Guest Post: Tory Burch on helping small businesses by Patricia Sellers @FortuneMagazine September 17, 2009, 5:50 PM EST E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons Photo courtesy of Tory Burch by Tory Burch, co-founder and creative director, Tory Burch LLC After working in public relations for Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang, Tory Burch started her own company in 2004 as a lifestyle concept with multiple product categories including ready-to-wear, handbags, shoes and jewelry. Her products are now sold in 19 freestanding Tory Burch boutiques across the U.S., http://www.toryburch.com, two outlets, and 450 department and specialty stores worldwide. In July, Mexico-based Tresalia Capital invested in her company, valuing the business at some $600 million. Burch–whose Fashion Week debut in New York yesterday earned kudos from the critics–recently launched the Tory Burch Foundation to provide economic opportunities to women and their families in the U.S. Like most mothers, my children are my top priority. I have three sons, and I cannot imagine the pain of not being able to provide for them. I feel incredibly fortunate not to have had to face that hardship. After realizing my own dream of starting a company, I wanted to find a way to help other women entrepreneurs accomplish their own goals. I recently launched the Tory Burch Foundation as a vehicle to help mothers provide for their children. Deciding to launch the foundation was the easy part. Figuring out how to best help mothers provide for their children took a lot of work. As I did when I launched my brand, I sought the advice of leaders in the field who could advise me. I met with Melanne Verveer, who is Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues in the U.S. State Department, and Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned economist and professor. Last fall, I visited relief organizations in Haiti and was overcome by the need there. This past July, I went to India and learned about microfinance there. I was inspired by how the organizations were changing the lives of people in need. While there are millions of mothers struggling worldwide to feed and support their children, I soon realized something: I have a great opportunity to contribute here–by working to economically empower women and their families in the United States. After months of research, I decided that the Tory Burch Foundation’s first area of focus should be microfinance. Most people who have heard of microfinance associate it with small loans given to people to buy a cow or a weaving loom or some other small income-generating asset in developing countries. In the U.S., the loans are a bit bigger–say $5000, vs. $50 in developing countries, and domestic small business owners need additional help navigating regulatory systems. But the principle remains the same. Domestic microfinance helps low-income people–who don’t typically have access to more traditional forms of employment or financial services–support their families by starting, sustaining, or growing their small businesses. I’ve learned that the need here is enormous. Only 2% of people who could benefit have access to microfinance services in the U.S., vs. 17% in developing countries. Said another way, a low-income entrepreneur in India may have a better shot at accessing a microfinance loan than a low-income entrepreneur here in the U.S. And that’s before the global economic crisis! I like microfinance in particular because it isn’t charity in the traditional sense. It’s about investing in people who might otherwise not have the chance to pursue their goals. It gives entrepreneurs the opportunities many of us take for granted, and it is sustainable–loan repayment rates are typically 90% or better. It’s also incredibly important to the economic recovery of our country. Small businesses represent more than half of U.S. jobs. When we create more small businesses, we fuel the economy and fight poverty. Research shows that every microfinance loan creates an average of two jobs. And every dollar invested returns $2 to $2.72 to the economy. I chose ACCION USA, one of the largest and most respected U.S. microfinance organizations, to be my Foundation’s first partner. Since 1991, ACCION USA has provided more than $116 million in loans, with a 92% repayment rate. This brings me to today. I recently had the pleasure of spending time with ACCION USA CEO Gina Harman and a few of their clients. One of them whom I’ve come to know is printing business owner Maritza Polanco. She and her team of sales people, graphic designers and press people at Polanco Press serve many New York companies with traditional print services and creative branding solutions out of a single room. I found her positive attitude, along with her creativity in finding new ways to serve her clients, incredibly inspirational. Maritza has managed to maintain her success, even during the economic downturn, which is a great accomplishment. She has increased her sales through partnerships with local organizations and has even branched out into newspaper production. Like so many entrepreneurs, it’s in her blood. Her mother was a self-made business owner too. I’ve also come to know Flor Diaz, who runs Florquidiaz Bridal Shop in Queens–although “bridal shop” is a wholly inadequate description of her business. In addition to serving brides, Flor helps Quinceañera celebrants with both clothing and event planning. (Quinceañera, or “15 years” in Spanish, is a coming-of-age ceremony that often takes on wedding-like proportions in the Latin American community.) Flor has also expanded her business outside the U.S. She spends half the year in New York and half in her native Dominican Republic, during their party high season. While she’s gone, her husband runs the business here. She is relentlessly brainstorming new ways to expand and is considering opening another store. Both of these businesswomen are creative and tireless entrepreneurs. They face the same questions about marketing, competition, expansion, staffing and market conditions that I do. During these challenging economic times, their businesses create jobs. Flor’s flourishing business not only helps fuel the economy. It also helps support her four children too. This is a bit longer than the average Postcard, but I hope it gave you a sense for why I want to invest in women like Maritza and Flor. They have transformed their lives by accessing the financial services that many of us take for granted and are setting a great example for other women. I would love any suggestions you might have for how the Tory Burch Foundation can do more. Please visit my website at www.toryburchfoundation.org and drop me a line with any ideas.