The roster of speakers at the Tory Burch Foundation's first Embrace Ambition Summit in New York City yesterday were on a mission to prove that ambition isn't something you have or not — it's something you can cultivate and put into action.
That isn't usually the way people talk about achieving success. Generally, those discussions involve outdated stereotypes that either frame women as too risk averse to get ahead, or as being overly aggressive when they try. But yesterday, the activists, entertainers, businesspeople, politicians, and academics presented research, shared personal and professional anecdotes, and had group conversations about how learning to wield ambition in their own lives changed their views on women's power and potential — and sometimes changed others' as well. The group included Yeonmi Park, Yara Shahidi, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Lindsey Vonn, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, and Margaret Atwood.
As Laurie Fabiano, the president of the Tory Burch Foundation, told Refinery29 (one of the summit's media partners), the summit is about challenging these career archetypes.
"It's the Embrace Ambition Summit, but what we're really trying to do is confront stereotypes and deal with unconscious bias. A lot of the times, women unconsciously hide their ambition because that's kind of what they were trained to do," she said. "It's seen as unattractive in a woman and attractive in a man, and as a result, that really impedes their progress in their career."
True to the foundation's roots as an organization started by a self-made woman, she added that it’s particularly important for women to stop downplaying their goals if wanted to start their own businesses. "How do you build a company from scratch and pretend not to be ambitious?" she asked. "It's an impediment to success."
Jessica O. Matthews, the 30-year-old founder of Uncharted Power, talked about growing her business from a collegiate idea into a renewable energy company that received $7 million in venture capital funding in 2016. She told Refinery29 that even if you have a good idea with a specific plan of action, conveying that idea confidently to others — and being perceived as someone who can carry that out — can be difficult at first.
"I think women don't always feel we deserve what we want. Part of that comes from being raised in a manner where we're not told to almost delusionally believe in ourselves. To be an entrepreneur — to basically state that something that does not currently exist will exist because you are going to make it happen — you almost have to be delusional," Matthews says.
In her case, “practicing that delusion” meant literally staring in the mirror and telling herself to “dream like a white man,” to pump herself for meetings with potential investors. In Matthews’ experience, it’s rare that woman will declare: “I'm going to build a billion-dollar company!” lik men do.
“They'll say, 'Oh, I think I can build a very successful company,' but you have to make this outlandish statement that will romance people and pull them towards you," she says.
At other points during the summit, presenters discussed how getting past that is both an individual effort (learning to block out self-doubt), but also an organizational one. Dr. Valerie Purdie Greenaway, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, presented research at the summit showing how reframing gendered ideas about confidence and ambition is crucial.
A recent study from Arizona State University showed that male students in a biology class believed themselves to be smarter than two-thirds of their peers, while female students with the same grades said they were smarter than 54% of the class.
After discussing similar research, Greenaway challenged workplaces to reward women for being realistic, rather than praising men for being overconfident. She also told R29 how management teams can adjust arbitrary professional systems that lead to unequal opportunity and discrimination.
"Ideas like 'lean in' suggest that it's the woman's responsibility and that may be a part of the mix, but a bigger part of the mix is the context that creates the opportunity for women to lean in," Greenways says. "For instance, almost every single criteria for promotion was developed during a time where women or folks of color or their intersections weren't part of the company."
She gives the example of companies that require international assignments for promotions (an option with vast gender and racial divides). People with families are less likely to move, so one question companies could ask themselves is how they might support that employee in a potential, Greenaway offers. But another, deeper question she says, is: How do you know that having a stretch assignment in Great Britain or Australia or Japan is actually essential for leadership? Many companies and organizations are so used to continuing old practices that they don’t question the reasons certain systems exist. It shouldn’t be on one person to alter such ingrained issues, but thoughtful leadership will want to review their habits.
In other cases, though, even if an immediate impact may not be seen, standing up to make a difference can result in huge ripples. In an interview with Tory Burch, journalist Katie Couric highlighted the importance of having male allies at work who share your values and "don't want to tolerate inappropriate or dismissive behavior" — something she called an "insidious form of sexism" that can also shut women out of the workforce.
She shared an example of how her first mentor, anchor Don Farmer, supported her during a proto-Me Too moment in her early 20s after an executive commented on her breast size. Couric went to Farmer seeking advice on how to handle the situation, and he helped her write a letter to the executive standing up for herself.
In recent months, many women have talked about how experiencing repeated instances of harassment at work have led them to dampening their ambitions over time, seeking places they perceive as being easier to work in for women or where they might be less visible. Rather than going that route, Couric encouraged women to share their stories and forge ahead.
"I think you have to really resist the natural inclination to feel victimized by someone," she told R29. "If you can maintain your self-confidence by finding other allies, I think there's so many great people who want to be supportive. But you have to be honest and vulnerable and talk to somebody about your experiences, and search out somebody who can help you when you do have those setbacks."
When you're in a clearer, safer place to reflect, you may come to remember that another person's bad behavior — whether abuse, downplaying your achievements or outright blocking your attempts at success — aren't always about you, she says. In essence, Couric hit on one of the main takeaways of the summit: Trust your inner voice and keep going.