The Uplifter: How Spanx CEO Sara Blakely became one of the most inspirational women in business

She’s the cheerleader and the nerd; she’s the girly girl who has her hair coiffed in perfect golden waves but can catch a gummy worm tossed into her mouth from across the room.
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Sara Blakely

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of Spanx, surrounds herself with motivational quotes. They’re on her walls, her T-shirts, her thousands of coffee mugs collected from friends and airports and gift shops over the years. Her Instagram feed is littered with aphorisms; each week, she posts a selfie with a mug to her lips, her mascaraed brown eyes and arching brows peering over the top of her #mondaymotivation #mugshot. “It’s OK to be a glowstick. Sometimes we break before we shine.” “Do more of what makes you happy.” “Girls can do anything.”

Life magazine covers featuring influential women—Anne Frank, Audrey Hepburn, Mia Farrow—plaster the walls of her Buckhead office, overlooking perky splatter-paint loveseats and pink shag pillows. Her shelves are stuffed with books: Design Your Purpose, Living an Inspired Life, You Are a Badass. When she was young, she didn’t have a mentor; she had cassette tapes by motivational speaker Wayne Dyer. At age 16, she memorized his mantras while driving around her hometown of Clearwater, Florida. Her friends made fun of her for it until she was on the cover of Forbes.

Now, at 46, having achieved staggering success nearly 20 years after cutting the legs off of a pair of panty hose and turning them into a slimming undergarment, she’s the one doling out the positivity. Now she’s the influential woman on the cover.

Blakely’s spectacular rise from door-to-door fax machine salesperson to garment empire billionaire is the stuff of business school lore. Never took a business class, no background—or even abiding interest—in fashion. But with an idea and $5,000, she made a lot of cold calls. Over the years, Spanx has expanded to include bras, leggings, swimwear, and even some menswear, and the brand is found in 60 countries, with 10,000 retail stores in the U.S. alone. She’s still the sole owner of the company, and in 2012, Forbes declared her the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.

Sara Blakely
Blakely gets a smooch from Diane von Furstenberg

Photograph courtesy of Sara Blakely

Blakely has befriended Oprah (Spanx topped the media mogul’s list of her favorite things in the company’s first year), Richard Branson (they’ve been tight since she appeared on his show Rebel Billionaire in 2004), and Warren Buffett (he agreed to have his bare belly painted like a yo-yo for her 2016 book, The Belly Art Project, to benefit maternal health). She takes smoochie-face selfies with fashion designer and philanthropist Diane von Furstenberg and supermodel Karlie Kloss, whom she recently enlisted to host an Atlanta event to teach girls to code. 

Blakely is still the driving engine behind the brand—in fact, she quietly reclaimed the reins as CEO last year—and invents new products like this fall’s “arm tights” (a sort of long-sleeved smoothing undershirt). She still helms meetings, tackling even nitty-gritty details like the size chart on the packaging.

Sara Blakely
“Arm tights” are Blakely’s latest invention. They function as, yes, tights for the arms—a layering piece that’s meant to expand the wardrobe by adding sleeves. Blakely likes to call them a “game changer.”

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Since the beginning, Blakely has said that her greatest mission in creating Spanx, put simply, is to elevate the status of women. But whether her garments themselves uplift anything more than butt cheeks and back fat is a matter of debate. Though touted by the likes of Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, detractors have dubbed her shapewear a modern-day girdle, a vestige of a patriarchal demand that women conform to a particular, ideal shape. But Blakely brushes any irony aside, rejecting contradiction with her mission. She says her clothes are all about making women feel comfortable and confident. And for the most part, the Spanx message has managed to stay firmly in the #girlpower camp, riding the tide of fourth-wave feminism that seems to support a woman’s right to do anything she wants—including have a tight-looking butt.

But perhaps more convincingly, Blakely can empower women by sharing her wealth and experience. Spanx is, by all measures, an unstoppable juggernaut and has even become the generic term for an entire type of product, like Kleenex or Frisbee.

In 2006—years before Sheryl Sandberg was officially Leaning In, or Michelle Obama became FLOTUS, or Taylor Swift was even eligible to vote—Blakely set up a foundation to support women’s causes. Follow her on Instagram, and you’ll get suggestions to follow Arianna Huffington and Melinda Gates.

But Blakely doesn’t work in tech. She didn’t go to Harvard (she went to Florida State, where she was both a Tri-Delta and a star debater). You’re more likely to find her in a cartoonish graphic sweater and wedge sneakers than a power suit.

That’s part of her schtick. She’s the cheerleader and the nerd; she’s the girly girl who has her hair coiffed in perfect golden waves but can catch a gummy worm tossed into her mouth from across the room. Her iPhone case is decorated with floating pizza slices and French fries, and she’s had the same group of friends since middle school. “She was the same as she is today,” says Chevy Arnold, a friend from sixth grade. “True to herself.” Think of her as the Jennifer Lawrence of the billionaire circuit, the charming screwball who might, say, trip on her way up to accept an award or accidentally wear two different shoes to an event. She once carried a Kérastase gift-with-purchase shampoo bag as a purse to a meeting at Target headquarters.

