Shaping Sara Blakely: Meet the Billionaire Founder of Spanx

How Wayne Dyer and Oprah Winfrey (plus, a few timeless principles) changed her life forever
December 7, 2015

Sara Blakely was just rushed to the hospital.

She’s scheduled for an emergency appendectomy when a nurse glances at her chart and suddenly lifts her uniform, brazenly revealing her undergarments. This unexpected peep show doesn’t faze Blakely a bit (nor did the surgery, by the way). In fact, she’s used to it. “People flash me all the time,” she says nonchalantly. “It’s hysterical.”

Blakely, 44, is the founder and sole owner of Spanx, the Atlanta-based shapewear company that rocketed to fame after Oprah Winfrey publicly announced she favored Spanx over undies in 2000. Spanx’s line of slimming and toning garments has since expanded to 200-plus items, including jeans, yoga wear and even undershirts for men, and her loyal customers apparently just can’t help but show off to Blakely that they’re wearing her products whenever and wherever they see her. She’s been flashed at concerts, cocktail parties and even the White House. (Blakely’s keeping mum about who the D.C. flasher was, but it’s worth noting that at a speech Blakely attended there, Michelle Obama hinted at the fact that she wears Spanx.)

“My husband is the one who benefits the most,” Blakely jokes about the frequent Spanx display. “Everywhere I go with him, he gets flashed, too!” One of Blakely’s all-time favorite encounters was when a fan recognized her at the airport. “She yelled at me across the entire airport as she was sprinting to her gate, ‘Spanx and wheels on luggage, the two greatest inventions in the last 50 years!’ ”

Ironically, despite earning Gold Medallion status on Delta, Blakely hates flying. That and public speaking. But those are frequent job requirements for the owner of a global brand with $400 million in estimated annual sales. To reach that level, to be named the youngest self-made woman on Forbes’ billionaire list in 2012, Blakely had to address her share of personal obstacles.

“I feel like one of the best ways I’ve been able to face my fears and move through them is gratitude, being very connected to gratitude and a higher purpose. Without those two things, it would be much more difficult for me to push through the things that scare me.”

Take flying, for instance. “I just do it because—darn it—there are a lot of women [in the world] who don’t have the opportunity to get up in the morning and even get an education, so I can get my butt on a plane and deal with it. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not still scared.” Blakely even signed up for a fear-of-flying seminar to help calm her nerves, but she missed so many classes because of her schedule and constant traveling that her instructor told her, “I don’t know if I should be mad at you or proud of you, but you’re never here because you’re always on a plane.”

In 2004 Blakely tackled another hurdle when she appeared on a reality show with Richard Branson called The Rebel Billionaire, a sort of cross between The Apprentice and The Amazing Race. In the show, a group of budding entrepreneurs traveled the world tackling a series of challenges. On the first day of filming, while flying in a hot air balloon 10,000 feet above the English countryside, Blakely had to climb a rope ladder to the top of the balloon, where she, Branson and a fellow contestant had a tea party.

In that moment, Blakely says she had to dig deep and tap into her feelings of gratitude for the opportunity. “I was like, I’m here. I was given this chance. Why wouldn’t I do this? And that kind of just won out over the fear, the part of me that said, But I don’t want to do it. I’m scared.

Today Blakely counts Branson as a friend and business hero. “I’ve always admired how kind he is. To achieve his level of success as kind as he is—really admirable. I’m always very impressed with his bias for action. He comes up with an idea, and he’s already off and doing it while everyone else is sitting there talking about the details of how it’s going to be done. You’re like, ‘Wait,’ and he’s off. It’s just totally energizing to be around.”

Branson, in turn, has praised Blakely’s “excellent business acumen” and “fantastic courage,” labeling her “an inspiration to women around the world.” The story of her success is remarkable.

From Concept to Creation

The idea for Spanx came about in 1998, when Blakely—who was selling fax machines door to door in Florida—wanted to eliminate panty lines showing through her cream-colored slacks. She cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose and wore the cropped hose underneath her pants to smooth out the lines.

Those $98 pants now hang in a display case at Spanx’s snazzy new 86,000-square-foot offices in Buckhead, Atlanta’s toniest neighborhood, where we met for this story. A brief history of Spanx’s creation is spelled out in massive, neon-accented letters on a wall near the main entrance. It is her story, and it is her snazzy new office, and she is right at home as we talk inside a small conference room with a view of the downtown skyline. She is wearing simple jeans and a plain white T-shirt—the antithesis of the power suit you might expect to see on a big-time business owner—but Blakely looks polished and professional. She seems to be the kind of woman who can make even the most comfortable outfits look chic.

Practicality is kind of her thing. Blakely readily admits that she wasn’t the first woman to cut the feet off her pantyhose and wear them under her form-fitting clothes. But for Blakely, it was her aha moment, the big idea she had been waiting for. She determined in that instant to make a prototype and put it into production.

“The reason I believe I took the idea and ran with it was because of all of the prework I had done,” says Blakely, referring to the in-depth visualization she had done for an idea—the idea—to come into her life. “I knew I wanted my life to be different than it currently was, so I took inventory of my strengths and weaknesses. I recognized that one of my strengths was selling. I really enjoyed it and knew I was good at it.

