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Eye On: Sara Blakely
September 24, 2015

(Melissa Moy is the special projects associate for Glasspockets. For more information about Sara Blakely and the other Giving Pledgers, visit Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge.)

Sara_Blakely YellowSara Blakely’s desire to help female entrepreneurs and empower women and girls is rooted in her belief of “paying it forward.”

Through her philanthropic endeavors via the Sara Blakely Foundation, the Spanx Inc. founder is positively shaping the lives of women.  Bill Gates personally invited Blakely to join the Giving Pledge, whereby wealthy individuals have pledged to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime. 

Blakely’s mentor and friend, Virgin Group tycoon Richard Branson – the first British Giving Pledger – made his pledge in February 2013, and Blakely followed suit in May 2013, demonstrating the multiplier effect that being open about one’s philanthropy can have.

In her Giving Pledge letter, Blakely described her gratitude for being a woman in America when millions of women around the world are “not dealt the same deck of cards upon their birth.” She added, “Simply because of their gender, they are not given the same chance I had to create my own success and follow my dreams. It is for those women that I make this pledge.”

Sara Blakely:

  • Successful entrepreneur and owner of Atlanta-based Spanx Inc.
  • In 2012, Forbes Magazine named her the youngest self-made female billionaire
  • TIME Magazine’s The World’s 100 Most Influential People 2012 list
  • Clearwater, Fla., native
  • Minority owner of the Atlanta Hawks
  • Personal net worth is over $1 billion

At 44, Blakely has a number of “firsts” under her belt – including the youngest woman in the world to become a self-made billionaire and the first self-made female billionaire Giving Pledger.

I pledge to invest in women because I believe it offers one of the greatest returns on investment.

Through her Atlanta-based foundation, Blakely invests her woman’s shapewear fortune into philanthropic initiatives that focus on women and girls, from entrepreneurship and education to addressing homelessness.

The foundation gave $613,520 to 30 organizations in 2013. Significant grant awards made through the foundation in that year show a variety of philanthropic interests including: $100,000 to V-Day to stop violence against women; $100,000 to the Focus Foundation to help children and families with X & Y Variations, Dyslexia, and/or Developmental Dyspraxia reach their potential; $65,520 to help women survivors of war, poverty and injustice; $50,000 to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to help preserve marine life in her hometown of Clearwater, Fla.; and $40,000 to Girls on the Run of Atlanta to empower young girls, grades 3 to 8, through a youth development and running program.

“I pledge to invest in women because I believe it offers one of the greatest returns on investment,” Blakely said in her Giving Pledge letter. “While many of the world's natural resources are being depleted, one is waiting to be unleashed — women.” Using her fortune to invest in start-up female entrepreneurs must be very satisfying for Blakely, having been one herself not that long ago.

The Florida State University graduate developed the idea for Spanx while getting ready for a party. Blakely didn’t have the right undergarment to wear under her slacks. She cut the feet off of her control top pantyhose and liked the slimming effect.

With great tenacity, the Florida saleswoman researched the undergarment business and even wrote her own patent to save money. Facing skeptical hosiery mill owners in a male-dominated field, Blakely eventually convinced one mill owner to manufacture her products.

Blakely credits her big break to Oprah Winfrey, who named Spanx one of her “favorite things” in 2000. The next year, she sold 8,000 units on home shopping network QVC in the first six minutes.

Blakely’s commitment to “paying it forward” informs Spanx corporate philanthropy, which prioritizes giving female entrepreneurs assistance through its Leg Up program. Blakely notes that every woman can benefit from a “leg up,” or assistance from other women. The unique program offers female business owners the opportunity to promote their products to Spanx customers via the catalog, website and Social Media.

In 2015, Spanx selected two innovative Leg Up businesses, the Akola Project and Sseko Designs.

The Akola Project empowers Ugandan women in extreme poverty by providing a livelihood developing handcrafted jewelry; 100% of the profits are reinvested into the community.

Sseko Designs is a fashion company that employs impoverished Ugandan women and supports their education; 100% of the company’s employees are currently pursuing their university degrees or are graduates.

The entrepreneur’s passion around women’s issues is also expressed in the Spanx company mission, “to help women feel great about themselves and their potential.”

“Since I was a little girl I have always known I would help women,” Blakely said. “I have been setting aside profits since the start of Spanx with the goal that when the time comes I will have an amazing opportunity to help women in an even bigger way.”

--Melissa Moy

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