Tory Burch: 'We need to talk about ambition'

Updated 8th March 2018
Credit: Tory Burch Foundation
Tory Burch: 'We need to talk about ambition'
Written by Tory Burch
Tory Burch is an American fashion designer, entrepreneur and founder of the Tory Burch foundation. Next month, the foundation will host the "Embrace Ambition Summit: Confronting Stereotypes and Creating New Norms." Click here for more information and to apply to attend. Opinions in this piece belong to the author.
The issue of ambition in women became personal to me 14 years ago. In my first interview with the New York Times, I bristled when the reporter asked me if I was ambitious and I answered that the word annoyed me. When the article appeared, a friend of mine called and said, "Great interview. But why are you not owning your ambition?"
Of course, I was then, and I am now, ambitious. But until that moment, I realized that I had bought into the stigma that women shouldn't be ambitious -- or at least not show it -- because it was unattractive somehow. I was a businesswoman building a global lifestyle company, how was I not ambitious? And why did the reporter feel the need to call it out? Would he have asked a businessman the same question? From that moment on, I owned my ambition and encouraged other women to embrace their ambition. (Thank you, Jane Rosenthal for that phone call.)
I have three brothers and three sons. I want my boys to live in a world where we can all be our best selves.
Tory Burch
There are studies, and the daily reality for most women, which prove why encouraging women to embrace ambition is far more than a nice thought. Researchers at Columbia University described a fictional entrepreneur to a group of business students. They told half the students that the founder's name was Howard, while the other half were told the name was Heidi. The fictional characters were identical but the students found Howard to be someone they would want as a colleague and Heidi to be unappealing and selfish. The situation for women in politics may be even worse. A Harvard study found that female politicians seeking power came off as uncaring, but men did not.
Last year, the Tory Burch Foundation launched a global #EmbraceAmbition initIative to empower women and girls to own their power, drive and dreams. The success of the campaign has exceeded our wildest expectations. From billboards in Times Square to social media feeds in Asia, this public service initiative has reached 98 percent of the world's countries and millions of people.
The centerpiece of the campaign is a powerful video featuring 38 notable women and men. Women are encouraged to take a pledge to embrace ambition and to challenge their friends to do the same on our Foundation website. Knowing that ambition means different things to different people and is not reserved for only professional pursuits, we provide a photo filter that allows women to choose the word that best describes their ambition -- such as "Visionary," "Determined," "Mother," and more. There are also tools and content to help women become comfortable with their ambitions.
This year, the #EmbraceAmbition campaign focuses on women and men celebrating the people who inspire them to embrace ambition. I honored my Mom with these words, "You inspire me to embrace ambition because you have always encouraged me to think of negativity as noise." Serena Williams honored her sister Venus, saying, "You inspire me to #EmbraceAmbition because you taught me what it means to strive for greatness." An e-postcard is sent to the person you are acknowledging and you post your tribute on social media. We launched on March 1st and already people all over the world have participated.
The #EmbraceAmbition campaign demonstrated the transformative power of questioning stereotypes and has inspired the Foundation to dive deeper and address other harmful stereotypes that impact gender, race and sexuality.
On April 24, The Tory Burch Foundation will host the first Embrace Ambition Summit: Confronting Stereotypes and Creating New Norms in New York. Equality is a human right. And while there are systematic impediments to advancing equality for all people, perhaps the greatest obstacles are some of the cultural norms that we ourselves perpetuate, similar to the double standard around ambition. Our Summit will be a less-than-perfect attempt to acknowledge other barriers to equality across the board that we have created through stereotypes and unconscious bias.
Some may wonder why the Summit is going beyond gender stereotypes, as the focus of the Tory Burch Foundation is to empower women entrepreneurs. I believe we can no longer have these conversations in silos. Half of all marginalized people are women. There can be no equality for women if there is not equality for all. As the late American poet and human rights activist Maya Angelou said, "No one of us can be free, until everybody is free." And in my mind, that includes men too. I have three brothers and three sons. I want my boys to live in a world where we can all be our best selves.
Our greatest hope is that if we confront the biases and stereotypes that hold people back we can create new norms that will allow us all to embrace equality. It is an ambitious goal. And we own it.