Trailblazer and Culture Changer
How an intrepid inventor became a business icon, billionaire and philanthropist – all on her own terms
If you know SPANX, you probably know the story of founder Sara Blakely cutting the feet off a pair of pantyhose to create a smooth undergarment to wear under a pair of white pants, which sparked the idea for her now-famous footless pantyhose. At the time she was selling fax machines door-to-door in Florida.
She moved to Atlanta, spent time perfecting her product, then launched the company in 2000. In the early days, she enlisted friends to help pack and ship orders. Oprah Winfrey was an early fan and praised the pantyhose on her show. Other inventions followed, and the company prospered under Blakely’s effective and distinctly feminine management style. SPANX now sells shapewear, activewear and even a line of men’s undergarments.
Today Blakely is a billionaire who owns 100 percent of her company, but she is committed to giving much of her fortune away, having signed the Giving Pledge originated by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Georgia Trend’s Susan Percy talked with Blakely at SPANX headquarters in Buckhead, where the original pantyhose story is literally written on the wall of the reception area. Here are edited highlights of the interview.
GT: Was there a single moment or series of moments when you realized you were truly going to be successful?
Blakely: I definitely had some key moments. When Oprah Winfrey chose SPANX as her favorite product of the year. When the Neiman Marcus buyer said, “I’ll try it in seven stores.” And when I went on QVC with my third product, Power Panties, and sold – I think it was 10,000 pair in five minutes. I came off the air and said, “OK, I’m not a one-hit wonder.”
GT: That’s powerful affirmation.
Blakely: One more I should point out: That full-circle moment I got to be back on Oprah’s show not too many years later and hand her a million-dollar check for her girls’ school. I was able to surprise her on air. For someone who was making $50,000 a year selling fax machines not many years before, that was a real moment of “I can’t believe I can even consider doing this.” Boy, did that feel good.
GT: I’d like to hear how you develop your products.
Blakely: At SPANX – we invent. We hold so many patents here. We are constantly inventing and creating brand-new products that have never been done before.
I always say what got me to start SPANX was being a frustrated consumer and wanting to solve an undergarment issue for myself that I had a suspicion many other women struggled with as well – what do you wear under white pants that doesn’t show? Why I’m still doing it almost 20 years later is because I think there is so much opportunity to make things better for women.
GT: What helps you come up with new ideas?
Blakely: Traffic lights! I get all my best ideas at traffic lights.
GT: What’s your latest invention?
Blakely: Arm tights. A little top you put on, made on a hosiery machine; it gives you the coverage on your arm so you can wear your sleeveless tops and dresses year-round. By throwing on the little top, it transforms these dresses and shirts. I like it because I’m cold in the office a lot. I throw it on underneath my sleeveless dress or shirt and wear it. I’m very excited about it because it’s one of those problem solutions. It filled a need for women.
GT: Hosiery was a pretty stodgy industry when you started out.
Blakely: The industry I broke into didn’t seem to care a lot about how women felt. That became so inspiring for me to make that my North Star: Start a company and say, against these billion-dollar companies, I may not have the most money, may not have the most resources. I have no experience, but if I care the most and make how she feels in whatever it is we make as our one most important thing – let’s see what happens.
All I did was take an item that existed, and I saw it differently. I wanted the hosiery to be your undergarment. The industry, which was mostly men, had been making it for so many years only to be seen on the leg; so it was very hard for them to wrap their head around some girl who was, “No, no, no. I don’t even want anyone to see it.”
The industry was on the double-digit decline for years, not doing well. By taking this existing item and just having a different application for it and tweaking it, it revitalized the industry.
GT: What kind of feedback do you get from customers?
Blakely: My favorite compliment is when a woman comes up to me and says, “SPANX invented something I didn’t know that I needed and now I can’t live without.”
GT: When you started out, did you feel the business community took you seriously?
