Walk down any sidewalk from New York to Shanghai and you’ll see women wearing ballet flats with Tory Burch’s distinctive double-T logo. They’re also wearing her patterned tunics, handbags, clutches, and bold country club–chic pants, skirts, dresses, and tops. Tory Burch hasn’t just made preppy clothes hip and modern, she’s built a multi-billion dollar fashion empire in less than a decade. And she’s leveraging her experience and influence for the greater good with the Tory Burch Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering female entrepreneurs.
Recently named to Forbes’ list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, Burch has helped change the world’s notion of what being a female entrepreneur means—the fashion mogul has proven that it doesn’t have to be hawking cupcakes or launching a Mommy blog. At just 46 years old, she’s part of a growing group of women who are newly minted, self-made billionaires, like fellow power woman & Spanx founder, Sara Blakely. Including Burch and Blakely, 16 of this year’s Forbes Power Women founded their own businesses.
I recently sat down with Burch at the inaugural Forbes Women’s Summit where she opened up about her dazzling journey to the top of the fashion world—and offered some entrepreneurial advice and leadership lessons she’s learned the hard way on her journey to incredible success.
1. “Follow your passion.” Although Burch grew up as a self-described tomboy, she became interested in art history and fashion in college at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to work for influential designers like Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang. And when she decided to launch her company, she dreamed big—she wanted a global brand. “I never designed before this company,” Burch says. “[You have to] take a risk and put yourself out there.” In fact, 16 of the 100 women on this year’s Forbes Power Women list—which Burch is on—have launched their own businesses.
2. “Thicken your skin.” Burch went through 10 names (including Tory by TRB) for her company before reluctantly settling on using her own. And while she’s proved wrong all of the naysayers who thought she’d fizzle out in a flash, having her own name on the brand makes her acutely sensitive to criticism. Which is why she relies so much on the advice of her parents to thicken her skin. “Being a sensitive, thoughtful person opens you up for criticism and being affected by it,” Burch says. “I heard and tried not to listen to a lot of negativity. The noise and negativity were just the sidebar.”
3. “Put the right people in the right positions.” Burch describes herself as a very loyal person, and one of the toughest business lessons she learned was that loyalty—a strength in most circumstances—can also be a weakness for her. Loyalty made her reluctant to make staff personnel changes. “When you have the wrong people in the wrong position it affects the entire company,” she says. “It’s a hard lesson to learn. It has a ripple effect.” Be aware of the potential for your strength to become an Achilles Heel.
4. “Create relationships.” As part of the programming for her Tory Burch Foundation, there are 10 mentoring events a year. That’s because Burch believes that networking, collaborating with, and rooting for other women helps you make lasting relationships that organically further your career and set you up for success. “Every job that you have might not be the perfect job, but you really take away different things, and you create relationships,” says Burch, who counts Saks’ Ron Frasch, Google’s, Eric Schmidt, and her older brother and company’s co-president, as major mentors in her life.
5. “Go big.” On the one hand, Burch had a five-year plan of opening three stores. (She has launched dozens around the country and world, including stores in Portland, Oregon and Duabi.) On the other hand, from the beginning, she knew she wanted to build a global brand. Just as she’s had to roll with setbacks, she’s also embraced the happy boosts that come along the way, like the Oprah Winfrey show “Next Big Thing” shout-out that gave her 8 million website hits, and media coverage from her editor friends in the magazine world.
Luck is important, but the power of networking and collaboration helps you make your luck.
6. “Be authentic.” While talking about her personal life and her children are off-limits, she is an open book when it comes to her business, her foundation, and the Tory Burch brand in general. One for instance? When her company changed operating systems, they endured a glitch-y six-month period where they couldn’t track shipments. But rather than hiding the snafu, Burch decided to embrace social media and be transparent with customers about what was happening. The result? Her customers became her advocates.
7. “Buckle up.” When you see someone as successful as Burch, it’s easy to view that success as a destination she’s reached, instead of an ongoing journey that takes hard work, creative solutions, handling setbacks, and constant innovation. Burch admits that being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone: She works long hours and remembers the early days when her business was launching when she would put all of her children to bed and then be on the phone until 4am with her Hong Kong office. “Buckle up, and know that it’s going to be a tremendous amount of work, but embrace it,” says Burch. Setbacks are always going to be there—some of them even bigger than the challenge of launching a business in the first place—and it’s crucial to think of them as learning opportunities.