“So I said, OK, I want to invent or create a product that I can sell that’s my own and not somebody else’s, and I want it to be something I can sell to millions of people. And I want it to be something that makes people feel good. I wrote that specifically in my journal, and I just kept looking for when it was going to show up in my life. I was on high alert. The day I cut the feet out of my pantyhose, I immediately started pursuing it. I didn’t know if that idea was going to ultimately be ‘the one,’ but I was immediately in motion after that happened.”

Interestingly, the Florida State grad, who has never taken a single business class, didn’t initially tell anyone what she was up to. She worked on her idea at night and on weekends, often skipping dinners, parties and other fun events to research patents and visit clothing manufacturers.

Her friends and family knew she was working on something; they just didn’t know what it was. “They’d just say, ‘Sara’s working on some crazy idea,’ ” Blakely says.

She kept the project secret for a year. “I’ve had many, many ideas and many, many signs, but that one felt very specific and different to me. So I didn’t ask anybody or tell anybody about it. And that is one of the main reasons Spanx exists today. I believe that ideas are the most vulnerable in their infancy. That’s the moment that most people want to turn to a friend, a co-worker, a husband or wife and say, ‘I have this idea.’ And then, out of love and concern, you get all these thoughts that you should consider.

“I just intuitively did not want to invite ego into the process too soon. Once the idea had arrived in my life, I wanted to spend the time pursuing it and not defending it and explaining it.”

Blakely toiled until she was satisfied that she had invested enough time and done enough homework to share her idea with friends and family. She insists that her hesitancy to reveal her idea wasn’t for fear of its being stolen; she didn’t feel the need to tell people just to get the validation. “There’s a difference, because I did tell all the people who could help me move it forward. I told the manufacturer owners. I told the patent attorneys. I was calling materials people, explaining my idea. I just didn’t take a friend out to dinner and say, ‘What do you think?’ ”

When she eventually let people in on her secret, many thought she might have lost her marbles. “Sara had a vision for what Spanx could become that very few people shared,” says Gillian Zoe Segal, who interviewed Blakely for her book Getting There: A Book of Mentors, in which she profiles luminaries such as Warren Buffett, Ian Schrager and Anderson Cooper. “Her friends and family laughed when they found out the idea Sara had been pursuing for more than a year. And the mill owners she pursued to make a Spanx prototype thought it was a waste of their time. But Sara persevered and taught the world something new. She is a true leader.”

The Oprah Factor

Spanx has never spent a dollar on advertising. It hasn’t needed to. In 2000, two years after Blakely first snipped those pantyhose, she sold her product to her first buyer, Neiman Marcus. When the inaugural batch of Spanx arrived from the manufacturer, Blakely sent some to Winfrey, whose stylist suggested the Queen of Daytime TV try them on.

It was Blakely’s big break. Winfrey chose them as her product of the year for her popular “Favorite Things” episode. “She declared publicly over and over again all these amazing things, like ‘I gave up wearing undies. I only wear Spanx,’ ” Blakely recalls. “It was pretty awesome.”

Before the show aired, there was just one wrinkle that needed to be ironed out. “The show called and said, ‘You have a website, right?’ And I went, ‘Uh-huh, of course.’ And they were like, ‘And you can ship and fulfill lots and lots of orders?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh-huh, of course I can.’ ”

But in truth, she didn’t and couldn’t, and she went into hyperdrive to prepare. “I had 2 1/2 weeks to build a website and make sure I had enough product,” says Blakely, who until that point had done all of the packing and shipping herself from her apartment.

She remembers it vividly. “I quit my day job selling fax machines on Oct. 14, 2000, and Oprah called two weeks later. I was on her show in November. I’d been working full time while I was working on this idea at night and on weekends. I didn’t want to quit my job. I needed the income and the security and the insurance and the health benefits and all that. So I literally waited. I did not leave my job until I’d already landed Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. That was when I got the courage to make the leap and go on my own.”

Other celebrities also have helped catapult the brand. Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and dozens more have been spotted with Spanx peeking from under their designer fashions. Tina Fey even stripped down to her Spanx on an episode of the Late Show with David Letterman in 2015. The name Spanx is now officially part of the vernacular, having popped up in everything from skits on Saturday Night Live to articles on Smithsonian.com.

She Shall Overcome

Airplanes and public speaking aside, what pushes Blakely’s fear button most is the thought of missed opportunities. That’s why she gets on the planes. That’s why she speaks to large audiences. “My fear of regret is stronger than my fear of anything else,” Blakely says. “It gives me courage.”

One thing Blakely absolutely doesn’t fear is failure, which she owes in large part to her father. At the dinner table, he would ask Sara and her brother about what they’d failed at that week, and if they didn’t fail at something, he’d be disappointed. And if they did fail at something, he’d high-five them. “He’d say, ‘Tell me about it. What happened?’ And it started reframing our definition of failure.” Not even trying became a bigger failure than going for something and coming up short, she says.

