's $100 million pledge

In March 2019 Bank of America teamed up with the Tory Burch Foundation to offer $100 million in loans to women entrepreneurs, doubling its investment since the program's inception in 2014. To date, 3,500 women have received a total of $57 million thus far in affordable loans, administered through community development financial institutions, or CDFIs.

"Tory said the biggest need among the women they were speaking to in her mentorship program was lending or access to capital. She had gathered that this was a problem because they were at a very early stage, so they didn't have the requisite sort of track record to get traditional bank lending and asked us if we had any ideas," said Anne Finucane, Bank of America's vice chairman.

"We suggested we could set up a program with  CDFIs across the country which represented a geographic diversity to encourage women to go through these CDFIs, because they can lend at a much earlier stage than traditional banks can," said Finucane. "Plus, we lend to them at a lower-than-market rate. So they then lend to women at a rate that is much lower than they would be able to get with some credit cards or most online loan programs."

The vice chairman also said Bank of America is helping women in other ways, such as with their credit scores. "It's not just about your profits in but it's your credit score, your ability to demonstrate a plan for the future," she said. 

Tory Burch with Bank of America vice chairman Anne Finucane
Tory Burch

Finucane admits that although the pendulum has started to swing for women, there is still much room for improvement.

"Do I think things are better? Yes, because I think there are statistics that indicate things are better. But we still have a long way to go, and the more practical we are, the easier we are to do business with, meeting women where they are, meaning knowing what the issues are and trying to solve the problem they are raising at a point of contact that will really make a difference, like early stage funding, developing a business plan, presentation skills," said Finucane.

Creating new norms

In 2017 the foundation launched the #Embrace Ambition nonprofit global initiative to encourage women and girls to voice their ambition and own their power.

"Fifteen years ago a reporter asked Tory if she was ambitious and she bristled at the question, and her girlfriend who saw the article said to Tory, 'Great article, but why didn't you own your ambition,' and she thought, Right, why didn't I?," said foundation president Laurie Fabiano.

"That is a reaction that a lot of women have. We perpetuate behaviors that have been bred into us, and we never really stop to question it," said Fabiano, explaining that the #EmbraceAmbition campaign grew out of the idea that women need to own their ambition. "How can women be as successful as men, how can we achieve parity in this world, if we are either hiding our ambition or not owning it? Bias is at the root of inequality."

Twelve hundred people will be in attendance at this year's Embrace Ambition Summit, with millions more tuning in to the event's live stream.
Tory Burch

After just three years Burch's campaign, it seems, is starting to resonate with women worldwide. 

While there is no fee to attend the one-day Embrace Ambition event, those interested in participating must apply for a spot by submitting an essay on how they personally embrace ambition or have had to confront or challenge stereotypes. "We want it to be the most inclusive and interested audience possible," said Fabiano, who claims she received more than 2400 submissions from around the world."I had to narrow it down to 500, as we like to encourage local high school and college students to attend."

Fabiano recalled some of the essays that stood out, including a successful woman in the air force who revealed how she learned to live again after losing her 18-month-old child; another, who is creating alternatives for Orthodox Jewish women; and a young woman who grew up visiting her dad in prison and went on to become a lawyer and activist.

How can women be as successful as men, how can we achieve parity in this world, if we are either hiding our ambition or not owning it?
Laurie Fabiano
president, Tory Burch Foundation

"I read every single application, and it was pretty overwhelming and amazing," said Fabiano. "The stories, the resiliency, the courage, the optimism. People are flying in from all over the country and from overseas. There is enormous diversity in age and what people do. So many people have overcome a lot and gone on to do amazing things."

Burch eventually plans to take the foundation international and continue to expand on its global #EmbraceAmbition campaign. "This is a message that is relevant to all women, from all around the world. ... I hope that people walk away feeling inspired, ready to combat unconscious bias in their own communities."  

More from Invest in You:
Tory Burch: 'I got my fair share of patronizing pats on the back when starting out'
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