Connections are the Tory Burch Foundation’s chief currency. Through networking events across the U.S., the fashion designer’s organization introduces female entrepreneurs to mentors such as J.Crew’s Mickey Drexler and cosmetics queen Bobbi Brown. "I’ve had so many grandfathers and grandmothers for my own success," designer and founder Tory Burch tells Fast Company, citing Google’s Eric Schmidt, Evelyn Lauder, her brother Robert, and her dad. "It’s a gift to be able to give access."
What was the impetus that inspired your foundation and your philanthropic work?
Really, the impetus was growing up in the way that I did, and my parents treating people the way they did. From childhood, I’ve always wanted to help people, and I can only imagine that came from my parents. I always wanted to be a social worker or a psychiatrist.
Then, when I was in college, I went to 14 countries through Semester at Sea. I saw a side of poverty I’d never seen and never knew existed. That was when I really knew I wanted philanthropy to be a part of my life. It was very important to me to think, If I were to build a successful company, how would philanthropy be a part of it?
Was it baked into your company from the beginning?
Well, I wouldn’t say it was the biggest selling feature when I was fundraising. I was told to limit talking about them, especially with male investors. Philanthropy was thought of as women doing charity benefits--very Junior League. You know, you pur your name on a committee. But I thought--and people are now thinking--that business and philanthropy and doing good really do go hand-in-hand.
Why the focus on helping women?
I knew it would be about helping women. I was always so interested in so many women’s issues--maternal health in Africa, for instance. I’ve heard a lot about the challenges facing women applying for loans. It’s much easier for a woman in a developing country to get a microloan than it is here. But women are the heart and soul and backbone of societies.
And of course I saw firsthand the challenges that women faced. Early on, it was just the way potential investors were a little condescending. I felt that from the beginning. There was a stigma attached to being a woman in business. I think it’s about the ambition.
You’ve tried to create a mom-friendly environment at Tory Burch.
Women face challenges where they have to give up a career to have children. But why should they? I took four years off and I was lucky enough to come back. Here we’ve thought a lot about how the company works. We want to create an environment where you can do both--as long as the work gets done. I’m not clocking people in and out. I do feel that people need to be in the office, but I understand the demands. Some people work in the office three days a week.
We offer three months of paid parental leave. And if the man is the primary caregiver, we’re open to that too. We don’t discriminate.
How did you connect with Accion?
We knew they had a stellar reputation and were one of the greatest microloan organizations. We knew there was a need in the U.S. We generally think of the needs in developing countries, not the needs right here. I heard about Accion through a friend who was helping start the foundation. It was a great alignment. It was two years ago.
Tell me more about your mentoring events.
We’ve done ten of our mentoring events in the past two years--Chicago, Hawaii, New York. We’re going to Morocco this month. What I love is that it’s extremely rewarding for both the mentors and the mentees. Mickey Drexler loved it so much he then did a breakfast for 40 entrepreneurs. He was very generous with his time, and for the entrepreneurs, this is invaluable information. It’s information and it’s inspiration. So many of them are working by themselves. Access--it’s a gift to be able to give that.
Let’s talk about some of the important partnerships and relationships you’ve had philanthropically.
Well, there’s the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment. Accion. Goldman Sachs. Startup America. Dina Powell. Meredith Whitney.
We just did our first event with Goldman Sachs. We matched our beginning-stage entrepreneurs with their Goldman Sachs scholars, who are at the next level. We wanted them to talk about what you need to succeed. A professor from Babson came and talked about the importance of networking. It was very obvious that morning that there was so much synergy. That was April 12, and it was about seventy people--roughly half and half. It was in our showroom.
And Morocco? How did that happen?
Morocco came about because I am going to speak at the FT Luxury Summit anyway. And I said to Dina, wouldn’t it be great to meet some Moroccoan women? It was just an idea. It seemed like a natural thing to do. So now, Vital Voices and Goldman Sachs and the FT are involved. I’d like to hear firsthand about the women--the entrepreneurs’ stories in Morocco. It’s a learning experience for me and for us. Every time we have a mentoring event, we learn a little more about how to help women.
How has the work of the foundation affected the company?
I knew we could use the company as a platform to help the foundation, but I never thought about how much the customer would relate because of the foundation.
There was a customer, Tracey Kozmetsky, who approached our store manager in Dallas. She said she was interested in the company, and in women’s issues. Now we’re putting together our board, and we asked her to be on the board. She works with her family’s foundations, and her mother-in-law wrote all these books in the 1970s about women’s empowerment.
You know, I had someone in my office from Madagascar today. We just did these straw bags with them. They’re in-store now, and we have to make sure they sell. The woman said it has been transformative for the women who made them. We didn’t market it as helping artisans--we just want beautiful products. It has to read as "us" as well. The work is beautiful. It’s creating jobs and creating beautiful things in the same process. I’m so excited. It’s very gratifying. We want to help in every small way we can--and we know it’s small ways.
We want to be designing beautiful products and have the customer love them--and by the way, they’re from Madagascar. It’s sustainable because it’s about the product, and they want to buy it because they like it. Honestly, I didn’t know the impact it was having. Our head of accessories showed me the work. I saw the product, and we said, "Let’s definitely do some work there."
The other thing is, this is attracting amazing talent. When we interview people, one of the first things they bring up is the foundation. They bring it up. We don’t. And that’s really exciting.
Let’s go back to the Accion loans. Give me some numbers.
We’ve given more than 50 loans--that’s more than $500,000 to Accion. The average loan is about $8,000. We’re learning as we go. We have no intention of being a bank.
That’s why we partnered with Accion.
Some of the money for the foundation comes from donations. Some comes from corporate partnerships. Some is a direct contribution from the company. We have a line of products where 100% of the proceeds go into this, featuring James de la Vega’s street art. At checkout, we’ve had thousands of contributions--do you want to give $1 to the foundation? It adds up. I guess it’s entrepreneurial in the way we are fundraising.
What kind of mentoring are you doing on a personal level?
I get emails a lot. I meet with a lot of people. I get this a lot: This is my business. This is my business plan. What do you think of the logo? What do you think of the fundraising plan? I get to every single email eventually. I always try to look at each of them and sometimes I try to bring the team in so that we can debate them.
Also, we do try to use the services of the people who come to our mentoring events. We’ve used their filming services, catering services, flower arranging. It’s amazing how talented they are. I do have high standards, and I haven’t been disappointed yet.
Is it awkward to give the tough feedback?
That is a conversation you’ve got to be willing to have. It’s hard to share the good and the bad. I never want to deflate people--you want to build up.
Not everyone is loan-worthy. We have to look at the business plans carefully. The thing I love, though, is that this isn’t charity. It’s about empowerment. You’re helping them help themselves.
There was a recent case where someone came in with a fashion idea. I said, Listen, I don’t think it’s there yet. You need to work on it a lot more. It needs to be different. That was a hard conversation. Oh, and that was a guy. I don’t discriminate. I have three sons and three brothers!
What will success look like?
Each person we touch is a level of success. Having a foundation is success. But I want to help as many women as possible. We have a lot to do. I think we have a lot of work to do before we can say it’s a success. Success is really about evolution.
Photographs by Mike McGregor
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company.