Her father would even have Sara and her brother do exercises in failure. If they failed or something didn’t turn out exactly the way they’d hoped, they would write down what they got out of it anyway. “You would realize like, Oh well, I didn’t make the team, but I met my best friend in tryouts. There was just always something there that made it worth doing.”

Besides, Blakely claims, failure usually gives her a funny story to tell later. “Oftentimes when things don’t go well, I’m able to laugh at myself and turn it into a story. I like the art of storytelling, and my favorite part of the screw-up is being able to potentially make somebody else laugh or smile about it. It makes it all worth it.”

Blakely even credits her fearlessness toward failure as a major key to Spanx’s success. “I had been selling fax machines door to door for seven years, and I had learned a lot about rejection and how to deal with people telling you no. It was a total training ground, because all I heard was no for the first two years of trying to get Spanx off the ground.”

Lori Greiner, the venture capitalist on ABC’s entrepreneur-focused reality show Shark Tank and a fellow inventor-entrepreneur, sees failure in a similar way. “Failures are lessons to help you get better, smarter and stronger,” Greiner says. “I’m a firm believer that we can learn from everything we do and continue to move forward.”

Blakely’s resilience after such “lessons” was crucial to her ascent, Segal determined in researching her profile. “She has the confidence to follow her gut instincts and not allow herself to be discouraged by others,” the author says.

Jadideah Yarbrough, who is one of Spanx’s first employees and counts Blakely as a close friend, echoes that assessment. “In terms of innovation and product development, Sara doesn’t take no for an answer. She believes there is always a way to make it better,” says Yarbrough, adding that one of Blakely’s favorite phrases is, “C’mon, people… we put a man on the moon!”

The Juggler

Loads of responsibilities tug at Blakely. Not only is she running a billion-dollar business and dealing with all of the requisite meetings, interviews, appearances, etc., that go along with it, but she also has a husband with a successful and hectic career of his own, plus three children. “I have 16-month-old twins and a 6-year-old. All boys. Hilarious.”

How does she manage it all? “I take it day by day, trying to bucket my life in ways that I can really focus on each bucket when I’m in it and be more present when I’m in it. It requires a lot of attention to my calendar and time management and how I live my life and recognizing that you have to take the time to completely relook at how you layer your life. Because layering becoming a mom, which is a full-time job, on top of another full-time job, there is no manual, and it takes a lot of attention to prioritizing what you want to delegate, what you’re willing to let go of and how you want to spend your time.”

Sara’s husband, Jesse Itzler, who runs the 100 Miles Group, a brand incubator and creative marketing agency, has joked that when it comes to her crazy schedule, “As long as she gets seven hours of sleep and has her Starbucks in hand when the sun comes up, life is good.”

Blakely’s sleep patterns were something that initially fanned Itzler’s interest when they met during a 2006 poker tournament in Las Vegas. He recalls how, about 30 minutes into a dinner following the event, Blakely excused herself, saying it was past her bedtime. “Who goes to bed at 9:30 at night in Vegas?” Itzler remembers thinking. “That intrigued me. And she loved to laugh, and that intrigued me, too.” (Yarbrough was equally intrigued when she first met Blakely: “Sara was wearing jeans, a purple coat, and a white T-shirt with a fox on it that said ‘I’m a fox.’ … My first impression was that she was quirky, kind and comfortable in her own skin. I wanted to be her friend right away.”)

When asked to pinpoint the qualities he thinks helped his wife—whom he has described as “the Michael Jordan of women’s underwear”—reach the level of success she’s achieved, Itzler says, “There is an old sports saying that I love: ‘You can’t teach speed.’ Sara has all the qualities that can’t be taught in business school. She is incredibly driven, she has amazing instincts, and she has a great feel for what the consumer wants.” Curious, self-assured, brilliant and charitable are among the other adjectives he heaps upon her.

“She’s just the most amazing person, and I’m so lucky to have a front-row seat in her life.”

Early Influences

Blakely’s husband claims that he bounces ideas off her way more than she does off him, but she has others to call on.

The late Wayne Dyer is another person Blakely credits for helping shape her character. The personal-development guru and motivational speaker came into her life at 16, when she had recently seen a close friend run down by a car and her parents had separated. At that point Blakely’s dad gave her the cassette series of Dyer’s How to Be a No-Limit Person. “Dad told me, ‘I wish I had listened to this when I was your age instead of being 40 when I discovered it.’ I started listening to it, and it was the right set of circumstances in my life that I was open to really wanting to listen to it.”

What she learned most from Dyer, Blakely says, was how to think productively and process life in a way that allowed her to stay focused on becoming her best self. “His messaging was simple, but it hadn’t really ever been told to me that way. I mean, we go to school and everyone teaches us what to think, but nobody teaches us how to think.”

When she was in high school, Blakely played Dyer’s cassettes on repeat in her car. “It became a running joke among my friends that nobody wanted to end up in my car because they would have to listen to the motivational tapes.

“Fast-forward all these years later, and I get on the cover of Forbes. My friends from high school texted me and all they wrote was, ‘I should have listened to those tapes.’ ”

What happens when Sara Blakely speaks her mind? Check out 21 bits of wit and wisdom from the woman behind the billion-dollar brand to find out.

 

This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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