Tory Burch Encourages Women To ‘Embrace Ambition’

By Amy Shoenthal

The Tory Burch Foundation hosted its annual Embrace Ambition Summit yesterday in New York City. The theme of this year’s Summit was “Confronting Stereotypes and Creating New Norms,” with the goal of fostering discussions about the state of women and work, mental health, inequities exacerbated by COVID, and the increasing role of social activism.

Speakers included actress Mindy Kaling, sports icon Billie Jean King, actor and activist Julianne Moore, Fearless Fund co-founder Arian Simone and others.

I asked Burch and foundation president Laurie Fabiano about their hopes and highlights from yesterday’s summit.

Amy Shoenthal: Tell me about the Tory Burch Foundation and why you started it back in 2009.

Tory Burch: Starting the foundation was in my business plan from day one. I challenged myself to build a brand that would change the dynamic for women, particularly women entrepreneurs.

As a working mother who was raised by an incredible mom, I understood the obstacles women face. Access to capital is one of them. 50% of entrepreneurs are women, yet they receive less than 3% of venture capital. There are other barriers to women’s equality and success: stereotypes and biases around gender, race, and sexuality, access to childcare and family support, the list goes on and on.

Entrepreneurial success comes down to so many factors. I wanted to give women what I have found to be invaluable in my career: the confidence to dream big, the capital to build, and the community to grow.

Shoenthal: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman in business?

Burch: There have been countless challenges since I started the company in 2004. Early on, I had a difficult time figuring out the juggle of being a working mom. I also had a difficult time speaking up and owning my ambition. And I saw the way women in business were treated differently.

I was also challenged by many people who questioned my vision for a purpose-driven business. In fact, when I was pitching my concept to potential investors, I was told many times to never mention the fact that I wanted to start a foundation as part of it.

Shoenthal: Laurie, are there specific programs or projects the Foundation has funded that you’re particularly proud of?

Laurie Fabiano: I’m particularly proud of our Fellows program, as we have grown it substantially over the last seven years. Every year, we give 50 early-stage women founders mentorship opportunities, an education grant, workshops, and access to an incredible network.

I truly believe that we now have the best program for women entrepreneurs, and we’re seeing data that supports that claim. Only 4.3% of women-owned businesses in the U.S. will reach $1 million in annual sales, which is a good predictor of sustainability. 29% of our Fellows have reached that milestone, and that number grows every day.

Shoenthal: Tory, you’ve been weaving activism into your business model for years. Can you comment on the state of social activism today and where you’d like to see people focus their efforts?

Burch: Starting a foundation has always been part of our internal dialogue, and it is so gratifying to see that there is a massive sea change happening around business and purpose. Companies are being measured by their impact, and people are holding them accountable. They want to support brands and founders who align with their values and stand for something authentic, something that moves the needle on issues they care about.

I have always believed that businesses have the power to be incredible vehicles for change. Wherever a company decides to focus its activism, it’s important that they are consistent and true to their commitment and think in the long-term.

Shoenthal: Why did you choose to host the Embrace Ambition Summit?

Burch: There is a pervasive double standard around women’s ambition. Early in my career, a journalist asked if I was ‘ambitious,’ and the word made me uncomfortable. After the interview was published, a friend asked me why I dodged the question, and I realized I was playing into a stereotype so many women internalize – that it’s somehow unattractive or intimidating to be an ‘ambitious woman.’

We launched our summit in 2018 to address this double standard and to encourage women to be ambitious in everything they do, whether they’re CEOs or stay-at-home mothers. It has since become a platform for discussing all of the biases and stereotypes that hold us back, from race, gender, age, sexuality and the other big issues facing us today.

One thing I always say is that we need to bring more men into the conversation around women’s issues, otherwise we will never make progress. When women are empowered, everyone benefits.

Shoenthal: What were your specific goals for this year’s summit? What “new norms” do you hope to create through the Foundation and Summit?

Burch: The fact that we are still talking about embracing women’s ambition is a clear indicator that things need to change. We need to do more than raise awareness. We need to uncover the solutions that will actually shift culture, so the next generation doesn’t deal with the same issues we are dealing with today.

We talked about all the tough issues happening all around us — women’s rights, gun violence, a country that is dangerously divided, and more. I’m passionate about bringing people together, finding common ground, and inspiring them to take action.

Shoenthal: How did you choose some of the speakers and topics?

Fabiano: The topics all revolve around unconscious bias. The speakers were chosen based on who best communicates those topics. Our goal was to have people learn something, be motivated to change their own behaviors that might be influenced by unconscious bias and advocate for others.

Shoenthal: Which conversations were you most inspired by?

Burch: There are several. I am in awe of labor activist Dolores Huerta. My friend Billie Jean King discussed her work to empower women through sports, and Julianne Moore joined us on stage with a representative from Everytown to talk about gun reform.

We heard so much wisdom, so much truth. Gun reform advocates reminding us that we need to push for change every day, a Paralympian reminding us that there’s no right or wrong way to show up at the starting line, a refugee reminding us that the world can take so much from you, but it can’t take your ambition.

My favorite part was watching everyone in the crowd and seeing their reactions, seeing what spoke to them. I hope they left feeling full of hope, full of power, and ready to embrace their ambition.

Shoenthal: Is the Foundation working on any new initiatives/programs?

Fabiano: Our newest program is our Women of Color Grant Program in partnership with Fearless Fund and The Cru, two organizations which had already been doing incredible work. It was obvious that women of color were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and our three organizations were able to put together a grant program that got money to entrepreneurs quickly. We’ve already distributed $2 million in grants, and we plan to announce another cohort very soon.

Shoenthal: What advice would you give to aspiring women entrepreneurs?

Burch: Embrace your ambition, develop a clear vision, be agile. Have incredibly thick skin! Remember there is no such thing as an overnight success, and support the other women around you. There is room for everyone. When you help other people shine, you shine.


Photo Source: Erica Schroeder