Entrepreneur's goals go way beyond stretchy lingerie

By CHRISTINA REXRODE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 23, 2007

Sara Blakely's undergarment empire is all about smoothing over cellulite, disguising love handles and looking smashing.

But Blakely, the Clearwater native who nursed the Spanx line of body shapers from her mental drawing board to a favorite of Hollywood starlets, is about so much more than panty hose.

She's also passionate about empowering women through education and entrepreneurship, especially those in countries that view them as second-class citizens.

Blakely, who runs Spanx from Atlanta, came back to her roots Wednesday, speaking at the Tampa chamber's inaugural Women of Influence luncheon, which sold out before invitations were even sent, organizers said.

Funny, likable and self-effacing, the Clearwater High graduate talked about what's nearest and dearest to her heart right now: the Sara Blakely Foundation, which she launched last October. So far, it's sent 278 young women in South Africa to college.

And earlier this year, Blakely surprised her accountant by donating $1-million to Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls, a South African school.

"If you educate a woman, and give a woman the opportunity to start her own business, you can literally change an entire nation," says Blakely, 36.

Though men can't be expected to understand the allure of Spanx, anyone can appreciate Blakely's sense of philanthropy.

Her desire to give back isn't the only thing that makes her inspiring. She made Spanx a success against the odds through gusto, a refusal to give up, and some long nights and weekends.

She got the idea for her body shapers in 1998, when she was 27 and selling copiers door to door for Danka Business Systems.

She's told her story before: the patent lawyer who thought she was from Candid Camera, the mills that wouldn't give her the time of day.

And the manufacturers who, even now, don't totally understand her.

"Come on, guys, we put a man on the moon," she'll tell them. "Surely we can attach control top to fishnets." (They did, in 2001.)

Spanx garnered more than $150-million in retail sales last year, boasts 57 employees and recently launched a line for Target called Assets.

Looks like Blakely's kicking butt, and shaping them too.