“I had a conversation with Kate Winslet about Spanx,” Sara Blakely, the shapewear company’s founder and CEO, recalls. “She wanted to show me one of the styles and how her seamstress alters a little portion of it so that it attaches more closely to her bra.” Winslet briefly “flashed” Blakely, who listened closely, then improved the garment based on Winslet’s feedback.
The 45-year-old entrepreneur — whose products give confidence to stars and women around the world — has emerged as one of the youngest self-made female billionaires following her simple yet genius invention: control-top pantyhose with the feet cut off. Spanx has since branched into bras, leggings, panties, and a men’s line.
While the privately owned company declines to share its financials, Forbes recently reported annual sales of about $400 million. That’s a lot of foundation garments, but, for Blakely, it’s all about paying her good fortune forward. In 2013, she signed The Giving Pledge, vowing to donate half her wealth to philanthropy.
Blakely will receive Variety’s inaugural Innovation & Leadership Honor at its Power of Women luncheon Oct. 14.
“Since the start, I saw Spanx as a platform for me to do what my greater mission and goal is, which is to help women in a big way,” she says of her 10-year-old nonprofit the Sara Blakely Foundation, which supports organizations including the Malala Fund, The Empowerment Plan, Grameen America, and the Atlanta Film Festival. Blakely’s contributions all aim to empower women, and her selections are “usually pretty personal.”
Equally personal is Blakely’s eagerness to mentor. After beginning her career as a door-to-door fax-machine saleswoman, Blakely started Spanx with just $5,000 and no business plan. Her big break came courtesy of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“I was on her ‘favorite things’ episode as an entrepreneur with no money to advertise,” she remembers. “It meant the world to me, so I thought, ‘How do I pay that particular part of my journey forward?’”
Blakely created the Leg Up initiative, which provides up-and-coming female entrepreneurs with exposure on Spanx’s website and in its catalog. She also offers funding and phone consultation.
Blakely praises Richard Branson as having had “a real impact in helping me as a mentor with giving back,” saying he taught her to “use business as a force for good.”
For those who may not have access to personal mentorship, Blakely points out that it’s possible to gain significant career advice through other means as well.
“My two biggest mentors are people that I didn’t know,” she says, citing Winfrey and motivational speaker Wayne Dyer as childhood inspirations. She grew up listening to Dyer’s self-help audio tapes and credits his mantras as contributing to her success.
Blakely’s desire to make a difference stems from seeing the limited options of her grandmother and artist mother.
“Seeing them held back deeply affected me as a little girl,” she says, referencing a board game for “career girls” from the 1960s called What Shall I Be?
“It was like, ‘You can be a stay-at-home mother. A ballerina. A flight attendant. A nurse. Or a teacher.’ Those were the only socially acceptable options,” she says.
|“My hope is that I’m making the road a little easier to travel for the women who come after me.”|
The game hangs at Spanx’s Atlanta headquarters as a reminder of the past. Blakely maintains that if not for the era in which she grew up, her dynamic 95-year-old grandmother “would have started a Spanx times 10.”
Meanwhile, Blakely praises her lawyer father for teaching her to embrace failure. “My father gave me such a gift by encouraging me to fail and actually celebrating it and asking at the dinner table, ‘What did you fail at this week?’” she says. “If I didn’t have something, he’d be disappointed.”
This helped reframe her definition of failure and taught her to find something positive in every outcome.
When asked that very same question — what has she failed at recently? — Blakely thinks for a moment. “Well, I fail as a parent all the time,” she laughs. “I fail to get my son to bed on time just about every night.”
Indeed, Blakely — who has a 10-month-old daughter, 2-year-old twin boys, and a 7-year-old son — faces the difficult balancing act every working parent knows well.
“I’m a work in progress — just like any working mother,” she says, noting that she has a supportive, hands-on husband. “The thing that I’m working on the most is being present. When you’re a business owner, it’s very hard to shut everything off.” Even so, she wouldn’t change being a parent for the world. “It was something I always wanted. I never thought about it as an either/or.”
In fact, her latest project was inspired by her first pregnancy: “The Belly Art Project” is a coffee-table book featuring photographs of Winslet, Milla Jovovich, and more than 100 other pregnant women with painted bellies. Proceeds benefit Christy Turlington Burns’ Every Mother Counts organization.
The Sara Blakely Foundation has donated $24 million to women’s causes, according to reports. With nearly 200 employees, the Florida-born entrepreneur has come a long way since cold-calling companies from her apartment.
“I felt like I was trailblazing. I was so grateful for the women that came before me that paved the road and made it a little bit easier for me to travel.” She pauses. “My hope is that I’m making the road a little easier to travel for the women who come after me.”