Blakely doesn’t have a Twitter account and didn’t join Instagram until September of last year. There, Blakely writes long, un-self-conscious posts that are at times silly or intensely personal or both. She posts herself sheepishly dropping her kids off in her pajamas with the hashtag #lateagain; she’ll admit that sometimes she wants to pull the covers over her head; she’ll extol the virtues of Cheez-Its. There’s no airbrushing or beauty filters, and she’s often bare-faced and pretty, but not perfect. This is part of what makes her such an appealing role model: She seems so accessible, so relatable—like, hey, maybe I could be a billionaire too!

Sara Blakely
In mismatched shoes at an Easter party with her four children (#momlife)

Photograph courtesy of Sara Blakely

Sara Blakely
With Reese Witherspoon (“We talked all things women and the need for a strong female voice and presence in movies, business . . . everything!”)

Photograph courtesy of Sara Blakely

Sara Blakely
A #MondayMugshot with the caption “Take what your mama gave you, trust your gut, and go for it!”

Photograph courtesy of Sara Blakely

In 2013, Blakely was the first woman billionaire to sign the Giving Pledge, an initiative of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to get the world’s richest to commit to giving away at least half of their wealth. So far, Blakely has donated about $24 million to women’s causes both locally and globally—supporting entrepreneurs, assisting maternal health, providing educational opportunities for girls. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a far cry from the more than half-billion she’s promised. Here in Atlanta, she’s a minority owner of the Hawks but hasn’t yet touched the civic impact of her 10-figure local peers Ted Turner and Arthur Blank, though she may yet make her mark. Since Anne Cox Chambers distributed most of her wealth to her heirs in 2015, Blakely has been the only female billionaire in Georgia.

It’s no secret there is a gaping inequity between female and male leaders in business. Last year, venture capitalists invested $58.2 billion in young companies founded by men versus just $1.46 billion in women-led companies. This is despite research that shows companies led by women tend to outperform those led by men.

“One of the hardest things about being a woman is also one of the greatest,” Blakely said from her office one day. “Being underestimated. I wasn’t really taken seriously, and that can give women a big competitive advantage.”

Blakely thinks business typically follows a “masculine” model, falling prey to details like the competition and the bottom line. Blakely doesn’t operate this way. She makes decisions based on intuition and gut. She asks the universe for answers. She waits for “aha!” moments. She says she is upfront about her failures and weaknesses and believes in thinking big, starting small, and scaling fast. There’s no clawing over an adversary on the ladder here, and there’s genuine care for the customer. She believes her approach is distinctly feminine. And she’s out to show women how to use femininity as an asset.

When asked if she considers herself a feminist, Blakely said, “Sure. I believe that women and men should have equal rights, so yes, of course.” Then she reached for something shiny on the coffee table. “I love this egg!” She spun it on the table.

Sara Blakely
“I had no experience in the industry,” says Blakely, from her headquarters at the Shops Buckhead Atlanta. “I wasn’t in New York or L.A. You have no other way to think but outside the box if you don’t know.”

Photograph by Ben Rollins

The Sara Blakely Story—whether told through social media posts, or, one day, a digital self-help guide, or a book, or a movie, or all of the above—is well documented and always in progress. One day in spring, a videographer is following her through a typical day, just in case snippets of genius arise.

People often ask her how she does it: finding a balance between work and family, a question that male executives stare down far less often. Blakely comes with a sizable flock: She has four children under the age of eight with her husband, Jesse Itzler, a former rapper and fitness freak who cofounded a jet card company and a branding agency, among other things. [Incidentally, he has also made money off of women’s backsides. His first single, “Shake It (Like a White Girl),” contained the lyric “She looked good up front but better from behind” and made the Billboard charts in 1991.] But Blakely doesn’t offer any groundbreaking secrets. She divides her life into buckets, and when she’s in one, she can’t be present in the other. “I don’t watch TV,” she explained. “I don’t really go out. I don’t go to events or functions, ever, really.”

Sara Blakely
In fashion, Blakely loves a goofy graphic

Photograph courtesy of Sara Blakely

Sara Blakely
With Richard Branson talking education reform (“The world now values innovation and problem solving more than ever.”)

Photograph courtesy of Sara Blakely

There’s a misunderstanding that successful people never sleep. Blakely shoots for nine hours, so Itzler fields any pre-dawn duties for the four children. One morning not long ago was typical: She woke around 7 and made breakfast for her family (French toast with gluten-free, zero-glycemic index Know Better bread, which goes for $5 per four slices). Around that time, the nanny arrived to take care of the youngest—the only girl, 18-month-old Tepper—and the older kids, Lazer (a family name!) and her twins (twins!), Lincoln and Charlie, went off to school. Blakely didn’t have children until her late 30s—long after the all-nighters of her 24/7 startup days—and she is open about having struggled with fertility issues.

