In this exclusive interview with Real Leaders, Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, explains her life-long desire to help women, her commitment to The Giving Pledge and why she has no exit plan. She shares her inspirations with us and the thoughts she made public in her Giving Pledge letter to Bill Gates.

 

How did you become involved in The Giving pledge?

One day I got a call from Bill Gates asking if I’d have dinner with him in Miami. When you get that kind of call, you don’t usually say no. He wanted to discuss the Giving Pledge, an idea I’d heard of but never considered as part of my business or legacy. Basically, Bill wanted me to pledge the majority of my wealth to philanthropy, in the hope that it would help address society’s most pressing problems. The world’s wealthiest individuals and families had already been invited to commit more than half their wealth to the Giving Pledge and it was not a difficult decision for me. I said yes.

I was already giving away a portion of profits from Spanx to good causes, something I’d done since starting my company. My vision was always to help women and Spanx felt more like a stepping-stone that allowed me to arrive at my destiny. I’d always asked myself what I could do to elevate the female energy on the planet, either through my own story or by giving back, and when Bill asked me to join I knew this was it.

What is the earliest memory you have of wanting to make a positive difference in the world?

When I was growing up my father would ask me, “What have you failed at this week?” His lesson was that trying was just as important as the outcome. Not trying something was failure. It allowed me to be freer in trying things in life and to embrace failure as part of a growing process.

Since I was a little girl I have always known I would help women. 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! At Spanx we say it’s our goal to make the world a better place, one butt at a time. With this pledge my goal is to make the world a better place… one woman at a time.

I have so much gratitude for being a woman in America. I never lose sight that I was born in the right country, at the right time. And, I never lose sight of the fact that there are millions of women around the world who are not dealt the same deck of cards upon their birth. Simply because of their gender, they are not given the same chance I had to create my own success and follow my dreams. It’s for those women that I made this pledge.

How have you introduced these ideas into Spanx and what effect is it having?

At Spanx, philanthropy is part of our culture. I believe in sharing the opportunity to give back directly with the people who have helped me earn the right to do so in the first place. We have a rotating philanthropy board made up of employees. Each board is allocated a portion of the company’s profits to give away. They volunteer their time to research and determine who receives the money. Employees get to make surprise visits to organizations with checks in hand and witness the tears first hand.

As a company we have created a program called Leg-UP that features other female entrepreneur’s products for free in our catalog. We have also built homes for families (together), sent women to college, funded entrepreneurial programs in girls’ schools, joined in a dance flash mob to stop violence against women, and even rendered the queen of talk, Oprah (and our accountants at the time), speechless when we donated $1 million to her Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa.

At this stage in my life most of my time remains dedicated to growing the business. My hope is that my continued investment in Spanx will pay even greater dividends to help women. 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. That is part of the reason I’m making this pledge now.

Setting aside the money in my foundation is only part of the preparation, learning the most effective way to give, is the other.

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!

I pledge to invest in women because I believe it offers one of the greatest returns on investment. While many of the world’s natural resources are being depleted, one is waiting to be unleashed – women.

What advice do you have for aspiring CEOs and who inspires you?

I represent the everyday person and I’m proof that digging deep and believing in yourself can deliver results. I didn’t go to Harvard. I didn’t raise $40 million dollars. I sold fax machines door-to-door for seven years; I had $5,000 dollars in the bank and an idea. I cut the feet off pantyhose one day and thought this might be the idea I’d been waiting for. I didn’t quit my job for two years and worked at night and on weekends to develop my product.  I hope my story gets people thinking, “Why not me?”

I’ve spent time with Richard Branson and I admire how he brings out the best in everyone.

He’s very focused on making the world a better place while having fun along the way. It’s something I can relate to. Growing up, I was always inventing games and found fun an important ingredient in pushing people to do things they didn’t think possible. It’s a great formula that people will naturally gravitate towards.

What’s next?

I’m sometimes asked what my next challenge will be and if I’ll ever get bored. I have three children under the age of six, so no one should worry about me being bored. Being a mother and entrepreneur can be challenging, but I’ve always encouraged people to hire their weaknesses. This is what I did at Spanx. I hired a CEO to free me up to focus on the things I do best: inventing, selling, marketing and dreaming up the next big idea.

When I started Spanx I didn’t have a strategy or even a business plan. People would ask me what my exit strategy was. I would laugh and say, “to exit a room and look good!” This was when I realized that I was in business for more than just profit. I was also in business to significantly improve how millions of women looked and felt about themselves. I still don’t have an exit strategy.

We all have crap in our lives, but my question to you is: what are you doing with it? Some people smear it all over themselves and stink for the rest of their lives. Some people use it to plant a garden; it can also be used as a fertilizer to grow something wonderful.