How Celebrity Women Are Lifting Up The Sisterhood

Tory Burch, Sara Blakely and Eva Longoria are using their fame and fortunes to help other women succeed and to lift up whole communities. They are bright examples of the many women who use their success for good.

Nusha Balyan at The Story Exchange By Nusha Balyan at The Story Exchange

Tory with women entrepreneurs in Texas that have participated in the Foundation’s Capital Program powered by Bank of America. Photo courtesy of the Tory Burch Foundation

When Tory Burch’s ballet flats and lifestyle brand made her a household name in the U.S., she didn’t waste time sharing her good fortune. Fresh from her own struggles with work/life balance and aware of the obstacles women face in securing business financing, she launched the Tory Burch Foundation in 2009 with the goal of helping other women entrepreneurs succeed.

Burch was advised against describing her vision of starting a foundation during fundraising meetings back when she started her business 14 years ago. But today, many women-owned businesses have a social component to them.

“When you improve the economies of women, it helps the world. Women invest back into their own families and their communities,” says Tory Burch Foundation President Laurie Fabiano. In fact, women tend to invest up to 90 percent of their income in their communities, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Fabiano was explaining why the foundation’s mission is so important, but she may as well have been talking about her boss. Many female entrepreneurs like Burch, who have gained fortune and fame through their ventures, are working to help other women realize their economic power. When they use their celebrity to do good, the results can be particularly potent, our look at several prominent women entrepreneurs shows.

Tory Burch Wants to Even the Playing Field

The cause at the center of Burch’s philanthropic life has been providing women with tools and resources that give them an equal opportunity at success in a business world that seems to favor men.

Even though investments in women-led businesses have picked up in the last couple of decades, women are still less likely to get bank loans and venture funding — and, when they do, the dollar amounts they receive are much smaller than what men get. A 2014 study on women entrepreneurs from Babson College found that only 2.7 percent of the companies that received venture capital funding between 2011 and 2013 were run by women. Businesses with women CEOs received only $1.5 billion of the total $50.8 billion in venture capital invested during that period.

According to Fabiano part of the problem stems from women’s fear of asking for money and the way they go about it. “They tend to be ‘well, I hope, and I think, and this is my dream’ rather than: ‘This is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and you should give me the money,’ which is generally how men approach it,” she says.  

To ensure that women have access to affordable funding, the Tory Burch Foundation has set up a capital program in partnership with Bank of America. It connects early stage female business owners with local lenders, known as Community Development Financial Institutions, which provide credit and financial services to underserved markets and populations. Women who qualify for a loan through the program get a interest rate that’s 2 percentage points lower than their quoted rate. To date, the program has lent about $25 million.

To help women who are just starting a business or need practical skills in growing it, the Tory Burch Foundation has an education program in partnership with Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses and Babson College. It provides everything from training in negotiations and marketing to employee management and developing strategic plans for businesses growth.

About 2 years ago, the foundation also set up a fellowship program under which ten women-owned businesses each receive a $10,000 grant for education and a year of mentoring and support to take their businesses to the next level. At the end of the program, the fellows pitch for one entrepreneur to receive $100,000, half of which is provided as a grant and half as a zero-interest loan.

“Women start businesses at twice the rate of men,” Fabiano says. “The biggest difference is that women’s businesses rarely exceed the million-dollar mark. And part of that is the whole issue of capital and support systems. So we’re trying to reach women at the critical time of their business,” when their annual revenue is somewhere between $25,000 and $600,000. That’s when the Tory Burch Foundation program can really help those who want to grow, she says.

Sara Blakely Helps Women Soar

Tory Burch isn’t the only woman entrepreneur with celebrity status who is trying to make a difference.

Ever since she was a little girl, Spanx founder Sara Blakely knew she wanted to help women — she just didn’t know she would start “with their butts,” she says on her Sara Blakely Foundation website. In fact, her blockbuster product for shaping women’s rears has allowed Blakely to donate millions to charities around the world and invest in causes that support women’s education, entrepreneurship and arts through her foundation, which she started in 2006.

Some of its programs include: the Global Village Projects, which supports STEM education for refugee women and provides them with a safe environment to realize their potential; the Empowerment Plan, which hires formerly homeless women to make sleeping-bag coats for the homeless; and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Women, which provides educational resources to talented South African girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who’ve demonstrated leadership skills.

Blakely is also passionate about providing mentorship, and in 2010 her foundation launched the Leg-UP program, which features other female entrepreneurs’ products in its catalog for free.

