I was lucky enough to recently come upon a great documentary online called “Makers: Women in Business.” (It also aired on PBS on Oct. 28.) The six-part Makers documentary series, a joint project between PBS, AOL and filmmaker Dyllan McGee, is about the women’s movement and female pioneers. The Women in Business installment offered insights about women’s careers from executives such as PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman, and Martha Stewart.
It also featured commentary from two retail trailblazers: Spanx founder and owner Sara Blakely, and Rent the Runway Co-Founder and CEO Jennifer Hyman. In part one of this multipart series, I’ll detail Blakely’s rise to the top. In part two, running in next week’s Inner Circle, I’ll focus on Hyman’s story.
Sara Blakely, Founder of Spanx
In 2012, Blakely became the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire, succeeding through sheer perseverance and an innate understanding of the marketplace, according to the documentary.
“The inspiration for Spanx actually all started with my own rear end,” Blakely said. “I couldn’t figure out what to wear under white pants. I cut the feet of control top pantyhose … it toned and firmed and got rid of all lines, and gave a smooth canvas under my clothes. I knew, in that moment, that I was on to something.”
Blakely’s entrepreneurial triumph wasn’t pre-ordained; far from it, the documentary said. Even though Blakely had no background in retail or fashion, that didn’t deter her. She studied hosiery patents, researched and tested dozens of fabrics, and even cold-called manufacturing plants she found in the Yellow Pages.
“I got in my car, drove to North Carolina, pulled into manufacturing plants, walked right through the door and asked for the owner,” Blakely said. “And they all asked me the same three questions: ‘And you are?,’ and I would say ‘Sara Blakely.’ ‘Who are you with?,’ and I would say ‘Sara Blakely.’ And lastly, ‘Who are you financially backed by?,’ and I would say ‘Sara Blakely.’ Then they would ask, ‘Do you have an appointment? It’s very nice to meet to you, Sara Blakely, but we’re busy.’”
The frequent rejections didn’t deter Blakely from her mission, however. If anything, it helped make her resolve even stronger.
“I had the confidence to go for it,” she said. “And that fueled me.”
In 2000, Blakely got an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, who featured Spanx on her “Favorite Things” show that year. This proved to be a watershed moment for Sara and the company.
“I [knew] this was a home run for an entrepreneur,” Blakely said.
As for persevering, Blakely said you really can’t be afraid of the word no.
“When you’re inventing something, when you’re really changing the game, you’re going to hear the word no,” she said. “You’re doing something different than anyone else has thought about before, and it’s foreign to them and it’s scary.”