She failed to become Goofy and a lawyer, but turned US$5,000 to US$1b

Founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely is a self-made billionaire today. Source: Bennett Raglin / Getty Images North America/AFP

Some women might call Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx a hero.

She revolutionised shapewear, giving women who weren’t a size zero the chance to still look fabulous and be comfortable in their own skin.

Gone were the days of pulling corsets and waist whittlers so tight you could hardly breathe. Or tugging on your girdle as it rode up your thigh with every step you took.

The quest to find a solution to fix every possible figure flaw has shown that we can’t get enough of trying to perfect ourselves and how we look.

And this is how the shapewear industry began and continues to grow exponentially today.

Spanx was founded in 2000 and today is worth US$1.2 billion.

It sells leggings, undergarments, swimwear, and maternity clothes in more than 50 countries.

How did some who failed the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) achieve all of this?

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Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely faced many rejections at first, but she never gave up on her idea. Source: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Vanity Fair/AFP

The brainchild behind Spanx – Sara Blakely

Blakely was born in Clearwater, Florida in February 1971.

She had a normal childhood; she studied at Clearwater High School, made tons of friends, and enjoyed her carefree years growing up.

She then furthered her studies by achieving a degree in Communication from Florida State University before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in her late twenties.

There was one memory, or should we say, a lesson that followed her throughout her teens and into young adulthood: if you fail, try, and try again.

Her father even encouraged both her and her brother to fail.

He asked Blakely and her brother what they had failed at for the week during dinner.

“It almost seemed like he would be disappointed if we hadn’t failed at something,” she says.

Without realising it, her father was redefining what “failure” meant. He was trying to teach them that not trying was a failure in itself.

This would later help shape Blakely and the challenges she faced as the creator of Spanx, a clothing item that was built from scratch.

Two big failures

Law was something Blakely wanted to pursue but her LSAT results were not great, so she crossed that off the list.

“I’m a really bad test taker and I ended up bombing the LSATs twice and I was not able to get into a law school,” she says.

She did the next best thing, she says. She drove to Disney World in Florida and asked if she could play the role of Goofy.

Little did she know she needed to be 5’8 to play Goofy, but she was only 5’6 — two critical inches that would have changed everything for her, she says.

“I was the perfect height for a chipmunk so I worked for Disney World for a few months. I guess you could say it felt a bit like rock bottom,” she says.

“I wasn’t going to be a lawyer; I was too short to be Goofy.”

By then, she had taken a job selling fax machines for office supply company Danka, in one of the hardest ways possible – door-to-door selling.

She did this for seven years.

Blakely recalls being escorted out of buildings or having her name cards torn up in front of her face.

“One day, I pulled up in my car at the side of the road; I was having a really bad day and crying. I remember thinking I was in the wrong movie. Call the director and yell cut please,” she says.

But through this turmoil and wanting to give up, she realised one thing: she was good at sales, she says.

“I ended up going home one day and writing that I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel better.”

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Founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely has graced the cover of magazines and been invited on talk shows to share her success story with others. Source: Bennett Raglin Getty Images/AFP

Sara Blakely: The inventor phase

It was two years later when Blakely was preparing to go for a party clad in white pants when she realised she didn’t have the right undergarments for a seamless look.

What she did then was put on a control pantyhose and cut off the feet part so it wouldn’t show through her open-toe heels.

What she achieved that night were no visible panty lines, she felt thinner and smoother, but the pantyhose did roll up her legs all night.

She needed to invent something that felt this great but solved the “leg” part.

And with this stroke of genius, Spanx was created.

So here was 27-year-old Blakely with US$5,000 in her savings accounts and an invention that would eventually change people’s lives, but she had no idea what to do.

She googled “hosiery mills” and found that the bulk of them were being manufactured in North Carolina, she says.

“I started calling all these hosiery mills, asking them to help me make this idea of a footless, pantyhose-shaper concept. I was turned down by all,” she says.

One day, Blakely got a phone call from a manufacturer who was willing to listen to her and materialise her “crazy idea”.

She recall asking him why he’d want to support her; his answer was, “he had daughters”.

“He had actually run this idea through them, and they convinced him to give me a chance.”

As she continued doing more research into the industry, she chanced upon something interesting: the regular way pantyhose was being made was not inclusive at all.

The same size waistband was being put on every pair with the aim of cutting costs, she says.

“So, with Spanx, all of the waistbands were sized accordingly and that was the first change I made.”

She took it upon herself to begin churning the wheels furiously by writing the patent herself and deciding on bright red for its packaging.

Another bold step for the  Spanx founder? Blakely put three animated girls on the packaging that looked totally different to the typical stick-thin figures you’d normally see. It worked in her favour.

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Queen of daytime talk show Oprah Winfrey once said she had given up on all other undergarments, except Spanx. Source: Kennedy Pollard/Getty Images for Netflix/AFP

Sara Blakely lived and breathed her product

Blakely embodied the product.

In her marketing pitches to suppliers and clothing stores, she wore the shapewear herself, modelling it for others to see.

It is said that during a meeting with the Neiman Marcus Group one day, Blakely realised the representative was losing interest in what she had to say.

She quickly invited the representative to follow her to the bathroom, where she put on a piece from Spanx.

Needless to say, the representative was astounded at the effect this small item could have on Blakely’s figure.

As a result, Spanx’s products were sold at seven Neiman Marcus stores, while Bloomingdales, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman followed in pursuit.

From Spanx’s first day of business, profits were rolling in. The brand generated US$4 million in its first year and another US$10 million in its second.

After sending the Oprah Winfrey talk show some of her products, Spanx was included in Oprah’s “favourite things” in 2000, further thrusting her into the spotlight.

Then in 2001, Blakely partnered with American television network QVC to expand her target audience and footprint in the shapewear industry.

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The expansion of Spanx’s market happened quickly as sales increased and celebrities began bringing these products into the limelight. Source: Michael loccisano/Getty Images/AFP

Life didn’t slow down for the mother of four. In 2003, she participated in reality TV show, The Rebel Billionaire and won second place.

Here she met business magnate Richard Branson who was so impressed by Blakely that he donated US$750,000 to help start up the Sara Blakely Foundation.

The foundation today invests millions to empower women worldwide through education, arts, and entrepreneurship.

Then in 2012, Blakely became the youngest self-made female billionaire in 2012 and appeared on the cover of Forbes Magazine the same year.

She was also one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World.

In an aim to continue strengthening the brand and its online business, investment firm Blackstone purchased the majority stake in Spanx in 2021, valuing the brand at US$1.2 billion.

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The Giving Pledge is a promise by the world’s wealthiest people to donate to charity, including Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates. Source: Nicholas Roberts/AFP

“I have always known I would help women”

Despite being worth close to US$1.3 billion according to Forbes magazine, Blakely has always maintained that philanthropy is part of their DNA at Spanx.

Helping women who were not dealt the same cards as her was something that she often thought about, she says.

“Since I was a little girl, I have always known I would help women. I have so much gratitude for being a woman in America.”

And the team at Spanx took this to heart by building homes for families, sending women to college, and funding entrepreneurial programmes in girls’ schools.

She famously donated US$1 million to Oprah Winfrey’s girls’ school in South Africa.

Blakely even created an initiative called Leg-UP that features female entrepreneurs’ products in their catalogues for free.

She is also the first female billionaire to join The Giving Pledge, a joint effort by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates.

This effort is a call to action that encourages the uber-rich worldwide to donate the majority of their wealth to charity.

Since signing the pledge, the Sara Blake Foundation has donated to Malala Fund, Women for Women International and Rainbow Village, a transitional housing community for homeless families.