Exclusive: Tory Burch on Embracing Ambition & Leading a Powerhouse Brand in Disruptive Times

Nicole Mason, a high school senior from Raleigh, N.C., didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at Tory Burch’s Manhattan headquarters on a bright Monday morning. “It’s a big company, so I knew there would be a lot going on. But I wasn’t sure if it would be a friendly environment or more reserved. I was just there to watch,” said Mason, a design student who shadowed the FN team for a project during a recent cover shoot with the firm’s namesake founder, executive chairman and chief creative officer.

Several minutes before her 9 a.m. call time, Burch was camera-ready and unfazed as an entourage of team members, photographers, makeup artists and editors took over her elegant office and began rattling off instructions. Between setups, the fashion mogul noticed Mason — watching intently from the sidelines — and greeted her enthusiastically.

When the shoot wrapped a few hours later, the cover star seamlessly stepped into another role she relishes: valued mentor.

Burch invited Mason on a personal tour of her showroom, where the pair talked about the 18-year-old’s college plans and bonded over their mutual obsession with footwear — a category the designer is pushing vigorously. “Shoes are a big business for us. I want to think about the category differently. There’s so much we can do,” Burch told Mason, who left feeling inspired about pursuing a fashion career.

As the founder reflected on her own path during a separate conversation with FN, she talked about the importance of embracing every opportunity. Before she started her namesake venture in 2004, the University of Pennsylvania graduate got an in-depth fashion education through stints at Harper’s Bazaar, Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang and Loewe. “Starting this company was a bit easier based on the experiences I’ve had and the places I’ve worked,” she said. “That all played into how I created this — as well as [my mother’s influence].”

Burch has consistently credited her parents with giving her the confidence to strike out on her own. Fittingly, she named her now-iconic Reva ballet flat after her beloved mom, who continues to be her biggest inspiration and closest confidante. “My mother always made me believe I could do anything if I worked hard and was tenacious,” the executive said. “She also said negativity was noise, and that’s served me well. I’m sure there was a lot of negativity, but I tuned it out. When people are negative in a gratuitous way, they have a lot of time on their hands. They should probably get a little busier.”

Burch has never been one to sit still. The entrepreneur crafted her business plan while taking time off from her budding fashion career to raise her young sons. The decision wasn’t easy; she had given up a major opportunity to become president of Loewe, an LVMH label.

While she was chasing her kids around the house and building her profile in New York, Burch mapped out her vision for a company that emphasized purpose over product.

This was more than a decade before social responsibility became a critical part of corporate strategy, and the wider business community didn’t embrace Burch’s unconventional thinking. But she persisted. “When I went to fundraise, I said I wanted to launch a global lifestyle brand so I could start a foundation. People patted me on the back and said that I should never say the words ‘business’ and ‘social responsibility’ or ‘charity’ in the same sentence,” Burch recalled. “But that was the whole point of starting this. For so long, we didn’t talk about it. I never wanted it to be perceived as marketing or inauthentic in any way.”

Tory Burch Footwear News Cover Story
The executive said she’s teaching her son to support women’s ambitions.
CREDIT: Tawni Bannister

Tipping Points

The Tory Burch Foundation officially debuted in 2009 as a vehicle to support the success and sustainability of female-owned small businesses. Today, there are three distinct components centered around access to capital, education and mentoring.

For Burch, the most important part of the foundation’s work is a program that grants low-interest loans through Bank of America. “Women simply have a harder time getting loans. They get them at such a ridiculous rate compared to men,” she explained.

In March, Bank of America doubled its investment in the Tory Burch Foundation Capital Program, committing $100 million to the cause. (Since the partnership was born five years ago, more than 2,500 female business owners have received $46 million in loans.)

“These are incredible women building incredible businesses and facing incredible odds,” Burch said. “Some are single mothers and have two or even three jobs. They’re also [often] paying their first employee to work with them.”

The company also is growing its Fellows Program, which provides educational support and networking opportunities. On June 3, this year’s class of 50 fellows will hit New York for a four-day visit to Burch’s offices. During the trip, a smaller group will have the opportunity to pitch their businesses to a group of industry influencers.

In addition, Burch and her team are bringing their mission to the digital forefront through the socially driven #embraceambition campaign. It debuted with a public service announcement on International Women’s Day in 2017, backed by an all-star group of supporters, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kerry Washington and many more.

Within two months, women from 192 countries engaged with the movement. Burch herself had a memorable story about ambition.

When The New York Times profiled her during the brand’s infancy, Burch bristled when a reporter asked if she was ambitious. “I was so taken aback at the time because it seemed to be such a rude question,” she recalled. “My friend Jane Rosenthal, [a celebrated producer and co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival], called me after the interview and said, ‘Why did you shy away from it?’ It hit me immediately. From that moment on, I realized there was an unconscious bias and negative stereotype associated with women [and ambition], and it had to change.”

With that experience top of mind, Burch rapidly developed #embraceambition with the goal to be open and inclusive. “When we did it, I wanted to be careful. I didn’t want to be preachy that women had to work,” she said. “I was an ambitious stay-at-home mom and ambitious when I was head of PR and advertising at Vera Wang. For me, it’s being ambitious about life.”

After hosting a dedicated summit in 2018, the executive took the show on the road this year, putting on 10 events across the country during the month of March. During the New York stop, Burch interviewed Lilly Ledbetter, the groundbreaking equal pay activist, at the Brooklyn Museum. “She’s a hero and a serious advocate for women,” Burch said. “Equal pay should be a given; it shouldn’t be a favor. It should be about the quality of the work, not the gender of the person.”

