Meet the Buzzy Charitable Shoe Designer Competing for Tory Burch’s Female Entrepreneur Fellowship

A Chat with a Contestant for
Ix Style's Francesca Kennedy in Guatemala.
courtesy of Ix Style

From clean water to computer science programs, Francesca Kennedy is reviving the classic, handmade huarache-sandal heritage of her family’s native Guatemala for a whole lot of local good.

The social entrepreneur’s collection of female-artisan-crafted handbags and footwear — called Ix Style after the Mayan word for “water” — is carried at Anthropologie, J.Crew and Shopbop.com, and counts Rebecca Minkoff and Birchbox’s Katia Beauchamp as investors. And now the line, launched in 2013, has caught the attention of none other than Tory Burch.

Kennedy is one of 30 contestants for the Tory Burch Foundation Fellowship, which supports female-founded businesses and will award $100,000 to an online voter-generated winner. Daily submissions are welcome, with the polls closing on April 4. The prize also includes a one-on-one mentorship with Burch herself.

Along with her recent #embraceambition campaign, aimed at reducing the stigmatization of the word among women, it’s another initiative focused on supporting female leaders, something that Burch has long championed.

Footwear News caught up with Kennedy, a former Goldman Sachs associate, while she was working on the upcoming collection in Guatemala to hear more about her charitable work, Ix Style and what winning would mean.

How did you come to take part in the fellowship program?
Francesca Kennedy:
My mentor from a program that I did at Stanford University, Lisa Favaro, forwarded the application to me. I had heard about Tory’s fellowship program before so I immediately jumped on it.

How would you use the funds if you win?
FK:
 I would donate 15 percent of the money to my favorite Guatemalan causes. Half will go to FUNSEPA to buy computers with the Khan Academy. The other half will go to buy water filters from Ecofiltro. The rest of the funds will go to help scale Ix Style. We will invest in more materials and train more Mayan artisan women to make our products.

What have you learned from the other women involved?
FK:
 I haven’t met them yet! If Ix Style is a finalist, I look forward to working with these change-makers and exchanging ideas and our sharing our networks.

Why do you think Tory Burch is staging such a competition?
FK: I think she understands that being successful means paying it forward. That if we want to see a change in the world it means investing in women, as women invest 90 percent of their incomes back into their communities and families, versus 30 percent for men. This competition is her way of making the change she wants to see in the world. Tory is giving women the opportunity to not only scale their business, but she is also creating a trickle-down effect where we all can pay it forward.

If you do win, what advice would you seek from Ms. Burch?
FK: I would look forward to speaking to her about her advice for scaling a business, key hires and partners, and best return-on-investment strategies.

What was the impetus behind Ix Style?
FK: I was inspired to start Ix Style when I returned to Guatemala in 2009 [and visited] Lake Atitlan, which once was considered the eighth world wonder, and I discovered it almost died. This lake is where I was baptized, it’s where I learned how to swim, and it’s where my grandparents lived. Overnight, toxic blue-green algae covered almost every inch of the lake, and I saw little girls collecting contaminated water to drink as they had no other choice. NASA called it one of the worst natural disasters to occur in our lifetime — you could see the contamination from space. I knew I needed to help the communities there.

How does your brand give back?
FK:
 We provide water filters to communities in Guatemala as well as provide jobs for hundreds of Mayan artisans, whose lives are transformed by their work with Ix Style.

What’s new and next for you?
FK:
 I recently presented a TED talk at their headquarters in New York called “Finding Hope in Murky Water” that will launch on their website next month. Currently, I’m working on a book with photographer Steve McCurry about the vanishing culture of the Mayan artisans who make our products, and their stories and inspirations. The book is going to be called “Hearts of Guatemala.” It’s the most important project that I think I’ve done to date, and I hope to inspire future generations to continue my work.