Fifteen years ago and still in her 20s, Clearwater native Sara Blakely had an idea for a line of pantyhose that smoothed her clothes but left legs and feet bare for open shoes.
Who knew that concept would transform her into the world's youngest self-made female billionaire?
Forbes magazine so anointed her Wednesday in publishing its annual list of the world's billionaires. Blakely is not only on that list but on Forbes' cover.
"I can't hear that I am on that list without laughing," Blakely said in a phone interview from New York City. "I can't help but think of the days when my job was to cold call people in Clearwater to try and sell them fax machines and how many of them said 'No, no, no.' "
When Blakely sought a patent attorney in the late 1990s to help copyright her idea for a product saucily called Spanx, he scoffed, asking "Am I on Candid Camera?"
"For the first year, everyone was telling me I was crazy," Blakely said. Now everyone's telling her she's rich. Crazy rich.
Blakely, now 41, is the sole owner of her private, debt-free Spanx shapewear company in Atlanta. Forbes credits Blakely's shapewear company for "reinventing the girdle."
The youngest woman to join this year's list without help from a husband or an inheritance, Blakely is now part of a tiny, elite club of American women worth 10 figures on their own. Among them: TV phenom Oprah Winfrey ($2.7 billion) and current HP (and former eBay) CEO Meg Whitman ($1.4 billion).
On Wednesday, Spanx public relations' team was inundated with media calls for Blakely. She wrapped up a BBC interview before calling me at her hometown paper. She is scheduled to appear Thursday morning live on both CBS' This Morning and ABC's Good Morning America. An interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC's World News will be broadcast Friday, she said.
Hitting $1 billion in net worth seems to be the entry fee to a new level of fame.
Years before Spanx, Blakely graduated from Clearwater High School and then Florida State University in 1993. She considered going to law school but instead drove to Disney and tried out to be Goofy. She was 2 inches short of the 5-foot-8 height requirement. Then she worked seven years for Tampa office equipment firm Danka Business Systems. It was a "humbling experience" that Blakely says helped toughen her sales skills and laid a foundation for the success of Spanx.
"I was given four ZIP codes in Clearwater and a cubicle and told to sell $20,000 worth of fax machines a month," she recalled. That, plus a standup comedy hobby that she used to market the Spanx name in funny ways, would help get her business off the ground.
Blakely was transferred to Atlanta — Tampa Bay's big loss, in hindsight — where the Spanx firm would later be founded.
Now the Spanx line of 200 different body-shaping undergarments can be found in 35 countries and stores ranging from Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom to Saks Fifth Avenue and the Sports Authority. (There's also a line of Spanx for men.)
Blakely is one of 1,226 billionaires on this year's global list. She just squeezed on to the rankings along with 73 others with a net worth of $1 billion.
Blakely lives with her husband and son in Atlanta but also owns a home in La Jolla, Calif., and a Central Park West apartment in Manhattan. Blakely bought property last year on Clearwater Beach for a future home so that she can be near her mother and grandmother, as well as many childhood friends.
"There's still a close-knit network of friends there for me, but we never talk about money," she said. "When they see the Forbes story, they're going to say 'Oh my God.' "
Did Blakely even realize she was a billionaire before Forbes told her? Yes, she said. "But Forbes putting it on paper makes it more real."
This is probably the start of something new. We're going to see a lot more women entrepreneurs on the Forbes billionaire lists in the coming years.
Blakely wants to help nurture that trend. Her advice to young women with an entrepreneurial itch?
"Trust your gut," she said. Blakely purposely did not tell anyone about her initial legless pantyhose idea for an entire year because she did not want to have to defend it or be talked out of it. It took two years just to persuade a hosiery mill to even make an initial run of her product.
That, she said, is one reason Spanx exists.
"Don't be intimidated by what you don't know," she counsels. "That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else."
This isn't the last we've heard of Sara Blakely. Her humor-tinged biography on the Spanx website may say it best: "Putting her butt on the line pays off!"
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]