By Celeste Smith
The Charlotte Observer.
On a stage in Charlotte this week in front of an audience of female entrepreneurs, fashion mogul Tory Burch shared how she left a career with luxury products group Loewe when she was pregnant with her third son.
Then she set out to build her own company.
“We worked out of my apartment for two years,” she said. It was all about “being tenacious” and “scrappy” to launch her business, said Burch, who landed on Forbes’ The World’s Billionaires list in 2013.
Now, she is looking to help women in the Charlotte area and elsewhere find their own path to entrepreneurship.
Her nonprofit Tory Burch Foundation is teaming with Bank of America to promote Elizabeth Street Capital, an initiative launched in February that’s designed to boost female-owned small businesses with mentors and access to capital.
Bank of America has committed an initial investment of $10 million.
Charlotte and the greater Carolinas region is one of eight markets involved, with Burch looking to expand to up to 20 markets during the next two years.
Eight loans have been issued so far in the Carolinas, according to organizers, who say the projects reflect the potential reach of the initiative.
They include a four-figure loan to buy a used truck for an ice cream business and a $420,000 loan for a 22-room hotel on Carolina Beach, according to organizers.
“When I started my company, it was clear that there was a big need to help women in particular,” said Burch, who named the Elizabeth Street Capital initiative after the location of her first boutique in New York, which opened about a decade ago.
“… Women have a tougher time getting loans,” she said. “It’s just how it is. The entrepreneurs I’m meeting are often having two jobs, they’re single mothers. They’re incredible business people.”
Burch credits the Bank of America partnership with giving her foundation more reach.
Andrew Plepler, the bank’s corporate social responsibility executive, said the initiative will help reach female entrepreneurs who need lower-interest, affordable loans.
“They may not be ready for a bank loan, and some of their options might be very high cost,” Plepler said. “This program allows them access to affordable capital.”
And the initiative also opens up a potential customer base for the bank, which reports granting $10.7 billion in new small-business loans in 2013.
At the start of Wednesday’s launch event, held at the Foundation For The Carolinas, Bank of America executive Charles Bowman welcomed the audience of 130 female entrepreneurs:
“Now you have entered the Bank of America family,” he joked, “and you can never leave.”
To administer the loans, the initiative is working with federally-run community development financial institutions.
In Charlotte, that is Self-Help Credit Union, which is offering the Elizabeth Street Capital loans across North Carolina, and in the South Carolina counties of York, Chester and Lancaster.
“We’re excited about having a range of loan sizes and purposes,” said Self-Help loan officer Sheila Wheeler. She expects the typical loan range to fall between $4,000 to $10,000, with owners using the capital for hires or equipment.
Attendees at the event represented a range of industries, from flooring to fashion to food.
“Being a woman entrepreneur, there are so many doors open for us,” said Donna Reed, CEO of Youthful Energy Foundation Inc., which coaches young people for success. “It’s knowing where they are and how to walk into them.”
April Whitlock, CEO of Fundanoodle, an educational products company, said companies like hers that aren’t high-tech often don’t draw mainstream attention. But in female entrepreneurial circles, “women buy from women.”
Selected mentors stood up to dispense one nugget of advice. Among their tips: Build your advisers, but don’t take all yes-people. Don’t forget to take a vacation — with your email off.
“Stretch yourself,” said Lake Wylie businesswoman Jennifer Maier, CEO of Clover-based Women’s Distribution Services.
“Whether it’s giving a speech, or introducing yourself to a stranger, you will grow with every instance.”
Later, people moved amid assigned tables to network, exchange business cards and take notes along the way.
Joan Zimmerman, who founded Southern Shows Inc. in 1959, broke up the room when she smiled at Bowman while recounting how Bank of America considered her company a bad-risk loan when she wanted to expand.
The consumer-show series is now in eleven markets.
“Charles,” Zimmerman said, to raucous applause, “here we are today.”
Reaching that level of accomplishment requires being aggressive about your success, Burch and the mentors said.
“Number one, have confidence,” Burch said. “Look at negativity as noise, and really believe in your vision. I think women often apologize too much. They need to start embracing ambition.”
But you rarely hear women talk like that, said mentor Dee Dixon, CEO and publisher of Pride Communications.
“It’s OK to want to make a lot of money. That’s why we’re in business,” Dixon said. “That’s one of my goals.”
She said that being her household’s sole breadwinner was a big reason behind that goal, especially while she was developing her business.
But Dixon and other speakers noted that doing well also means using your success to raise up your family and community, and become a role models to other business women.
“I think it’s so important,” Burch told the audience, “… to start thinking about social responsibility from day one.”