The events of 2020 have put a spotlight on the longstanding, systemic discrimination that women and people of color face in their day-to-day lives—and the business world is no exception. Lawyer-activist Meena Harris and fashion mogul Tory Burch, as founders of Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign and Tory Burch Foundation, respectively, have a shared mission to champion the voices that go unheard.
“A lot of the important policies and practices that we need to think about in terms of how we’re supporting working women, women entrepreneurs in our country—and [during] this pandemic, especially—have laid bare that for all of us, we need a safety net,” Harris said.
In a virtual discussion moderated by Forbes senior editor Maneet Ahuja today at the Forbes Power Women’s Summit, Harris and Burch weighed in on how underrepresented founders can be best supported to move forward.
We sort of have no choice but to be ambitious, right? It is, by definition, being a woman daring to be successful in a male-dominated world. That is ambitious.
Access To Capital
The most powerful avenue to help women-run businesses survive the pandemic is providing more access to capital and affordable childcare, Burch said. The Tory Burch Foundation has provided a million dollars in grants and more than $57 million in loans.
“When you think about the PPP loans, six percent of women got them. Forty percent of women owned businesses,” Burch said. “So there’s a bit of a discrepancy there.”
During such a tumultuous time, Harris has found a silver lining: reconnection. A loss of distraction brought us back to the basics, and Harris said her peers in the industry are valuable resources.
“With this pandemic, we really kind of brought back that humanity and or at least have come to, I think, appreciate that humanity and connection more,” Harris said. “I as an entrepreneur and as a founder have found some of the best advice and support from my peers and from other female founders like Tory, who I can look to and think about what she’s done in her incredible career. So I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the power of that as well.”
The pandemic accelerated the shift of business operations and e-commerce online up nearly 50% in the second quarter, according to the Commerce Department. Burch’s foundation leaned into that trend, offering weekly webinars which have been utilized by more than 300,000 small businesses, Ahuja said.
“The foundation pivoted quickly because we realized that people needed help to figure out how to access the PPP loans,” Burch said. “They needed community. Regardless of the business, they were experiencing so many of the same challenges. So the webinars were a big part of that.”
The widespread resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year brought every layer of racial injustice to light, including the workplace. As a woman of color and activist, Harris said this reckoning was overdue.
“As a part of this moment, we are finally having tough conversations, or what may be tough for certain people that, frankly, we should have been having a long time ago,” Harris said. “I have been saying constantly through, from the beginning of the pandemic to the election, that this idea of returning back to normal is something that I reject, because normal was not working for so many people. We cannot go back to that.”
Harris said it is essential that these conversations continue in order to bring lasting change. “I think I’m cautiously hopeful and optimistic,” she said. “And what I mean by that is that we have to stick with it. We have to keep holding people accountable, and our leaders accountable, to keep this going.”
The word “ambition”—a double standard that is commonly seen as a positive attribute for men—is often weaponized against women, especially in their careers. Both Harris and Burch are working to reclaim that, and combat the stereotypes that so often hold women back.
“We need to just get to the root of why women don’t feel comfortable being ambitious,” Bursh said. “I think it’s changing. I see younger women feeling more comfortable, but I think we need to get men to be part of the conversation. We need to get men able to be advocates to support us and to really be part of that.”
Harris said ambition isn’t the only word used as a double standard against women, and that there’s probably one for every letter of the alphabet. But “ambition” is built into every woman, and should be embraced as a strength, she said.
“Reflecting back on that not only my experience as a woman of color, but also as a parent, we sort of have no choice but to be ambitious, right?” Harris said. “It is, by definition, being a woman daring to be successful in a male-dominated world. That is ambitious.”