| Mar 27, 2023

Sara Blakely: Celebrating Failure and Redefining Business Culture

From selling fax machines door to door to running a billion-dollar business, the inventor of Spanx never took no for an answer.

Few people have done failure quite as well, or as colorfully, as Sara Blakely. As a young college graduate, the self-made billionaire and inventor of the wildly successful shapewear brand Spanx had set her sights on law school but failed the LSAT. Blakely studied even harder and tested again, but still came up short. Feeling defeated, Blakely moved on to the next best thing: Character auditions at Disney World. But even her dream of being Goofy was shattered when she found out she was two inches too short. 

So I got the part of one of the chipmunks instead,” she told Glamour magazine. Soon, Blakely was back home in Clearwater, Florida, selling fax machines while nursing a big dream. “I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good”, Blakely wrote. She even envisioned specific milestones like being on the Oprah show. From that point on, Blakley was constantly on the lookout for anything that would inspire her invention-to-be. 

The lightbulb moment came as she was cutting the legs off her control-top pantyhose to wear under her party outfit one night. The expected professional attire at the time for a woman was pantyhose and though Blakely found them flattering, the nylon was cloying and uncomfortable as she went door-to-door in the heat of the Floridian day. With a simple pair of scissors, she had found a solution and an innovation. She realized that the hosiery material was ideal for making shapewear, undergarments that sculpt the silhouette and allow clothes to be draped over the body.

Today, Blakely is recognized not just as the face of Spanx but as one of the expert stars on the popular TV show “Shark Tank.” But there’s so much more to Blakely than a celebrity businesswoman. She is helping reshape business culture through her unique combination of embracing failure, the power of intention, and a good sense of humor.

Failing to Succeed

By the time Blakely had moved to Atlanta, she was working on a prototype for what would become Spanx. All the rejections (and ejections from buildings) that she had experienced during seven years of selling fax machines galvanized her to create a product from nothing and with no expertise or industry contacts. “[Cold calling] teaches you to be quick on your feet,” she said. “It also teaches you not to take the word ‘no’ so seriously. Face the rejection, and get back up and do it again.”

Blakely’s resolve to let failure be a driving force and learning opportunity was ingrained in her by her Dad. By encouraging his kids to fail at things and regularly discussing their failures together, he helped Sara redefine what failure meant. “Failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying,” she says. Meanwhile, Blakely quietly pursued her goals, turning an apartment bedroom into the first Spanx headquarters and investing $5,000 of her savings into the business. Today, Spanx is a household name with headquarters in Atlanta occupying 86,000 square feet, complete with a 12,000 sqft rooftop garden. 


Determination and Hustle

After opting to write her own patent and experiencing many failed attempts to pitch her product to male manufacturers, Blakely finally found a willing but reluctant taker. But now she needed an outlet to sell her product. After another round of phone calls, Blakely found herself pitching to the hosiery buyer at luxury retailer Neiman Marcus in Dallas. It wasn’t going well until Blakely invited her into the dressing room for a before-and-after demonstration of the difference Spanx made. 

“I went in the stall and put Spanx on underneath and came out. And she looked at me, and she goes, wow, I get it. It’s brilliant,” Blakely told NRP. Three weeks later, Spanx was in Neiman Marcus stores.

Blakely spent her first year selling from a table in Neiman Marcus with her own pictures the only marketing material. There was no shortage of hustle as Blakely worked from open to close, modeled Spanx herself, and spent her evenings mailing the product. It was during this time that she sent a sample to Oprah Winfrey, who ended up picking it as one of her “favorite things.” Demand skyrocketed. After going on shopping channel QVC, she sold 8,000 pairs of Spanx in five minutes of screentime. During its second year of business, the company made $10,000,000.

The Woman Behind the Business

Aside from running a billion-dollar business, Blakely is a mom to four children, a collector of inspirational mugs, and an unapologetic lover of french fries. Seeing Blakely’s contagious smile and her optimistic approach to life, people may not realize all the tragedies she’s seen — losing 11 people in her life in her 30s and watching her friend get hit by a car when she was a teenager. “I think that when you witness death at age 16, there’s a sense of urgency about life,” she says.

However, when Blakely stepped foot into the business world, one of the first things she noticed was how serious everyone seemed to be. She was a little put off by this and now infuses her light-hearted personality into Spanx. From photo-copying her rear end for an advertisement, to business mottos like “keeping butts covered from Savannah to Singapore,” Blakely has proven that you don’t have to be serious in business to be taken seriously.

She has also brought her outlook on mistakes into her business model, holding what Spanx calls “Oops Meetings,” where she kicks off with an example of something she messed up on that week, followed by employees giving their own examples. One of the reasons Blakely values failure is that it gives us a chance to be vulnerable and connect with others. 

Turning Business into a Mission

“The more you experience in life, the more you have to offer others,” Blakely says of her desire to empower women in business. She was the first self-made billionaire woman to pledge half of her wealth to charity through Giving Pledge and she has also gifted businesswomen startup money via her foundation, “Spanx by Sara Blakely.” 

Blakely is a living example of setting a vision and having an unwavering commitment to see it through. She brought her whole self into the business world, and refused to let others’ standards define her. In the face of inevitable trials in life, Blakely believes it’s up to us to adjust our sails accordingly. “And like so many things in life, we can’t control the wind. But we can learn how to respond to it,” she says. “When you get really good at responding to situations in a way that propels you forward instead of holding you back, you will find a way.”

Tori Carpenter
Tori Carpenter

Opinion Contributor,

Tori is a Central Oregonian mom of three and a creative freelance writer who has the desire to connect with others through her words. view profile


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