The executive is also calling on men to be a bigger part of the empowerment conversation. “It can be women-led, but I don’t want it to be women versus men. It’s so important to embrace women’s ambitions. I’m instilling that in my three sons,” Burch said.

Now that her foundation has “real impact and scale,” the philanthropist is proud to be a visible advocate for change — and she has garnered strong support from her key retail partners, colleagues and friends.

“I believe that active leaders play a critical role in engaging, supporting and providing guidance to younger generations who are just beginning to recognize their ambitions,” said Kristin Frossmo, EVP of Nordstrom’s shoe division. “That’s what Tory’s doing with her foundation.”

“Tory is an extraordinary entrepreneur, an inspiring leader and an overall incredible woman,” added designer Tabitha Simmons. “Her ability to balance it all is truly inspiring. I can call her at any time and she’s always available to give me the best, most thoughtful advice and help me in any shape or form. She has been so valuable to me in my business but also as my great friend. She really lifts up other women, and I am so lucky to call her my mentor.”

Going forward, Burch aims to be a role model for other companies as they develop purpose-driven strategies. “People can’t just pick a charity or a cause. It has to be meaningful to them. But if they start early, it will only benefit them. It will help them attract [talent], and it’s great for the bottom line.”

Change & Challenge

Like many women, Burch juggles several critical roles. She’s not only a passionate activist and philanthropist, driven executive and talented designer; she’s a proud mom and stepmother.

“I don’t sleep a lot. I think a lot about my family and children. I think about my business and our company. When you have time to rest, that’s when your mind starts to go. I’m learning how to meditate,” she said.

Burch, who regularly works long hours, said it’s a constant challenge to balance her time. “Because I’ve been involved in both the business and creative side, it’s been full-blown. I also need time to think and strategize.”

Her work ethic hasn’t changed since she launched the company 15 years ago.

What has shifted dramatically is the fashion and retail landscape. “One word: ‘technology,’” is how the founder summed it up.

“We launched with e-commerce. People told me no one would ever buy online,” she recalled. “People told me to never have a retail concept. It was such a wholesale-driven model.”

Tory Burch pump
A fall ’19 Tory Burch pump.
CREDIT: Courtesy Image

Today, direct-to-consumer fuels much of Burch’s business. The brand counts more than 250 stores globally, and digital has been a driving force from the brand’s infancy. “We were early adapters of social media. We never had the money to advertise in the beginning. We had to be scrappy, and we’ve kept that mentality.”

While the early days were challenging, Burch was able to avoid the personal financial obstacles many emerging designers face. She and her former husband and business partner, Chris Burch, made a personal investment early on, along with other investors. (Chris Burch later sold nearly all of his stake in the company, which today has a small group of owners that include Tory Burch and investment firms General Atlantic and BDT.)

Now, after nearly two decades, Burch has built an American fashion powerhouse — industry sources peg annual revenues at well over a billion dollars — by sticking to her original vision to build the brand as a lifestyle player. “When I first launched, ‘lifestyle’ wasn’t this overused term, but we really looked at it [that way]. That hasn’t changed,” the businesswoman noted.

From the beginning, Burch also decided to price her collections below luxury — a wise move that helped her gain fans and become a household name faster than most brands.

“I like the challenge of designing beautiful things that don’t cost a fortune,” Burch explained. “When you think about luxury, the prices are prohibitive for many people. For me, I don’t love [paying those] price points on everything. It’s just not interesting to me. We try to give our customer the most we can with our product and not charge a designer or luxury price.”

Still, with every segment of the market under pressure, Burch hasn’t been immune to the challenges at retail — and she’s also playing in a crowded field. But the entrepreneur has taken a different path than many of her rivals, which include Michael Kors and Tapestry-owned Coach and Kate Spade. She’s deliberately kept the company private — giving her the freedom to make decisions away from the glare of Wall Street. “We’re patient. We’re not in a rush. We don’t want to be the biggest one around; we want to be the most inspiring,” Burch said.

Tory Burch Footwear News Cover Story
The designer said shoes have big potential for the company.
CREDIT: Tawni Bannister

Though she’s not chasing quarterly numbers, the executive has a knack for tapping into growth opportunities at just the right time.

Case in point: Tory Sport, which debuted in 2015, when the athletic revolution hadn’t yet fully taken hold. “It was about function meeting style, but in a classic way. It’s not something I was seeing in the market. I’m learning a lot about new materials,” Burch said. “It’s giving us a new consumer, but there is certainly crossover, too.”

Burch has that rare ability to simultaneously navigate complex business decisions while also helming the creative side of the brand, known for its cheerful take on preppy style. She is excited to have a new mastermind at the company. Her husband, Pierre-Yves Roussel, a seasoned LVMH executive, took the CEO reins in January (Burch previously held the title). “To have a thought partner is transformative. I look forward to working with him on the strategic part of the company, but being able to focus on the product is everything [to me],” Burch said. “Having both my brother and husband [work alongside me] creates a wonderful dynamic. My stepdaughters are here. We spend so much time together.”

With her family by her side, Burch continues to prioritize company culture as a vital part of her work. “It’s something we take super seriously. It can change overnight, and we work on it all the time. I often say it starts from the top, but it also has to start from the bottom,” Burch said. “We’ve all worked in environments that are tricky or unhealthy, and that’s just not something I’m interested in. It’s about being straightforward and kind — and treating people well — but also expecting great work.”

The team certainly made an immediate impression on Mason, who graduated from high school last week and will attend N.C. State University’s College of Textiles beginning this fall. “Tory was sweet and welcoming. It was so nice to spend time with her,” Mason said. Now she plans to pursue another major goal: an internship with Burch next summer.

Watch FN’s video with Sophia Webster, Charlotte Olympia Dellal and more female designers.

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