Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx—the shapewear clothing to end all shapewear clothing—has her backstory enshrined in the company’s headquarters.
The story goes that a young Blakely, a few years into a career as a sales executive, cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose for a formal party. She was so pleased with the results, which were snug without being overbearing, that she committed her professional life to designing, patenting, marketing and selling the product. The original ‘prototype’ sits proudly on the wall in her offices.
And now, Spanx’s range of underwear, swimwear and jeans—created with just $5,000 savings—have proved so successful that the company has reached a billion-dollar valuation. Blakely was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012 and was the first female billionaire (she owns 100 percent of Spanx) to join Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s giving pledge.
Photo credit: Spanx.com
Spanx, a self-starter’s game
It’s Blakely’s self-starting attitude that has best-served her during this rise, which is nothing short of phenomenal. In a recent post on LinkedIn, she explains that in the early days she worked as every single department—shipper, sales, marketing, modelling—from Spanx headquarters, “AKA my apartment.”
“I was shipping out my first Spanx orders in regular envelopes. Oops… first lesson, right! you need tracking?! Everyone kept calling me and saying they didn’t receive their order, and I kept saying, ‘I swear I sent it!’”
This commitment extended into an unparalleled work ethic.
“In the beginning I worked every day, 24/7 for 5 years. It was hard. There were days when I wanted to give up, but I believed in myself and my idea and I was fully committed to making it happen.”
Taking on an industry made of men
Blakely tells Forbes that she presented her idea for Spanx at almost every major hosiery mills in the US and was turned away by all of them—until eventually one male mill owner, convinced of the product’s potential success by three daughters, took a chance on her.
“When I first started Spanx, the world – for the most part – had already defined me,” she writes on LinkedIn. “I was a woman taking on an entire industry made of mostly men. As you can imagine, I was often underestimated. Most people saw a twenty-something girl who was made of no money, no experience and no connections.
“And they were right! I wasn’t made of those things. I had to show them I was made of more… like determination, humor and empathy.”
This drive got her in front of Oprah Winfrey: She simply sent a basket of products to Winfrey’s television programme, with a card explaining her plans. Winfrey later named Spanx one of her ‘Favourite Things,’ and sales boomed. In the first year alone, Spanx made $4 million; in the second, $10 million.
Her determination, particularly as a thriving female CEO, led to the creation of the Spanx Foundation in 2006. Launched with a $750,000 donation from Virgin founder Richard Branson—whom she’d met as a participant on the reality TV show, Rebel Billionaire—the foundation aims to empower women through education, entrepreneurship and the arts.
“I believe the world will be a better place when the feminine and masculine energy on the planet are more in balance,” she says.