Several days a week, she works out with a trainer in her basement gym. It’s nothing too extravagant: some weights on a rack, medicine balls, a rowing machine. Her playlists could have been plucked from a 1990s sorority social (“Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Summer of ’69”), and her blond ponytail bounces in a scrunchie (“I don’t care if they’re cool or not. I keep trying to bring them back.”).

She makes the same smoothie every day with around 20 ingredients (chia seeds, hemp hearts, blueberries). That day, she was fascinated with her new Amazon Echo; “Alexa, play James Taylor!” she called out. She blended all of the ingredients into a chalky purple-brown ooze and offered up samples while, beside her, a chef chopped vegetables (he typically makes lunch and dinner on weekdays). Lying on the kitchen counter was a prototype for the “no-slip” slip she’s been wear-testing—“feel the inside of this,” she said. Then: “Ask for any song in the world!”

At one point, Itzler was rhapsodizing about the number of hours left in his life and how to make the most of them, while Blakely was trying to talk to him about trundle beds for their house in Connecticut, mock rolling her eyes. She mugged for the camera, and the scene made for a neat little Instagram video of their family life.

Sure, they do have some help, but aside from the security guard who sits in the garage behind plate glass monitoring surveillance video, their house—an oversized stone cottage—doesn’t stand out in Brookhaven as particularly lavish (though Blakely recently purchased a new, larger house in Buckhead).

Snatches of the decor look like they were conceived by a 13-year-old girl who won a small lottery. The zebra runners match those at Spanx HQ. There’s a gumball machine in one room, and an entire wall of the formal dining room is a chalkboard. There’s a neon sign in the living room that reads, “I have a motto to live by . . . but I forgot it.” (It’s a Sara Blakely original.) Another store-bought wooden sign in the basement reads, “What if the hokey-pokey really is what it’s all about?” There are three high chairs on the kitchen counter and shopping lists on the wall for sandwich bags and applesauce.

Sara BlakelyAfter she had children, Blakely found she no longer had time for her most cherished pastime: sitting and thinking. The solution? Spend more time in the car. Blakely lives five minutes from her office, but several days a week, she takes a “fake commute,” usually to Inman Park, downtown, and back up Peachtree to Buckhead. On this day, she drove off in the white ’72 Mustang convertible with blue racing stripes, a gift from her husband. “What he didn’t factor in is that it’s a dude magnet,” she said with a grin. In the car, she chatted to herself out loud, GoPros recording every thought. 

Spanx’s Buckhead headquarters is decorated with mementoes of Blakely’s major moments—photos of her high-fiving Oprah, the original white pants that inspired Spanx, and cheeky signs with messages like “Believe in your selfie.” At Spanx, Blakely hosts company-wide meetings in the clubby rooftop cafe where employees volunteer their recent accomplishments, failures (or “oops moments”), and life changes, standing in front of the staff and even projecting photos (Nicole got engaged! So-and-so tackled a triathlon!). Four out of five of Spanx’s 180 employees are women.

One day last year, Blakely invited 10 local female entrepreneurs to the office for her foundation’s EmpowerHER mentorship event. She had carefully selected the women with help from the Center for Civic Innovation, a business incubator for local entrepreneurs, government bodies, and nonprofits. All of the women run businesses dedicated to making a social impact in the city: bringing yoga to public servants, teaching at-risk youth about agribusiness, enlivening vacant public spaces with art. A team from Maverick1000, a networking group of high-net-worth entrepreneurs, was on hand to provide business advice.

Blakely took the stage to announce her foundation’s largest gift to date for women in her home city. The foundation provided $15,000 for each business and $100,000 to CCI for training and mentorship of CCI’s first class of Sara Blakely fellows.

“Society hasn’t equated femininity with power,” she told the group. “But I think it’s very powerful. It’s an energy thing. We all have feminine energy—it’s not a gender thing.”

One recipient, Kristen Daniel, started a business, Pentorship, that provides training curriculum for people just out of prison. “She doesn’t subscribe to the unwritten rules,” said Daniel. “She comes from a very organic place. This whole day left me speechless. It really validates the work we’re doing.”

“When Sara came to us, it was a total surprise,” said CCI founder Rohit Malhotra. “She asked how she could make an impact in Atlanta; she didn’t want to throw money at something. She met with a few dozen social entrepreneurs and heard about their struggles—she walked away pretty fired up. It’s not charity. It takes people like Sara for our economy to work.”

According to Blakely, she’s just getting started with giving. “I haven’t come up with my super big idea yet. I haven’t had my ‘aha!’ moment yet in that bucket.” It all hinges on inspiration. Perhaps she will think big, start small, and scale fast.

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.

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