"We all need to be looking for ways to create equal opportunities for people in our work environments, in our boardrooms, and most certainly within our families,” says the designer and entrepreneur. 

By Shalayne Pulia
Updated: Mar 12, 2019 @ 11:10 am
Mike Pont/Getty Images

Tory Burch has a plan. That should come as no surprise to anyone who's been following the entrepreneurial powerhouse's moves. When it comes to empowering women through capital, education, and digital resources — the cornerstones of the designer’s foundation — she always has a plan.

“It takes more than a great idea to fuel a business,’ Burch tells InStyle over email. “You need access to capital, which is often a challenge for women.” The designer goes on to list stomach-churning statistics like the fact that just 1 in 23 loan dollars in the United States goes to women-owned businesses, and female CEOs only receive 2 percent of U.S. venture-capital dollars. It’s enough to make a successful businesswoman like Burch’s blood boil. “It’s obviously unacceptable,” she says. “Equal rights isn’t a favor. It should be a given.”

Gabrielle McGee, Shelly Kapoor Collins, Gitanjali Rao, Hadiyah Mujhid, Tracey Chou.

Gabrielle McGee, Shelly Kapoor Collins, Gitanjali Rao, Hadiyah Mujhid, and Tracey Chou. Courtesy Tory Burch Foundation. 

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And give is what Burch is doing. With her nonprofit, now in its 10th year, she’s been able to affect the lives of thousands of women looking to get ahead in business. A partnership with Bank of America has generated over $46 million in low-interest loans to more than 2,500 female entrepreneurs in the U.S – a personal point of pride, Burch says. And they’re just getting started on that program. This year as well, the foundation has expanded its #EmbraceAmbition series to local communities with an entire week of events featuring inspirational speakers and livestreamed programming hosted in various cities across the U.S. leading up to International Women’s Day, which was Friday, March 8.

The foundation’s chief operation officer, Gabrielle McGee, a former Major League Baseball marketing executive, echoes Burch’s surprise at the financial challenges female entrepreneurs have to navigate. “I worked in the world of sports and entertainment for MLB in the commissioner's office,” she explains. “I knew that the playing field was uneven. But until I joined Tory, I didn't realize just how uneven the playing field was when it comes to financial resources.”

McGee, and her “scrappy” team of women entrepreneurs dedicated to the foundation are focusing on scaling up Burch’s programs in the years to come. “Our goal is to ensure that women have not only the encouragement to own their ambition, but also that we're creating safe working environments and communities to own that,” she says.

To bring fresh new voices into the conversation at this year's events held in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and New York City, McGee says the team asked people to apply with a personal essay. Women were asked to write about how they embrace ambition, overcome stereotypes, and support other women. And the response was overwhelming. “We received over 1,200 applications in 24 hours,” Burch says.

Reva Robinson (left) and Tory Burch.

Reva Robinson (left) and Tory Burch. Courtesy Tory Burch Foundation. 

“Our team on the foundation side read every single essay,” says McGee. “And we realized that we didn't want to just invite these women to attend. We wanted to invite them to share their stories.” And share they have. Attendees (and viewers who turned in online) had the chance to listen to speakers like the pre-teen who became one of America’s top young scientists at age 12 for developing a device to detect led in drinking water, Gitanjali Rao; the top Pakistani squash player who dressed as a boy to play competitively, Maria Wazir; Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund lawyer Tina Tchen; equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter (of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009), and more powerhouses.   

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“My hope is that women will walk away from these talks and realize that if they were waiting for a sign to start their first ever business, this is it,” McGee says also siting a special business plan builder the foundation has online that’s already helped over 1,000 women create their first business plans. “Together we can support each other — that includes men. Men are absolutely a part of this conversation. And we all need to be looking for ways to create equal opportunities for people in our work environments, in our boardrooms, and most certainly within our families.”

On the heels of expanding and localizing its #EmbraceAmbition initiative, the foundation is also looking to scale up its flagship fellowship program, in which 10 women are invited to Burch’s offices in NYC, granted a year of access to the foundation’s peer-to-peer network, and gifted $5,000 to advance their business plans. This year, 50 fellows will be selected for the program later this month. 

What’s surprised Burch most about working with these women over the past decade? Their emphasis on peer-to-peer mentoring. “They use each other's services and promote each other on their social channels,” she says. “These women want to see each other succeed.”

With Tory and her foundation’s support, they just might.

For more information on #EmbraceAmbition, visit toryburchfoundation.org/embraceambition. You can also support the foundation by purchasing a limited-edition Perry tote for $348 on ToryBurch.com. To apply for the Fellows Program, visit toryburchfoundation.org/fellows/

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