Blakely: Being a woman, my greatest weakness has also been a great strength – which is being underestimated. I was definitely underestimated. I could feel that along the journey. At some points that really helped me; at some points it made it more challenging.
GT: You’ve been consistent from the beginning in wanting to grow and run your business in your own way. That must have been difficult at times.
Blakely: I was at a cocktail party in Atlanta a few months after I had invented [footless pantyhose]. The AJC ran an article on me, and these three men had read it. One of them patted me on the back and said, “I hope you are ready to go to war because business is war.”
I went home that night to my apartment in Virginia-Highland and thought, “I don’t want to go to war. I’m not going to war. I’m going to do it differently.”
I wanted to create this company and grow it from a very feminine leadership style. Traditional business has been very masculine, a very male model. There are great strengths and weaknesses in both feminine and masculine, but I particularly was interested in taking a more feminine approach.
GT: Has it gotten easier for a woman entrepreneur?
Blakely: I feel like the road is getting wider and more paved for women. Each woman that comes along and makes it her mission to create something and stand up for herself and go for it, then she’s just helping the next group of women.
GT: How different are the challenges of starting a company and running a successful business?
Blakely: When you are an entrepreneur, you have to be every department. I was the before-and-after butt model. I was packer and shipper. I was lead salesperson. I was doing everything. When you are in that state, because you have to be, you learn very quickly what you’re good at and what you are not good at, what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. I encourage people to hire their weaknesses, and I did that.
GT: And that’s made a difference?
Blakely: Throughout the journey of SPANX, I have had very good support around me [for] running and operating more of the day-to-day of the business. I know the way I can best serve the company and most enjoy is to invent, market, sell. I just love that side of the business. That hasn’t changed from the beginning.
GT: What has changed?
Blakely: The challenge of the business when it gets bigger is how to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive, how to keep the innovative, scrappy spirit alive.
GT: How do you do that?
Blakely: That happens through culture, through ideas you come up with to promote the culture at your company and also through the product development process. We’ve put in a lot of different steps along the way to encourage innovation. We have a Be Bold boot camp; everybody in the company goes through things like workshops and training I experienced in my life that I felt helped mold the entrepreneur in me – public speaking, debate, comedy, sales.
I’m encouraged to make every person here a leader and entrepreneur in how they approach life. You don’t have to start a business to be an entrepreneur. It’s about risk taking, courage, not caring what other people think about you, not being afraid to fail, to try new things, step out of your comfort zone.
GT: You mentioned comedy as part of your company training. One of the things that stands out about SPANX is the humor, the fun way you market and name your products – calling a butt a butt. It reminds me of the way women talk to each other. Was that intentional?
Blakely: Very intentional. I wanted to talk to the customer, not at the customer. From the very beginning if it wasn’t something I would say to my girlfriends over dinner, I didn’t put it on the package or in the copy.
GT: It’s helped your company stand out.
Blakely: I love finding the humor in things. I felt strongly that I wanted to go through the journey of starting a business and not have to act serious to be taken seriously.
I took that approach from the very beginning – like, “Don’t worry, we’ve got your butt covered” as my main slogan. And naming the company SPANX, which was really risky at the time. It made people stop and laugh and ponder. Some people were offended.
GT: Your company is so attuned to women and what they want and need. Was it a big leap when you branched out to include men’s underwear?
Blakely: We did it literally because both my husband and my brother were complaining about their undershirts. The way I grow SPANX with the team is very organic. We do it by love of inventing and where we see a need. The man’s undershirt was invented in 1918, and basically nobody paid any attention to it since.
I saw them frustrated with it – it would stretch out around the collar, it was bulky and boxy under their suits and under their nice dress shirts. I thought let’s redesign it, add a little bit of Lycra to the cotton, give it little bit of stretch and taper it at the waist a little, so it’s more streamlined under suits.
We have a real cult following. I was just doing an Instagram story with Holly Branson, and [her dad] Richard Branson jumped on and flashed his SPANX men’s underwear. So there’s an endorsement!
