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How American Fashion Designer Tory Burch Is Breaking Glass Ceilings

Tory Burch is proving that female ambition is anything but unattractive.  

Tory Burch: “When I started my company, I quickly realised how widespread anti-women attitudes could be. When I needed to raise money, there were lots of raised eyebrows and petty comments. It made me understand the challenges women face.” 

When Tory Burch was asked if she was ambitious by The New York Times in 2004, she blanched. For a woman who would soon become the second-youngest self-made female billionaire in the US, that sounds faintly ridiculous. However, society has long held a dim view of female ambition and Burch had subconsciously absorbed that prejudice. “It was only later that I realised I had bought into this whole concept that for men, being ambitious is a compliment, whereas for women it’s a negative,” she says. “That’s a harmful double standard that we must overcome for women to achieve parity in the workplace.”

Burch is dedicating time and money to ensuring women have equal opportunities and can fight prejudice in the professional world. Not that she looks like the kind of person who has ever been discriminated against. Clever, beautiful and unfailingly polite, she grew up in an immensely privileged family — her father was heir to a paper-cup fortune and dated Grace Kelly in his youth; while her mother was once linked to Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando.

After university, Burch took the path of many well-bred young women and worked in fashion PR in New York before marrying a successful businessman. After leaving her job to have children, she started designing brightly coloured clutch bags and ballet flats from her New York apartment — so far, so standard. However, buoyed by the reaction of her friends, she moved her wares out of her living room and into a small boutique in Nolita in 2004. “I initially named it Tory by TRB as I wanted to keep my name my own, but as we gained in popularity, everyone started calling it Tory Burch anyway, so I gave in and changed it.”

With her collections selling out days after their release, Burch soon realised that she had stumbled upon a hole in the market. “Something was missing in fashion,” she says. “It took a two-year process to figure out exactly what that was: well-made clothing that was also affordable. We hit on an area that wasn’t being addressed.”

Keen to capitalise on her success, Burch reached out to investors to help her expand the brand, which was when it dawned on her that the fabled glass ceiling was still very much in place for women in the business world. “Growing up with three brothers, I never realised there was such a big difference between men and women,” says Burch. “I experienced some prejudice in my first jobs but when I started my company, I quickly realised how widespread anti-women attitudes could be. When I needed to raise money, there were lots of raised eyebrows and petty comments. It made me understand the challenges women face.”

Now the owner of one of the most successful fashion brands in the US, Burch is passionate about helping other entrepreneurial women struggling to get their businesses off the ground without the contacts and support she personally profited from. To address their needs, in 2009 she launched the Tory Burch Foundation, a charity that helps finance small female-run businesses in the US and offers free business and legal advice.

“Single mothers in particular are still being marginalised,” Burch says. “There is so much to be done. As our company has grown, I’ve learned about the obstacles that women in business face, from balancing work and family — my greatest challenge — to securing finance. Many also lack the confidence, business networks and training they need to see their ideas through.”

Burch has methodically set about finding ways to solve these three problems. She addressed the finance issue by setting up an agreement between her foundation and the Bank of America, which now offers reduced-rate business loans to certain female entrepreneurs. Education is ticked off through a partnership with Goldman Sachs and its 10,000 Small Businesses programme, which provides management training to young female entrepreneurs.

And as for confidence, that more elusive quality is now being nurtured through a recently launched mentorship programme — something Burch herself holds particularly dear. “I have always believed in the value of mentors and, to this day, turn to trusted advisers from many different industries for insight,” she says. “Our foundation offers opportunities for women to network with business leaders and other female entrepreneurs seeking to grow and scale their enterprises and gain invaluable advice.”

This year has marked a number of turning points for the foundation, which also launched the Fellows Competition, the prize for which is a US$100,000 business donation to the most impressive female entrepreneur of the year. Kate McAleer, founder of Bixby & Co, an organic and vegan-friendly snack bar company, was selected from 10 finalists this summer after they all pitched their business plans to a judging panel that included Burch, Glamour magazine editor-in-chief Cindi Leive and model and designer Liya Kebede.

And for those of us who want to donate to the foundation and get something nice in return, there is always Seed Box — a curated selection of products by female entrepreneurs from which 100 percent of the profits go towards helping other women in business.

“One of the reasons I wanted to start a company was to start a foundation that would benefit women and children,” says Burch. “It’s not about charity. It’s about helping to empower women to help themselves. By providing resources and tools, we can level the playing field for women entrepreneurs, and helping them to grow their businesses benefits their families, their communities and, in turn, all of us.”

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