“I ended up in fashion by chance,” said Tory Burch, CEO and Creative Officer of the American lifestyle brand under her name. The audience leaned forward to listen as Burch spoke at Waseda University about her journey, from her college years to the global expansion of her business since its launch in 2004. This talk by Burch on October 23 was organized by WASEDA-EDGE, the University’s education program training global entrepreneurs, and moderated by Christel Takigawa, founder and chairman of the Christel Vie Ensemble Foundation, which focuses on animal welfare.
“I grew up on a farm, studied art history at the University of Pennsylvania, and was aspiring to go into the art world. After sending out many letters and cold calling, I got a job offer from a very eccentric designer, Zoran, but I had to move to New York and start the job within a week of graduation. It was crazy, but I saw a lot that I could never have imagined. This became my introduction into the fashion world.” Burch then went onto working in PR and marketing for high brands such as Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang and Loewe, before launching her company in 2004.
Tory Burch started off as a small boutique in Manhattan, and was one of the first to have a website at a time when people said no one would ever buy anything online. “Everything people told me to do, I didn’t really listen to,” she said. Then, a year after she launched her business, the most famous American talk show host Oprah Winfrey featured Burch as “the next big thing in fashion,” propelling her business. In 2015, the company launched Tory Sport, a collection of high-tech sportswear with a classic-retro vibe, which was introduced to Japan this fall.
Many people wonder how she has it all, but Burch said that in reality, she has faced challenges as a woman in business. “Before launching my own brand, I was offered a job of a lifetime but found out I was pregnant with my third son. I chose to become a stay-at-home mom because I realized I couldn’t do both jobs well at the same time. Sometimes, you can’t do it all, and work-life balance is about figuring out what personally works for you.”
Furthermore, some called her company a vanity project or said that it would last only a few seasons when Burch first started. However, a great piece of advice her parents gave her was to think of negativity as noise. “In entrepreneurship, you have to have conviction and confidence, and believe in yourself,” Burch said.
Burch then spoke about how women entrepreneurs often have harder times getting loans, are often single mothers, and hold multiple jobs to get by. Some lack the necessary training, networks, and confidence. “But when they have ideas, I have never seen more passion, determination, and tenacity. Women can get the job done, and that’s a gift. Also, they are the first to invest in their communities, which makes investing in women great.”
For these circumstances, Burch founded the Tory Burch Foundation in 2009, which empowers women entrepreneurs. The Foundation offers low cost capital, as well as education and fellowship programs. “Mentorship is the key because there is a whole network of women and men supporting women. Entrepreneurs can support each other and use other’s services for help since many of them face the same challenges.” In fact, many of the businesses the Foundation supports have nothing to do with fashion and are across all industries.
Yet, in the U.S., like Japan, ambition is often viewed as negative for women but celebrated among men. To address this double standard, the Foundation released the public service announcement video “Embrace Ambition” on International Women’s Day this year, encouraging women to chase their goals and dreams. The video featured celebrities and athletes, including men.
“Women, and certainly men, have to be part of the conversation for leveling the playing field. Men have daughters too, and they wouldn’t want to think of their daughters being treated any differently. They are our best advocates.” Burch said she would love to see equal pay for men and women and people being judged by quality of their work, not by their gender.
For all the future entrepreneurs in the audience, Burch encouraged them to find their passion first. “Starting a business is hard work that takes tenacity, great energy, confidence, and a unique idea. There is no such thing as an overnight success, so you have to believe in your idea and never give up.” Lastly, Burch mentioned that having integrity and treating all people with kindness and respect was important. “If you have a company, like I’m lucky enough to have, you try to create a culture that is about kindness but expects great work. I feel privileged to work with the team that we have and remind myself how fortunate we are to be given all the opportunities we have. I really do believe in hard work and always being appreciative, as well as believing in the people around you.”
After the talk, a group of 30 university students had the opportunity to personally ask Burch questions, listed below.
Q) Why did you launch a sport line?
I love sports, and I have always thought about starting a sport line. We have been working on it for seven years and finally launched two years ago, which was very timely with what was happening in the market. I wanted to make sure that Tory Sport wasn’t a second line of Tory Burch, rather a peer brand, because when you look at what has happened in fashion, second lines usually don’t work. Tory Sport has brought us very interesting young customers that are now reintroduced to our main brand. We have young men and rappers wearing it. It’s a gift because I had to learn again about a whole new kind of business.
Q) I want to be a fashion designer in the future. What gives you inspiration?
For me, inspiration is everywhere. Art is a big influence, whether it is music, film or painting, but distilling your ideas and making a focused concept out of them is the difficult part. I always go back to the word “restraint.” How do you edit in the appropriate way? How do you hold back? Restraint helps me to have a unique point of view and vision.
Q) What kind of equality do you value?
I’m all for equality, and diversity is really important to me. It’s something that is a foundation of my company, and I hope I make it very clear that I have no tolerance for people who are not accepting of others. It is very difficult to look at what is happening in the US right now and not say things.
Q) People in Japan want everyone to stay in the box. What do you think about this?
Staying in the box is dangerous. You have to think differently and have intellectual curiosity. That’s what makes you stand apart. The world is changing at a rapid pace, so it’s hard to keep up, but you have to be true to who you are. Moving forward is important. When things go wrong, think of it as an opportunity rather than a failure because it’s about learning what worked and what didn’t. In business, the answer is to pivot quickly when things are not working out and take a step forward in a different direction. Also, make sure your ideas are different and unique. If you are missing something, chances are other people are missing it as well.