Trailblazing sports icon Billie Jean King is considered to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time, but she is also known for her decades-long work to advance gender equality in sports and all sectors of society. As she put it, “At 12 years old, I committed my life to equal rights and opportunities for all. We have so much more work to do, and that drives me every day.”
One way King is continuing that important work today is by teaming up with another champion for women’s equality, Tory Burch, fashion designer, founder of Tory Burch clothing brand and founder of the Tory Burch Foundation, which empowers women and women entrepreneurs to grow and scale their businesses by providing access to capital, as well as education and digital resources.
Each year, the Tory Burch Foundation selects 50 women entrepreneurs for a yearlong program with access to workshops, coaching sessions, network-building and financial resources. The Foundation also partners with organizations in specialized fields to support women founders.
This year, Burch and King joined up to help increase women’s representation in sports business by launching the Tory Burch Foundation Sports Fellowship empowered by the International Tennis Federation’s Advantage All program, which is focused on improving gender equality in all areas of tennis. As Burch explains, “Women founders in sports face the same challenges as our Fellows: access to capital, bias and stereotypes. Through this fellowship, a woman founder in the industry has access to our year-long Fellows program, including a $5,000 education grant, a founder network, and one-on-one mentoring support.”
“I have known Tory and followed her Foundation for some time,” says King. “The missions of her foundation, my foundation (the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative) and my company (Billie Jean King Enterprises) are all closely aligned. We both embrace ambition and are all equality focused.”
Burch, who has played and always been a fan of tennis, said she was honored to team up with King who has been a role model in sports and women’s equality: “I grew up admiring Billie Jean King, and I’m still in awe of her. She has spent her entire life championing Title IX and fighting for equal rights. It is an honor to partner with her as she keeps breaking barriers.”
In June, they announced the winner of this year’s fellowship: entrepreneur Trisha Goyal, founder and CEO of Break The Love, one of the most comprehensive resources for discovering and booking high quality and unique group based tennis activities.
This isn’t the first time King and Burch have teamed up. They had previously struck up a friendship over their love of tennis and their passion for empowering women and championing equality. In 2020, when the Federation Cup was renamed the Billie Jean King Cup—the first time that a major global sports event has been named for a woman—Billie wanted to begin a new tradition of bestowing the victors of the Billie Jean King Cup with a custom-made winner’s jacket, so she enlisted Burch to design it. The result was the “Billie Blue” blazer, which represents triumph, empowerment and the continued fight for equality.
“Billie Jean and I are committed to helping women change the game in sports,” Burch says. “Our foundation’s signature Fellows program has been a transformative experience for hundreds of women entrepreneurs, and we are thrilled to expand its impact through our partnership with Advantage All.”
“One of Billie Jean King’s most famous phrases is, ‘You have to see it to be it.’ That could not be more accurate,” says Katrina Adams, Vice President of the International Tennis Federation and Chair of the Advantage All and Billie Jean King Cup Committees. “If we want more women to believe their voices can be heard at the top level of sport, we need to create opportunities and pathways for them. The aim of the Sports Fellowship is to identify a woman sports entrepreneur whose work involves the development of solutions to global challenges in the sports sector, then to champion and provide a tangible development pathway for her to succeed. The Sports Fellowship closely aligns with our aim to provide more opportunities for women and to use sport to make a positive impact in wider society.”
Nearly half of sports fans in the U.S. are women, girls’ participation in sports is increasing and women’s sports teams are breaking records—yet representation of women leaders and voices in sports is notably lacking. Women account for less than 30% of executives on 31 major international sports federations, and just three are led by women. Only 17% of sports editors are women and less than a quarter (24%) of all head coaches at the college level are women.
The Sports Fellowship aims to help close this representation gap, especially since participation in sports helps young female leaders rise, teaching skills that are critical for a woman’s success in the workforce. In fact, 94% of women who hold C-suite positions are former athletes and 80% of female Fortune 500 executives played competitive sports at one point in their lives.
As King explains it, “Sports are a microcosm of society and, at least in my case, sports taught me valuable lessons for life and business. From sports I learned delayed gratification, the importance of having a plan and how best to compete in a competitive environment. I use these every day in my business and in my life.”
Burch agreed, saying, “Playing sports and being on a team teaches you invaluable lessons in both your personal and professional life. You learn how to pick yourself up and keep moving after a mistake, how to work as a team and problem solve. All great lessons as you build a company. Playing sports builds confidence, especially in young women. The United Nations even includes sport as a catalyst in its peace and women’s empowerment goals.”
King and Burch recognize that supporting women entrepreneurs is important since women are faced with more obstacles than their male counterparts, including less access to funding. Although 50% of entrepreneurs are women, they receive less than 2% of venture capital.
But funding alone is not enough to help a business scale. “Funding is one of the most critical issues facing women entrepreneurs, but women often lack access to trusted financial advisors as well,” says Burch. “Through our small business webinars, we provide them with the education and guidance they need to grow and sustain their businesses. Building community can also be a challenge, and the gender gap in networking contributes to gaps in access and opportunities. Through our Fellows Program, we now have a community of nearly 300 women founders. It is incredibly gratifying to see them continue to support each other long after the program.”
To further help women business owners get the funding they need, the Burch Foundation recently launched a free Funding Finder tool on their website. “I am excited about this tool,” Burch expressed. “It helps founders understand different types of funding—from debt financing to crowdfunding—and identify which one is right for their business. Women often don’t know the extent of their options, but this tool can be a resource for anyone who is interested in raising capital.”
The numbers show that investing in women is worth it. Startups that have at least one female founder outperform all-male-founded teams by 63%. “Supporting women, and especially women in sports, is good business,” King says. “Women are very loyal sports fans, and research has shown women are 25% more likely to purchase sponsor products than male sports fans.”
As Burch put it, “Women are the best investments; not only do they pay back their loans at a 98% rate, they drive change in their families and communities. We know that when women are empowered, economies are stronger, and I always say we need more men involved in these conversations. Women’s equality is in everyone’s best interest.”
When asked what she thinks it will take to really achieve gender equity, King responded, “For too long women have been taught to be perfect, and no one is perfect. In business, women are often hired on performance and not potential. What we have done already is not our most important quality. What we can do going forward is what needs to define us. We also need others to champion us. Women need to support women. Men need to champion women. We all can add a great deal to any conversation when we work together and listen to each other.”
Ultimately, through this fellowship and their continued work, Burch and King hope to keep moving the needle toward gender equity. As King said, “If we can show young girls they can live their dreams and build their dreams, then we are winning.”
The deadline to apply for next year’s Tory Burch Foundation Sports Fellowship is November 17, 2023. For more information, visit the Tory Burch Foundation.
For more on Billie Jean King’s work, visit the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative.
This article originally appeared at ForbesWomen.
Read Marianne’s previous interview with King:
Interview with Billie Jean King: The tennis legend and changemaker shares insights on why women’s leadership is so important and what her call to action is for women and girls