"I've always been ambitious," she says. "I was captain of my tennis team. I started a sorority. I was ambitious as a mom. I grew up with three brothers not really knowing the differences between genders."
Sitting on an aqua couch in her New York City offices, she's as perfectly turned-out as you would expect, in a camel-colored sweater and trousers. Her parents, she said, assured her she could do anything if she was willing to work hard enough. They didn't have much tolerance for drama. "Negativity is noise," she remembers their saying. "Believe in yourself."
And yet. Burch says that after The New York Times ran its first piece about her company, she got a call from the well-known film producer Jane Rosenthal. Rosenthal pointed out that Burch had dodged the word "ambition" in the interview, and Burch realized, to her dismay, that Rosenthal was right. "When a man is ambitious, it's seen as a good thing, and when a woman is described as ambitious, it's a complete negative," says Burch. "It's a very damaging double standard."
It was only after the call with Rosenthal that Burch realized she'd internalized this double standard, and needed to reconcile her impression of the word "ambition" with its actual meaning.
Earlier in Burch's career, she was asked to be the president of the Americas division of Loewe, a Spanish luxury fashion house. At about the same time, she learned she was pregnant with her third son. The result? She left a job she "loved, just loved," to become a full-time parent.
"Part of the challenge for women is sometimes leaving something they're passionate about to raise a family, because they can't do both," says Burch.
Even as a full-time parent, Burch's career ambition remained as strong as ever. In 2004, she launched Tory Burch out of a small retail space on New York City's Elizabeth Street. That location is now closed, but Burch has more than 190 stores with the Tory Burch name on them, and her products are sold in an additional 3,000 retail locations worldwide.
While she once worried about having the career she wanted while being the parent her kids needed, things look different now that they're are older. When she opened her first Tory Burch store, she says, her stepdaughters, then young teenagers, told her it was never going to work. To be fair, she says, "I didn't know if it would ever work either." Now, she says, "I think it really inspired them to follow their dreams." One of her stepdaughters works in the business.
For her boys, who are younger, it was much different. Once the youngest started school, they had a hardworking, globe-traveling entrepreneur of a mom, and pretty soon, they wouldn't remember anything different. Burch would travel with all three of them to Asia and Europe, which she gamely describes as "fun." If they would complain, she says, she would tell them, "You know, I could be a stay-at-home-mom," to which they'd respond, "No!" Now, she says, "They admire women who are doing great things."
And Burch has come around to her own ambition, saying she's proud to be ambitious, and, in case anyone's wondering, a feminist as well. "People are using the word feminist the wrong way," she says, somewhat irritated. "It's about equal rights. It's not about being someone who dislikes men."
Spreading the word
Since 2009, Burch has also had a foundation devoted to women, which she says is one of the reasons she started her company. "I was told, while I was fundraising, never to say 'social responsibility' and 'business' in the same sentence," she says. "That just made me more determined."
The foundation is probably best-known for its partnerships with Bank of America and Goldman Sachs to improve education and access to capital for women entrepreneurs. On March 8, it's releasing a video encouraging women and girls to embrace their own ambition (or, of course, #EmbraceAmbition). The video features well-known women, and a few good men--Gabby Douglas, Kerry Washington, Billy Jean King, John Hamm and Julianne Moore--who urge the viewer to reconsider the word "ambition."
Burch persuaded many of them with a letter, saying she was not in her comfort zone asking for a favor, but that this really mattered to her. "It was amazing the resounding 'yes' I received," she says.
"Even asking for a raise is more challenging for women," says Burch. "We need to change the cultural stereotype."