Spanx for the billions: Sara Blakely pledges support for philanthropic venture

Sara Blakely, the woman behind the shape wear brand Spanx and the youngest-ever female to amass her own billion dollar fortune, has just pledged to give most of her money away.

As the first female billionaire to join Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge — a non-binding moral contract — she will assist the duo’s bid to see the world’s richest individuals committing to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. And she has pledged to donate her money to “make the world a better place … one woman at a time”.

A former door-to-door fax machine saleswoman who diverted her career plans after twice failing a law school admission test, Blakely founded the shape wear brand Spanx 14 years ago with just $5000 in savings and no formal business training. Taking a punt with a pair of scissors and pantyhose, she wrote her own patent for footless hosiery. Initially turned away by milliners who didn’t see much value in her idea, Blakely used the selling experience she gained as the national sales manager for Danka office supplies and eventually secured a product deal with Neiman Marcus.

Her risk paid off as Spanx created a new retail category in slimming undergarments. In its first year the company turned over $4 million in sales, and $10 million in its second year, according to Forbes. Last year Blakely was named the youngest female self-made billionaire by Forbes, owning 100% of the privately held company.

She says that after appearing on the cover of Forbes she was was personally approached by Gates to pledge her wealth to his philanthropic vision. Giving it some thought, she decided to join the pledge by investing in women — what she calls “one of the greatest returns on investment”.

“Since I was a little girl I have always known I would help women,” she wrote in her pledge letter. “In my wildest dreams I never thought I would have started with their butts. As it turns out, that was a great place to start!

“I pledge to invest in women because I believe it offers one of the greatest returns on investment. I am committed to the belief that we would all be in a much better place if half the human race (women) were empowered to prosper, invent, be educated, start their own businesses, run for office – essentially be given the chance to soar.”

And Blakely has already proved her commitment to issues concerning women. To date, her philanthropic efforts have been focused on empowering women and girls, donating $17.5 million to various charities focused on women’s issues.

With a $750,000 grant from her mentor Richard Branson, she established the Sara Blakely Foundation, most recently donating $100,000 to The Empowerment Plan, a humanitarian campaign based in Detroit focused on creating jobs for homeless women by training and up-skilling them to make sleeping-bag coats for people sleeping on the streets. She has previously donated $1 million to Oprah’s Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa.

Blakely also writes on her giving pledge letter that philanthropy is an essential part of the Spanx company culture, with company initiatives including Leg Up, which features other female entrepreneur’s products for free in the Spanx catalogue and funding entrepreneurial programs in girls’ schools.

“I have so much gratitude for being a woman in America” she wrote on her Giving Pledge letter. “I wouldn’t have had these opportunities if I wasn’t born in the right place at the right time”.

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda.



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