There is a moment in the 2013 Hollywood film The Heat in which Sandra Bullock’s uptight cop remarks about her innerwear: “They are my Spanx, they hold everything together!”
Such is the iconic – and celebrity – status of Sara Blakely’s booming business, Spanx, which is to women’s slimming underwear what Kleenex is to tissues.
Blakely, 44, has made more than a billion dollars out of smoothening curves and bottoms. The one-time Disney World ride greeter sold fax machines door-to-door for seven years, before digging into her $5,000 savings to launch her line of shaping innerwear. She initially sold the flattering wonder garments out of her Atlanta apartment.
She told CNBC in an interview in 2013 her own butt was her inspiration for it, when she didn’t know “what to wear under her white pants”. She saw the sign as an idea.
The Atlanta-based mother of three reinvented the girdle, introducing a new category in women’s retail shape wear – everything from pantyhose to bras to britches.
In 2013, Blakely became the first female billionaire to join the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s bid to encourage the world’s richest to give at least half their wealth to charity.
Starting as a one-woman show, she still owns 100 per cent of the company.
At the FORBES Women’s Summit in June in New York City that FORBES WOMAN AFRICA attended, Blakely was on the panel, which included fellow American entrepreneur Ivanka Trump, moderated by American TV personality Gayle King.
Before the discussion, King rose to regale the audience that she was wearing Spanx too, even pulling up her dress to reveal it, when the 300-strong female audience burst into peals of laughter – and agreement.
“Where did you get the name Spanx from?” asked King. More surprising was Blakely’s answer:
“My runner-up name was ‘open-toed dillalas’!”
“I wanted to make a product for millions to feel good…that are comfortable for women and made them confident. I asked myself what are real women supposed to wear underneath? Spanx has become so common now, but when I started, people hung up on me. My belief was that Spanx creates the canvas and clothing creates the art.”
We caught up with Blakely on the sidelines of the summit in New York to ask her “what about Africa?”:
What is your opinion of African women?
African people are so happy; it’s the one thing I always take away when I am in Africa, and even the people who have so little are happy. I find African women to be so well-dressed, curvy and so beautiful.
Any plans to sell Spanx in Africa? Is it a market you would consider?
We don’t sell in Africa – it is not because we haven’t identified a need there. We have actually many people who email and call us from Africa. It’s because we have to prioritise our resources in the company. So we have still a lot of opportunity to figure out distribution inside of America, and we have branched out into other countries. But Africa is on the list.
Anytime soon then?
You never know! Spanx should be around the world. It is such a wonderful base layer for clothing and it makes such a difference for women regardless of where they are in the world. I have found that there are definitely African women I meet here in the US and they say they stock up [our products] and I have several people I know who are sales associates at Harrods who email and tell us stories of women coming from Africa and buying out the whole Spanx.
What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My biggest advice would be trust your gut always; and what you don’t know can become your greatest asset if you let it. So you have to have the confidence to listen to that voice, pay attention, be curious, ask a lot of questions. I looked around, I am always looking for ways that things could be better, whether it is a product or a service. And once you identify it, go for it.
When one becomes a billionaire – as you have – do you view wealth differently?My philosophy on wealth is that wealth just makes you more of who you already were. So if you are a jerk, you become an even bigger jerk, if you are nice, you become even nicer, and if you were generous, so you would become even more generous. So I never looked at money as anything that would turn me into something or not. I feel like money is sort of like a magnifying glass on somebody’s traits, it kind of just magnifies everything.
And how do you view success?
For me, my favorite thing about my success has been the people I have been able to meet and be in the room with. And the opportunity to help other people and give back. It wasn’t long ago that I was making $50,000 a year selling fax machines and now that I have given over $25 million away, it’s so unbelievable to me that I have to pinch myself. This is to help women, to help entrepreneurship, education in the US. But I gave quite a bit of money to Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy and for school in Africa. And there is a school in Johannesburg called CIDA [a tertiary institution]. And I have been there. I held a function in Atlanta and used the money to send girls to college at CIDA.
*This article first appeared in FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Subscribe today by emailing Lieria Boshoff: [email protected]