“Since the start, I saw Spanx as a platform for me to do what my greater mission and goal is, which is to help women in a big way,” Blakely told Variety last year. According to the magazine, her foundation has donated $24 million to women’s causes.

“I was so grateful for the women that came before me that paved the road and made it a little bit easier for me to travel,” she said. “My hope is that I’m making the road a little easier to travel for the women who come after me.”

In 2013, the self-made billionaire signed the Melinda and Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, promising to give at least half her wealth to charity.  

Her latest endeavor, The Belly Art Project, is an homage to mothers everywhere with the higher aim of making childbearing and birth safe for women all over the world. More than 100 women, including celebrities like Kate Winslet and Milla Jovovich, business leaders, TV show hosts and CEOs, have painted their pregnant bellies for a series of fun portraits gathered in a coffee-table book. Besides celebrating women’s pregnant bodies, all proceeds from the book go to Every Mother Counts, which works to make childbirth safe for women everywhere.

Eva Longoria Empowers Latinas

But it’s not just women entrepreneurs who seek to use their celebrity power to support female economic empowerment. Actress Eva Longoria never forgot her humble beginnings after gaining fame from her role in the hit TV show “Desperate Housewives.” Indeed, she used her star power to start the Eva Longoria Foundation in 2012, which empowers Latinas through education and entrepreneurship, and provides them with “career training, mentorship, capital and opportunity.”

“With 27% of Latinas living below the poverty line, 17% of Latinas dropping out of high school, and only 15% of adult Latinas holding college degrees, I felt compelled to do something,” Longoria told Forbes in 2013.

Much of the work of the Eva Longoria Foundation focuses on helping Latinas earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In an interview with Los Angeles Magazine in 2014, Longoria said many Latinas are attracted to the STEM fields in response to racism. After all, while English grades are often subjective, getting a math answer right is something no one can question. But she notes that sexism in STEM fields is as much of a problem for Latinas as other women. When she asked a group of Latina girls if they prefer a Latino teacher, they were unanimous in saying that they’d rather have a female teacher.

According to latest statistics from the Eva Longoria Foundation, more than 1,100 Latinas have gone through its extracurricular STEM program in Los Angeles and San Antonio. The organization has also partnered with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to provide microloans and business training to low-income Latina entrepreneurs.

“The fact is Latinas open up small businesses at six times the national average,” Longoria said during her foundation’s 2015 annual dinner, according to Variety. “They are the economy growers of this country, and often they don’t have access to capital or business training, and that’s where we come in,” she added. “We help women of the Latino community because they are the pillars of our community… If you improve communities, you improve a nation – and that’s what we’re trying to do, one Latina at a time.”

Making an Outsized Impact

Tory Burch for the Foundation’s #EmbraceAmbition initiative. Photo courtesy of the Tory Burch Foundation

While the Eva Longoria Foundation fights the stigma around women in STEM and the Sara Blakely Foundation celebrates the physicality of women’s pregnant bodies, the Tory Burch Foundation has launched a new effort to redefine female ambition. Its “Embrace Ambition” initiative, first rolled out on International Women’s Day last month, aims to erase the negative connotation that often accompanies the word “ambitious” when it describes women.

Fabiano says gender stigmas like these are systematic impediments to women’s parity in the workplace. When the Tory Burch Foundation launched the “Embrace Ambition” initiative worldwide, it became clear that overcoming cultural stereotypes is just as important as access to capital and education, she says.

“Ninety-seven percent of the world’s countries have participated in taking the pledge or posting the photos, so that was extraordinary. I did not expect the kind of global response that we got,” says Fabiano. “There have been 2 million media impressions. Hundreds of thousands of women have posted pictures. It’s been incredible.”

Name recognition and celebrity status have played an outsized role in the success of the campaigns started by Tory Burch, Sara Blakely and Eva Longoria, but their stories also show that women yearn to give back and make their communities better.

“What’s fascinating to me is just about every entrepreneur who’s a woman who starts a business has some kind of social element to it or gives back. That’s definitely not the case with men,” says Fabiano. “And I think it’s because women are very much in tuned with the world and what’s happening around them, either because they have children or they just care a lot or they just tend to always want to give back.”

And when they give after achieving hard-earned fame, their good deeds have an even greater impact.

Posted: April 12, 2017

Nusha Balyan at The Story ExchangeHow Celebrity Women Are Lifting Up The Sisterhood