Tory Burch launched her business in 2004, and working from her kitchen with a small team, turned an idea into a collection. As the fashion brand became a household name she learned about the obstacles that women face in business: Balancing work, family and securing financing. She told Real Leaders why her social impact foundation is good for business.

Growing up as a young girl was there any point where you felt frustrated by the lack of opportunity for women in business?

I didn’t experience that until I was older. My parents raised my three brothers and me to believe that we could accomplish anything if we worked hard and had tenacity. The message was the same for all of us, regardless of gender. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college and began my career that I realized women in business face unique challenges.

Did you have an “aha moment” at any time where you realized that you wanted to create social impact?

Before I had a business I went on a Semester at Sea when I was in college. We traveled around the world, and I saw devastating poverty and inequities that have stayed with me to this day. Growing up, my parents were always taking people in, and they raised their children with an ethos of helping others. The Semester at Sea program made me even more determined to make social responsibility a part of my lifelong ambition. One of the reasons I wanted to start a company was to start a foundation. I later realized that women in America face incredible hurdles in starting a business so we focused our efforts here in the U.S.

You started your business in 2004 with the goal of starting a foundation. This approach seems the opposite to most companies – that build a brand and then create a foundation after it becomes successful. Why did you go this route?

It took five years to get the business to a strong enough position to launch the foundation, but it was always my plan to have both. When I was raising money for the business, people told me not to mention social responsibility and business in the same sentence. That made me more determined. Since 2014, through a partnership with Bank of America, we have distributed more than $25 million in affordable loans to women entrepreneurs. More than 140 women have graduated from our education program with Goldman Sachs, and more than 10,000 women have created business plans on ToryBurchFoundation.org.

The Tory Burch Foundation has had a positive impact on our bottom line. I didn’t expect that. It’s important to our customers that we have a foundation and it’s meaningful to our employees. It attracts excellent people who want to work at our company. We tell entrepreneurs we work with that it’s important to think about social responsibility from the beginning.

The Tory Burch Foundation has had a positive impact on our bottom line. I didn’t expect that. It’s important to our customers that we have a foundation and it’s meaningful to our employees. It attracts excellent people who want to work at our company. We tell entrepreneurs we work with that it’s important to think about social responsibility from the beginning.

You’ve previously stated that you find the word “ambitious” annoying. Why?

I said that in my first interview with a journalist from The New York Times in 2004, just after our first store opened. After the story was published, Jane Rosenthal – the film producer – called me. She said, “You should never shy away from that word.” She was right.

I realized that I had bought into the harmful double standard that exists around ambition and women. I have changed my thinking, but the problem persists. When a man is ambitious, it’s celebrated, yet when a woman is ambitious, it’s somehow distasteful. When women do better, the world improves, economies become stronger and families become healthier. If women are to achieve parity, we need to own our bold ideas, to celebrate our aspirations and embrace ambition.

Do you see a move away from charity to something more sustainable?

Our Foundation is not about charity. It’s about giving women resources to help themselves and others. Through a partnership with Bank of America, we provide women entrepreneurs with access to capital. That’s not charity – these women are paying back loans while building businesses that create jobs and feed families. One of the winners of our Fellows competition is a former surgical oncologist, Paris Sabo. She was concerned about the chemical-rich kinds of toothpaste sold in mass markets. With her sister, a dentist, she founded Dr. Brite, which makes natural, organic personal care products. She identified a problem with every day products and created something safe, effective and fills a gap in the market. That’s real impact.

“The more I like me, the less I want to pretend to be other people.” – Jamie Lee Curtis

 

What is a real leader and who inspires you?

I met Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar several years ago. Her courage and conviction are extraordinary. I also admire Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, the first women elected head of an African government and leader of the women’s movement there. She says entrepreneurs are “bridge builders” and encourages young people to aim high. Leadership is complicated, and there’s no one-size-fits-all. It requires being decisive and steady-handed, setting the tone for a group, and remaining calm, particularly in challenging moments and emergencies. Most importantly, leadership must inspire others.

Your latest collection was inspired by Katherine Hepburn’s tomboy femininity – outspoken but not angry. Is this how you think women should approach feminism and what message does this give women?

For Fall/Winter 2017, we found inspiration in the fearlessness and irreverence of Katharine Hepburn’s character in The Philadelphia Story, the 1940 film directed by George Cukor. She was unafraid to speak her mind and go against the grain. She was bold in both the movie and life – she broke stereotypes, and was a humanitarian. This attitude is still relevant today. I never want to prescribe how women should approach feminism – it’s a personal choice – but we need to bring men into the conversation. Equality is not a men’s issue; it’s not a women’s issue, it’s an issue of humanity. In my experience, no one cares more about this than fathers for their daughters.

I think you just have to appreciate who you are and hopefully they can see what a superhero is about. – Lucy Liu

 

How can fashion and style change the world for the better? Is it only about self-esteem?

I’m glad we’re no longer cinching ourselves into corsets every morning. Fashion goes hand in hand with any societal change. Suffragettes wore white to make a point about their unity and strength. The 1960s upended so many social conventions, including dress codes. Women started wearing pants to work that reflected their growing independence and new opportunities. In the 1990s, many offices went casual on Fridays, and eventually every day, which was a strong shift for both men and women. It’s not so much that fashion created these changes as fashion reflecting and augmenting those changes.

What still needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the workplace?

We must start with equal pay. As long as women on average earn 20% less than men, there’s much to be done. That pay gap widens for women of color. Women need to find the courage to ask for more money, and their bosses – male and female – need to make it a priority to close that gap. Women are underrepresented in leadership roles. There are more CEOs named John in the S&P 1500 than there are female CEOs. Equal opportunity and equal pay are not a favor. They should be a given. We also need to change the way we talk about women and their leadership roles. I was introduced recently as a “female CEO.” Can you imagine anyone introducing someone as a “male CEO?”

“My ambition is to change the world with stories.” – Reese Witherspoon

 

The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world but also the second largest industry. What opportunities exist by trying to solve this problem?

One critical approach we’re working on is something I call “less is more.” Let’s have less product but produced with more integrity. I think consumers want fewer, better products. It’s also an opportunity to help make the world a cleaner, better place to live and work.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

When we started out, there were many naysayers. My parents told me I should think of negativity as noise and focus on what I was doing. It was great advice that I’ve kept in mind ever since.

When should you use the word “no” in business?

This is incredibly important. It’s tempting to seize exciting opportunities, but I’ve learned the importance of saying no and taking your time. I like to say that we are a patient brand – and that means saying no to most opportunities that come our way. This kind of measured approach is helping us today because we’re not closing stores in a tough macro environment, but are growing at an organic and healthy rate.