Spanx Founder Sara Blakely Reflects on Her ‘Unusual’ Business Journey, the Power of Intuition and the Importance of Paying It Forward
Two decades ago, Sara Blakely founded the shapewear brand Spanx out of her own need for a functional undergarment to wear under cream-colored pants, Forbes reported. She started the company with $5,000 from her own savings, and it’s grown into a business now valued at $1.2 billion. In October 2021, Blakely sold a majority share of Spanx to Blackstone, bringing her net worth over the $1 billion mark.
During the 2021 Forbes Power Women’s Summit, Blakely reflected on the importance of trusting your gut, her journey as a female founder and her commitment to helping other women. Here are some of the highlights.
On Trusting Your Gut
Blakely sold a majority share of Spanx last year, but people had been asking her about her exit plans long before that.
“People have been asking me, ‘Sara, what’s your exit plan?’ I didn’t know what an exit plan was. I had never taken a business class,” Blakely said. “After about six months of people asking me this right after I started the company, I just started to [say], ‘I just want to exit a room and look good. That’s my exit strategy.’ And so they kind of left me alone for a while, but then they kept asking.”
She explains that she didn’t want to sell until she felt that the time was right.
“The best way that I can describe it is, I have run this business, I have run my life, very, very connected to intuition, which we all have,” Blakely said. “It’s an inner-knowing. I’ve always said, I’ll just know. I’ll know when it’s the right time for the business, I’ll know when it’s the right time for me. I’ve been harnessing intuition for most of my life. I became a lifelong student on manifesting and visualizing. That’s been the education that has served me the best in creating something like Spanx. It was the right time, I knew it. Plus, my baby is 21. It can legally drink now. It not only went to college but had moved back and was living at home with me. It was getting kind of weird. I was like, OK, I need my baby to go out into the world and experience the next chapter.”
On the Implications of Blackstone Sale for Other Female Founders
As Blakely notes, many still think of the business world as a man’s world, but she’s hoping the historic sale of her female-founded and run company will change some minds.
“I think we all have masculine and feminine energy inside of us. And the feminine energy on the planet has been so squashed for a really long time. In the business arena, it has been so masculine,” Blakely said. “Women have only recently been allowed to even play in this arena. I think what it means is this moment of showing that there is another way.”
When Blakely first started her company, she faced gender discrimination early on.
“Twenty-one years ago when I started Spanx, I ended up in the paper in Atlanta, and I was at a cocktail party and a couple of guys came up to me and they said, ‘Sara, we read about you. Congratulations! We heard you invented something.’ And I said, ‘Yes I did, I’m so excited.’ They said, ‘Business is war,’ and then they pat me on the shoulder and they kind of laughed at each other. I went back home to my apartment that night. I was 29 and I just thought, I’m not going to war. I’m going to do this very differently. I’m going to honor a lot of feminine principles — intuition, empathy, kindness. Just allowing myself to be vulnerable through this process. And of course, a lot of the masculine energy has helped me also — it was a balance. But I wasn’t going to do it by squashing the feminine.”
“I think people are now seeing women reach this milestone, and what’s cool about it is I think it’s inspiring women, but I also think it’s waking up the men in a way that is allowing them to get in touch with the feminine energy in them, which is part of their superpower,” Blakely continued. “It’s giving this permission in the workplace and in corporate America, that maybe it’s not a weakness. Maybe the feminine is actually a strength and needs to be harnessed and needs to have a voice at a table.”
On Her ‘Unusual’ Business Journey
Unlike many other founders of billion-dollar companies, Blakely did not rely on outside funding to scale.
“A big part of why I was able to do this is because I maintained ownership,” she said. “It’s really unusual for me to do this journey. I know now how unusual it is that I started with $5,000 and never took any outside funding. But I had this intuition from the very beginning that if I allowed other outside investors in, that I would possibly lose my voice, and how deeply that mattered to me. Maintaining control of the business was a big aspect of it. For me, it’s just been such an important part of the journey. I was willing to not grow as fast. I never was looking for growth just for the sake of growth. I always wanted to honor the consumer and what we were making and doing. And I wanted to protect how we were doing it.”
On Her Commitment To Advocating for Other Women
Blakely credits a part of Spanx’s success to getting the stamp of approval from Oprah Winfrey early on and said that now that she has the power to voice her support for other women, she does the same.
“I’ve used this entrepreneurial success to help shine a light on other women along the way, to fund other women along the way, to employ women, to put women in leadership positions,” Blakley said. “I think that’s going to start happening naturally more and more as more women get in these positions and have their own businesses.”
Blakely said that female founders, in general, tend to nurture other up-and-coming female founders.
“What I’ve noticed with females in business and entrepreneurship, there’s this real immediate pay it forward,” she said. “I had such gratitude that Oprah talked about Spanx when I had no money to advertise. I sat down with the team at Spanx after we were a couple of years old and said, ‘I don’t have a TV show, but what she did for me was super important in my business. How can we do this for someone else?’ We started putting other women’s products in our catalog that went out to millions of women. And just promoting them, the same way. Because exposure was such a big part for me. I had no money to advertise. And then ironically, Spanx never advertised for 16 years. We became a household name through the power of women telling other women and sharing about the product, which is amazing.”
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