“Don’t let what you don’t know scare you, because it can become your greatest asset. And if you do things without knowing how they have always been done, you’re guaranteed to do them differently.” – Sara Blakely
This is HER Story
Every woman has heard of Spanx, but not everyone knows of the remarkable Sara Blakely who is the inventor of this essential article of clothing. Spanx is the best-kept secret of the red carpet look of many celebrities and has revolutionized shapewear globally. Sara Blakely has a net worth of about $1 billion and was recently ranked at 21 in the Forbes fourth annual list of Americas Richest Self-Made Women in 2018. Spanx was developed with a modest budget of only $5000. Today, Spanx is a phenomenally successful brand that earns about $400 million in sales annually with distribution in more than 60 countries. Sara’s entrepreneurial journey is both impressive and inspirational.
The world sees Sara’s success but underneath the triumph lie years of relentless drive and perseverance. Sara spent her childhood in Clearwater, Florida with her parents Ellen and John Blakely. Her father shaped her attitude towards failure early in life. “My dad encouraged us to fail growing up. He would ask us what we failed at that week. If we didn’t have something, he would be disappointed,” recalls Sara. Her father was an attorney, and initially, Sara visualized a career in law for herself.
However, when Sara scored low on law school admission tests (LSAT), she realized that life had a different plan for her. Sara began her career in sales by selling fax machines door to door for seven years at Danka, a copier supply company. The idea for Spanx germinated from an idea that came to her in 1998 while trying to achieve a seamless look under a pair of light colored leggings she wanted to wear for a party. “I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good,” thought Sara and the rest is history.
Sara’s business acumen stems from her desire to learn from every one of her life experiences. At Danka, she perfected the ability to ‘cold-call’ potential clients – something that would help her later when she began her own business. “Keep calling until you get them on the phone. Don’t leave a message,” was a key principle to pushing the product at Danka. That’s what she did when she began the process of creating a slimming undergarment for women that she called ‘Spanx.’ Sara found it difficult to explain her product to hosiery mills. The mill owners were mostly men who did use the products they made or understand how Spanx was special. She overcame self-doubt and got her first big break when she convinced a Neiman Marcus buyer to retail Spanx.
Sara left no resource untapped and called her friends and acquaintances to try her product by cold-calling and refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. Sara’s also sent a gift box of Spanx to Oprah Winfrey. To her delight, Oprah liked what Sara was selling and featured Spanx as a ‘Favorite Thing’ on her renowned show in 2000. From then on things only got better with Spanx sales amounting to $4 million in the first year and increasing steadily in subsequent years. Spanx has a vast consumer market globally that includes celebrities such as Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Tina Fey – all this with only word-of-mouth advertising!
Sara began Spanx without any formal training in business, fashion or retailing. Her vision and determination to succeed were the tools she used to design and market a product that she felt could revolutionize the way women look and feel about themselves. Sara’s secret to success has been her belief in her product despite being told several times during her career that she would not succeed.
An inventor should avoid sharing an idea in its raw form with other people before it takes on a formal shape. “Don’t solicit feedback on your product, idea or your business just for validation purposes…It can stop a lot of multimillion-dollar ideas in their tracks in the beginning,” cautions Sara. Another valuable lesson that young entrepreneurs can learn from Sara is to identify personal strengths early on in their career. An entrepreneur may delegate areas of business where he or she lacks proficiency to persons with relevant expertise in those areas to maximize productivity, just as Sara did.
Through Spanx, Sara has created a brand represents the product itself. Today, Spanx is a generic name, just like 3M’s Scotch tape or Pfizer’s Chapstick. Sara became the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world at only 41 years. However, is not one to turn a blind eye to the plight of underprivileged women globally. “Since the start, I saw Spanx as a platform for me to do what my greater mission and goal is, which is to help women in a big way,” shares Sara. She participated in Richard Branson’s show ‘Rebel Billionaire’ in 2004.
Sara did not win the show, but her entrepreneurial spirit impressed Branson so much that he gave her $1 million to help set up the Sara Blakely Foundation for women in 2006. The dream of helping women was not a new one for Sara. “Since I was a little girl I have always known I would help women,” says Sara. Her foundation has helped countless girls and women get educated and start their businesses. In 2013, Sara Blakely earned the distinction of becoming the first female billionaire to sign the Giving Pledge. The pledge is a conjoint endeavor by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates that urges wealthy persons to donate at least half of their wealth to charity.
On the personal front, Sara met her husband, Jesse Itzler at a poker tournament in 2006. Jesse is an author, speaker and the co-founder of Marquis Jet, the world’s largest private jet card firm. Sara and Jesse took an immediate liking to one another and were married in 2008 in Florida. Today, the couple has four children and co-owns the Atlanta Hawks basketball team along with others. Sara is currently based in Atlanta and effortlessly juggles many roles as inventor, CEO of Spanx, and mother of four. Through her business and philanthropy, Sara has attained the distinction of being a billionaire with a golden heart.