"I started to laugh," says Burch. "Then I said, 'I have never heard of a man being introduced as a male CEO, but thank you for having me here.'"
Not only did Burch laugh, but she got the last laugh. Her foundation, launched in 2009, is dedicated to helping women entrepreneurs on a number of fronts, from increasing access to capital to a better awareness of how to win over investors. And about three years after that awkward onstage moment, Burch is rebooting some of her foundation's initiatives, to better achieve her goal of impact at scale.
Burch has been in pursuit of that goal for years. In 2014, the foundation embarked upon a partnership with Bank of America to help women entrepreneurs get low-interest bank loans. So far, that alliance has extended $46 million in loans through community development financial institutions. Laurie Fabiano, the president of the Tory Burch Foundation, says the recipients are women who have already tried traditional bank loans without success.
Now, Burch is making major changes to two of her foundation's other programs: an immersive, hands-on fellows program, and a series of live events that run under the banner of "Embrace Ambition." Both will be dramatically larger this year, as her team continues to intensify how they work with the women they seek to serve.
Since 2016, the Fellows Program has been an intensive three-day program held in New York City, with 10 chosen entrepreneurs and a pitch competition that awarded $100,000 to one of them. "I really didn't love that part of it," says Burch. Adds Fabiano: "With the competition, it's like we were pitting them against each other. But when we asked them about the value of the program, at the top of their lists was the camaraderie of the other Fellows."
The rebooted Fellows Program will now include 50 women and last for four days, and rather than a pitch competition with a single winner, each entrepreneur will get $5,000 to use toward business education. The entrepreneurs will get pitch coaching and meetings with Burch, her staff, and a variety of mentors both within and without the foundation. On the last day, says Burch, the foundation will "fill the room with people ready to invest," and invite 10 Fellows to pitch to that group.
Burch's next Embrace Ambition Summit--which last year drew about 1,000 participants and featured speakers such as actor Yara Shahidi and skier Lindsey Vonn--is planned for next year in New York. In the meantime, the foundation is hosting live events in five cities in early March. The New York event will be held at the Brooklyn Museum on March 8, and will feature equal pay activist Lilly Ledbetter. Aspiring attendees get in for free, assuming their essay about why they want to attend makes the cut. All five events are livestreamed to make them as accessible as possible. This year, 1,200 women applied in the first 24 hours of registration, says Burch.
The foundation has also developed a software tool to help women deal with unconscious bias; it's available on the foundation's website. As for the impact Burch's foundation has had on women so far? "When you're in the thick of it, you don't know for sure," says Fabiano. But after last year's Summit, she got a taste firsthand: "Our accountant sent us this letter [after attending the event]," she recalls. "She went back to her boss and asked for a raise."