Sara Blakely – Entrepreneur of the Year 2019

On October 21, USC students and alumni packed Town and Gown for a master’s class in entrepreneurship from Sara Blakely, inventor, founder, and Chairwoman of Spanx, the company whose shapewear created a new product category for women.

After selling fax machines and thinking she was “cast in the wrong movie,” Sara cut the feet off her control-top pantyhose to develop a new product and patented her invention. She worked nights and weekends to start her business and didn’t tell anyone about it.  “In their infancy, ideas are vulnerable and ego comes in,” said Blakely.  “I only told people who could help me:  manufacturers, lawyers, and early customers.”

She got her foot in the door at Neiman Marcus by taking the buyer into the bathroom and showing her way her pants fit with and without Spanx.  The buyer was instantly sold and put Sara’s products into nine Nieman Marcus stores.  Spanx was off and running.

“I started Spanx with total inspiration to deliver to women.”—Sara Blakely

Today, Spanx is a global brand, beloved by women from Oprah Winfrey to regular USC students.  Through the ascent and growth of Spanx, Blakely never accepted outside capital and today owns 100% of the company.

For a woman whose success puts her in the ranks of billionaires, Blakely is refreshingly…normal and relatable.  She sounds like any other woman, admitting to her fears and insecurities, talking about motherhood, and sharing her hardest times.

Sara emphasized the importance of mindset and belief in your vision.  “Mindset is the single most important thing you have as an entrepreneur.  Work on it daily.”  Relentlessly upbeat, Blakely said, “It’s amazing what happens when you ask the universe for help.  Ask for what you want and be very specific. Trust that the universe is conspiring for your greater good.”

Today she is the beloved face of the company, a self-made businesswoman whose mission is to empower women through entrepreneurship. This larger purpose is woven into the fabric of her company.  In 2006, Sara created the Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation and, in 2013, she signed The Giving Pledge committing to donate half of her wealth to charity.

“I started Spanx with total inspiration to deliver to women,” she says.

Entrepreneur of the Year

The evening formally ended with Lloyd Greif, the Center’s namesake and Chairman of Greif & Co., awarding Blakely the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year award.  “Everybody in this audience has seen what kind of entrepreneur you are,” he said. “There is no more worthy recipient in 2019 than Sara Blakely of Spanx.”  Blakely joins the ranks of previous recipients Steve Jobs of Apple, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Janice Bryant-Howroyd of Act1 Group, and Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields of Proactiv and Rodan + Fields, among others.

A Musical Surprise from USC Students

The evening ended with two surprises.  The first was an announcement from Blakely that she set up Spanx popup store in the courtyard and was gifting Spanx’s newest product, a faux leather pant, to students and guests.

The second surprise was created specifically for Blakely, leaving her jubilant and in tears.

As a final question, USC Thornton senior Adam Yaron, came to the microphone and asked if Sara had a favorite song.  Sara shared that “Sara Smile” by Daryl Hall and John Oates was a “wink from the universe” that let her know everything would be ok.  She then jokingly asked, “Are you going to sing it for me?”

Yaron, tipped off on her favorite song the week before, jumped on stage to introduce a ready band of Thornton students as the curtains parted.  The group launched into the song and serenaded a delighted Blakely.  Blakely’s Instagram posts on the evening have exceeded 100k views and attracted comments from the likes of music manager Scooter Braun.

To see the surprise musical performance, you can watch the video here.