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Tory Burch’s Career Path Includes A Very Valuable Vocabulary Lesson

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When she first launched her eponymous label in 2004, there was a certain career-focused word Tory Burch avoided: ambition. "I had done one of my first interviews and the reporter asked me if I was ambitious — I thought it was such a rude question," recalls the designer in an emailed interview with The Zoe Report. "After the story was published, I was speaking to a woman I really admire and she said, 'It was a great article, but you shouldn’t have shied away from the word ‘ambition.’ She was absolutely right. If we are truly to achieve parity, we have to own our bold ideas, celebrate our successes, and embrace ambition." According to Forbes, as of 2019, the Tory Burch label brings in approximately $1.5 billion in sales from apparel, footwear, watches, accessories, and fragrances. Ambitious indeed.

Perhaps Burch's initial understanding of the term could be attributed to the lack of female examples of it in her life. According to Burch, female mentors were few and far between when she first launched the brand (originally dubbed TRB by Tory Burch). "That said, my mother is my role model in business and in life," she says. "I began thinking entrepreneurially by watching her. She turned her passion for gardening into a flower business when I was young, when women entrepreneurs were even rarer." (Burch's iconic Reva flat is named after her mother.)

Like her mother, Burch also turned her passion into a career, despite having zero design experience or formal training. In a 2007 interview with Vanity Fair, Burch explains that, as an art history major at the University of Pennsylvania, her fashion industry experience didn't really hit until after college, when she landed stints with Zoran, a Yugoslavian designer, Harper's Bizaar (as a sittings assistant), and later, doing PR and marketing for Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang, and Loewe (during Narciso Rodriguez's tenure). Simultaneously, Burch was quietly designing her own line of clothing in her kitchen at home.

According to a 2013 Business Insider article on her journey to success, with the help of ex-husband Christopher Burch, the young fashion rookie finally made the jump to start her own fashion label in the early 2000s — and it was definitely a learn-as-you-go process. "I had to learn how to be both a designer and a CEO on the job," Burch explains. "It actually ended up being an asset because I wasn’t tethered to old ideas of how things were done. I had no playbook, so I had to write my own. I have discovered that I am comfortable outside my comfort zone."

As it turns out Burch's rookie playbook has included some successful moves. Perfecting the preppy-bohemian look, the label quickly became known for its breezy tunics, strategic use of high-octane shades like tangerine, lemon-yellow, and fuchsia, functional leather totes, and — of course — the now-cult-like ballet flats. "I started our company with a very simple concept: beautiful clothes that didn’t cost a fortune," says Burch. "At the time, the marketplace was divided. There was luxury designer and mass-market with nothing in between. I knew what was missing from my own closet and thought other women might be missing the same things."

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Apparently her hunch was accurate, as the Tory Burch brand rapidly rose in the ranks as a fixture in the industry and shelves of major mass retailers like Nordstrom and Bloomingdales. "[The Tory Burch] aesthetic [is] refined yet accessible, infused with bold color and global influences that result in designs that feel both classic and modern," says Erica Russo, vice president and fashion director of accessories and beauty at Bloomingdale’s in an email interview with The Zoe Report. "Tory has always been influenced by her stunning mother who traveled the world and had fantastic taste, and that personality and care come through in her designs. Her key customer spans ages and continents, is multifaceted, ever-evolving, and follows fashion and design."

In 2008, Burch received the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for Accessories Designer of the Year. And less than 10 years after its initial launch, the company was valued at just under $3.5 billion, adding Burch to Forbes' World's Billionaires list in March of 2013. "Tory started her business with some must-have styles (the tunic, the ballet flat) and over the years, it has evolved into a true global lifestyle brand," says Russo. "I’ve also seen Tory grow with her brand, and her example as a female entrepreneur has been inspiring, especially seeing her pass that on and make a difference in other women’s lives with The Tory Burch Foundation."

Burch developed her namesake organization in 2009 as a means to give female entrepreneurs a leg up in developing their own enterprises via programs and initiatives that include, but are not limited to, access to capital, education and mentoring opportunities, and entrepreneurial education. "I'm most interested in challenging the double standard that exists around ambition and the negative connotations associated with ambitious women," says Burch. "Women who want to achieve, who are tough at the negotiating table and are straightforward communicators are punished for the exact same qualities their male counterparts are praised for. That is simply unacceptable." To date, the foundation has distributed more than $57 million in affordable loans to 3,500 female entrepreneurs through its Capital Program with Bank of America.

In an effort to promote more conversation around said existing negative connotations about forward-thinking businesswomen, Burch launched her Embrace Ambition Summit, which features high-profile guests and speakers to spark inspiration — and, hopefully, a new regime of female entrepreneurs. "We had some amazing speakers this year, from trailblazers like Gloria Steinhem to the next generation of leaders, such as 24-year-old Tiera Fletcher," says Burch of the 2020 summit, which took place March 5. "She’s an aerospace engineer and co-founder of Rocket With The Fletchers, a non-profit that promotes STEM programs in underrepresented communities. We are interested in people who go against the grain and challenge unconscious bias in their daily lives."

She's also interested in silencing the naysayers and skeptics many young businesswomen often face, which Burch experienced firsthand when she first launched the Tory Burch brand. "One of the best pieces of advice I ever received is from that time — my parents told me to think of negativity as noise and to tune it out," she says.

And that's exactly what she's doing as she continues to tackle each new season with the same focus as her very first. "I have always been obsessed with the concept of reinvention," she says. "Every season, we are pushing ourselves forward while staying true to who we are. I think it’s about exploring different facets of your brand identity with authenticity, creative integrity, and intellectual curiosity."