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Friday, May 22, 2009

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Sara Blakely, Founder of Spanx

Sara Blakely wanted footless bodyshaping pantyhose to wear with her cream-colored pants and open-toed shoes, but she couldn't find them anywhere. Frustrated consumer turned entrepreneur, Sara took $5,000 in savings, invented and patented footless pantyhose, and began her adventure in the $2 billion male-dominated hosiery industry.

Two years later, with her first pair of SPANX in hand, Sara cold-called and landed the top retail stores across the country. Selling over 50,000 pair in its first three months from the back of her apartment, Sara Blakely’s SPANX revitalized an industry in a 10-year slump. Her SPANX footless pantyhose even captured the attention of Oprah and landed on Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list.

Obsessed with creating comfortable, slimming garments that minimize figure flaws, Sara reinvented shapewear with innovative designs and smart features and won the hearts of fashion-loving women, from Oprah Winfrey to Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow. Spanx has developed and launched more than 100 styles —with names like Bra-llelujah, Hide & Sleek, Power Panties, Slim-Cognito, and Topless Socks — all designed to be innovative, comfortable, slimming, and stylish.

If you haven’t seen Sara flashing her SPANX on QVC, you may have seen her jumping off of a cliff or sharing tea with Richard Branson 10,000 feet in the sky. Sara appeared weekly on Fox, setting daring world-records, meeting Nelson Mandela, and leading successful business challenges as a cast member on The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best. As the first runner-up on the show, Sara received a $750,000 check from Branson to pursue her dream to start a foundation to empower women on a global scale. Sara launched The Sara Blakely Foundation in 2006 and raised $600,000 to provide college scholarships for 278 young women in South Africa. Her foundation focuses on empowering women through entrepreneurship and education.

Remaining self-funded and profitable ever since Sara used her own savings to start the company, Spanx continues to show incredible growth, celebrating well over $250 million in retail sales in 2007. Spanx are sold in America’s finest upscale stores and boutiques in the U.S., including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, and Parisian, as well as upscale boutiques and retailers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

As the leader of the shapewear revolution, Sara wanted to find a way to share her slimming secrets with even more women. In 2006, the shapewear revolution reached new heights when Sara launched ASSETS by Sara Blakely, a new brand for Target. Sara is thrilled to give better underwear options to women everywhere – and to give back. A portion of each SPANX and ASSETS purchase goes to The Sara Blakely Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting and empowering women around the world, and other causes that support women. Visit for more information on the foundation.

Sara’s story and Spanx products have been featured on everything from The Oprah Winfrey Show, TODAY, Forbes, E!, and Glamour — to Vogue, People, InStyle, New York Times, Vanity Fair, and now as a Mover and Shaker on Whom You Know. Sara has been named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year and “Georgia’s Woman of the Year.” Sara is a native of Clearwater, Florida, and a graduate of Florida State University.

Peachy Deegan interviewed Sara Blakely for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What is your favorite shop?
Sara Blakely: Jeffrey

What is your favorite drink?
A good glass of wine

What is your favorite NYC book?
I just received Miroslav Sasek’s book “This Is New York” for my baby. It’s full of tongue-in-cheek humor and is illustrated so beautifully; I can’t wait to read it to my baby!

Where is your favorite place to be in NYC?
Central Park. I love being outside and I think it’s important to give yourself time free of any interruptions, so I turn my phone off and let my mind wander. I do some of my best thinking here!

What is your favorite NYC restaurant?
Il Mulino

What is your favorite thing to do in NYC that you can do nowhere else?
To walk! Whether I have a destination in mind or I just wander leisurely, I always seem to discover something new that only NYC has to offer.

Whom You Know saw your new line at Saks Fifth Avenue-Spanx with a sexy twist. Can you tell us how it came about?
I created SPANX to make shapewear comfortable, and I created Haute Contour to make it beautiful. Each piece of this lingerie-inspired collection is shaping, sumptuous, and ready to be seen in!

Where is Spanx carried in Manhattan?
Spanx is carried at Saks Fifth Ave, Bloomingdales, Henri Bendel, and boutiques like La Petite Coquette.

How did you like being on the rebel billionaire?
I loved being on Rebel Billionaire. In addition to meeting two of my heros, Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela, I overcame my worst fear by scaling a hot air balloon and having tea on top with Richard Branson! I’m so thankful to him for giving me the $750,000 to start my foundation and for coming here to Atlanta to help me launch it.

How can more women become successful businesswomen?
I always encourage women entrepreneurs starting out to believe in your idea, trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to fail. I think fear prevents so many people from pursuing their ideas. When I was younger, at the dinner table my father would ask my brother and me what we failed at, and if we didn’t have a story of something that we failed at that day, he would be disappointed. It was this great reverse psychology because we’d get excited to have a story. I’m so thankful for that, because now as an adult, I’m not afraid to fail. To me, failure is not trying, rather than not succeeding.

What future ideas do you have for Spanx?
I'm very inspired to make certain articles of clothing that I won't disclose that are in the works right now, with certain elements of Spanx hidden in them that will be fabulous. There are about three categories in apparel that we are aggressively pursuing and have been making prototypes and working on for, some of them, up to two years.

What direction do you see your Foundation headed?
We have so much more to come. Lately, we’ve been involved in President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund to help mobilize women leaders and improve issues for women all over the world. We’re currently building a house for a local Atlanta woman with Habitat for Humanity. The foundation focuses on finding the future female entrepreneurs and leaders of the world, at home and abroad, and giving them the “leg-up” they need to succeed.

What have you learned most through the evolution of Spanx?
I learned not to take no for an answer and to trust your gut. It took me two years from the time I had the idea for Spanx until the time I had a product in hand ready to sell into stores. I must have heard the word “no” a thousand times! If you believe in your idea 100%, don’t let anyone stop you!

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