GT: And more humor …
Blakely: There’s a line in a Jimmy Buffett song: “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” I’m not solving world peace right now. There’s a lot of humor in what I do. At the end of the day, I do make butts look better.
GT: That’s an achievement.
Blakely: It’s fun to branch out with SPANX. The shapewear is what made us famous. We filled such a niche for women between traditional underwear and the girdle that was long overdue. We needed something in-between, giving us a great canvas under our clothes.
Now we make activewear for women. We have faux leather leggings and seamless leggings. We have the world’s most comfortable bra called Bra-llelujah! because women, when they put it on, they would sing! Like, “Oh, my God!” We have a patent on that bra. That bra’s a miracle – part hosiery, part traditional bra – all these components coming together to make an experience for women that’s wonderful.
GT: What part did timing play in your business – coming up with your products as things were opening up more for women?
Blakely: There are no accidents. I have this acute awareness of being born in the right country at the exact right time and wanting to maximize that opportunity on behalf of my mom, who didn’t have as many options. And my grandmothers I watched that didn’t have as many options and all the women that came before me and all the women currently around the world that still don’t have a chance.
GT: Your philanthropy embraces many women’s causes. How do you choose?
Blakely: They need to be elevating or supporting women. Typically it needs to be involved in entrepreneurship and/or education. I like to get involved when I am impressed by the person behind it. Just like an instinct in business, you get an instinct about people in the charitable world and what they’re doing.
I’ve also known that I want to do my own thing in philanthropy, but because I still own 100 percent of SPANX and am running it, it hasn’t become that next full chapter in my life. I also have four small children under the age of eight.
GT: Any current project you are especially enthused about?
Blakely: One of things I’ve been working on for the last several years – and it’s just now launching – is a digital e-course that captures all of my insights and everything I believe that helped me create and start something like SPANX. It’s being piloted at Atlanta Girls School and two public schools through Junior Achievement.
GT: Why that particular project?
Blakely: The backstory – when I was 16 years old I watched my friend [get] run over by a car and killed. Then my parents split up. My father, as he was packing up and leaving home, came into my bedroom and handed me a cassette tape series of Wayne Dyer – an inspirational and motivational speaker. On the cover was a middle-aged bald man with a bushy mustache, and above it said, “How to Be a No-Limit Person.”
GT: And that resonated with you?
Blakely: I memorized all 10 tapes. In high school it became a running joke. Nobody wanted to be stuck in my car because I’d make them listen. Fast forward, I end up on the cover of Forbes and all those people in high school texted me and said, “Should have listened to that tape.”
GT: Why did it have such an impact?
Blakely: Nobody was teaching me how to think; they were teaching me what to think. This was the first time someone spoke to me in a way of teaching me to think that I could maximize my own life and my own potential. So I learned visualization, manifestation, law of attraction, how to not care what other people think about me – which at the age of 16 consumes you. All of these things really laid the groundwork for me to do SPANX, and I want to pass that on.
GT: What about your foundation projects?
Blakely: The SPANX By Sara Blakely Foundation – we helped [microfinance organization] Grameen America. We were one of the anchor investors in Grameen that has now secured 100,000 loans for female entrepreneurs living below the poverty line.
We support the Atlanta Film Festival – the mavericks, the female film producers. We also partner with CCI – the Center for Civic Innovation – a wonderful organization that is supporting entrepreneurs in Atlanta that have a social benefit to the city.
We chose 10 women and we granted them a certain amount of money, and the turnaround for these women – they are now self-employed and all have more than doubled their revenue. Several of them have reached over the million-dollar mark. It ties in with how you can make a profit but also be connected to purpose and be making a difference at the same time.
GT: How long do you see yourself running the company? How will you determine when it’s time to do something else?
Blakely: It will be a gut feeling. It will be a decision that I make based on my personal life and what’s best for SPANX.