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Former 'The Rebel Billionaire' runner-up Sarah Blakely pays it forward


By Christopher Rocchio, 02/05/2007 

When Sarah Blakely finished second on Fox's The Rebel Billionaire reality series in January 2005, Virgin founder Richard Branson handed her $750,000 to start her own charity.  Now the creator of Spanx footless pantyhose is "paying it forward," donating $1 million to Oprah Winfrey's recently opened Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa school.

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"To me, the greatest part of success is what you're then able to give back.  And you're a great teacher of that," Blakely said to Winfrey during last Thursday's broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show

Six years ago, Blakely was working as a sales trainer by day and stand-up comedian by night when she cleaned out the $5,000 remaining in her savings account and launched a business from her apartment centered around creating footless pantyhose -- an idea that was inspired by Winfrey, who's been telling her female audience to cut the feet off the bottom of their pantyhose for years.

"You were my sign," Blakely told Winfrey.  Spanx now includes over 100 products, and Blakely said, "I have to pinch myself [when I think about] what we've done, over $100 million in retail sales."

Because her employees thought her innovative idea was such a good one, they nominated her for The Rebel Billionaire, a The Apprentice-like Fox reality series that followed Branson -- the global adventurer and founder/chairman of the Virgin Group of Companies -- as he took a group of sixteen young would-be billionaires on a whirlwind tour of the world while they competed for $1 million and Branson's job as president of his Virgin conglomerate.

Blakely made it all the way to the show's finals, where she finished second to Shawn Nelson, the CEO of The LoveSac Corporation, an upscale bean bag furniture manufacturer and retailer.  But Branson didn't forget Blakely, as he awarded her $750,000 to start The Sarah Blakely Foundation, which helps women globally and locally through education and entrepreneurship. 

While the Spanx owner and CEO said she is still working on new products, she's more focused on her foundation and giving back.

"I've been making the world a better place one butt at a time, but it is my dream to make the world a better place one woman at a time," Blakely told Winfrey.



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