August 24th, 2013
10:53 PM ET

Sara Blakely, Spanx and the American Dream

Watch the full interview on "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

If you think the American dream is dead, just meet Sara Blakely. She’s never taken a business class in her life, or even worked in her industry. But she’s no accidental entrepreneur. The tenacious Sara Blakely took $5,000 in savings and transformed it into a $500 million dollar-a-year company called Spanx…and she revolutionized women’s undergarments in the process.

In 2012, Forbes named the Spanx founder and inventor the world’s youngest, self-made female billionaire. With Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement, 20,000 pairs of Spanx were sold in less than a day. Spanx can now be found in over 50 countries worldwide, but Blakely’s story is quintessentially American.

She owns 100 percent of her company, has no outside investors, and has never spent a penny on advertising. As with many inventions, it all began as a solution to a nagging problem. Listen in on my recent conversation with Sara Blakely:

Sara Blakely, great to have you on.

Thank you for having me.

So explain where you get the idea to make this new kind of underwear.

Well, my inspiration for Spanx was actually my own butt. So I don't know if this has ever happened to you, Fareed, but I could not figure out what to wear under my white pants.  And like so many consumers out there, we have these clothes that we can't figure out what to wear under them.

And so the panties show the panty line and the shapers were too thick and bulky. So by cutting the feet out of my control top pantyhose, I realized, you know what, this hosiery material that's second to skin would make really good undergarments and shapers meant to be hidden under the clothes that smooth us out and get rid of the panty line.  And Spanx sort of filled this niche between two options of undergarments, that neither one were quite right for women, and revolutionized the way that we got to wear our clothes.

But so you had these white pants. How did you actually come to this conclusion? What did you do that made it work?

Well, I went shopping for shapers.  And the thong and the panty didn't work, because you could see the lines.  And the shapers were thick.

So I cut the feet out of my own control top pantyhose and put them on under the pants.  And everything looked smooth and really perfect and no line, but they rolled up my legs all night.

And so I went home that night and thought, you know, I have to find out a way to comfortably keep this product just below the knee. So with a soft-knitted band…I'll have something for not only myself, but for many, many women.

And so what's going on in your life at this point? Where are you?

How rock bottom was I? At that point in my life, I had always wanted to be a lawyer and had failed the LSAT. I'm not a good test taker.

So then that led me to try out to be Goofy at Disneyworld, but you have to be 5'8" and I'm only 5'6." So I worked at Disneyworld for three months. And then I sold fax machines door-to-door for seven years. And that's what was going on in my life.

I had never taken a business class. I had never worked in fashion or retail. But I knew that I wanted to be self-employed. I had really been visualizing that. I had been manifesting that.  I was very clear with my intentions but I wanted an idea. And if the universe gave me the idea, I would take it and run with it and create it on my own and sell it, because I knew I could sell fax machines. I didn't really like fax machines or, half the time, understand them.

But if I could come up with that idea that I was excited about, then I would not waste it.

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Topics: GPS Show

soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. Jesus jaimes

    Wow! So inspirational. I have been debating about what to do in my future and your message was felt like if it was meant to answer my questions. I am glad I turn the channel to CNN at that very moment of your interview. Thank you for sharing.

    August 25, 2013 at 7:49 am | Reply
  2. Isabel

    European Dream. If you don't believe, come to Europe. We are far richer, have better quality products, many more corporations, better education system, are wealthier. American Dream: a wooden build house, a Cadillac Escalade, ... but no Dream House, a Ferrari like the rich have in Turkey.

    August 25, 2013 at 8:33 am | Reply
    • Jay Rich

      Jealousy is never attractive.

      August 25, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  3. Lise

    Dear Sarah I think you are so great all my life I wanted to invente things but was always discouraged and when I watch you on C N N I thought w3ow way to go girl.
    I really would love to talk to you about my invention and maybe you could do something with it one company in Toronto was interested but I just cant travel I have a bad back so hope we can talk
    Take care and good luck

    August 25, 2013 at 10:41 am | Reply
  4. George patton

    Maybe this broad Sara Blakely should go to Detroit, MI and tell the people there about her "American" dream. I'm sure that this will make the people there feel much better. In the meantime, the people will continue to suffer high unemployment, a high crime rate and drug trafficking while the police, firemen and city workers continue to face layoffs as the city's budget shrinks! Maybe the Canadians should come in with their own Marshall Plan for that city but why should they? Then again, maybe Sara Blakely should run for Mayor of Detroit herself. It may be a good idea if she's right about what she says!!!

    August 25, 2013 at 11:19 am | Reply
    • Quinton

      Why is it George, that of all the people who posted here, you're the only one who said anything? This proves just how many ignorant people there are out there! No wonder the Tea Party Movement is doing so well!

      August 27, 2013 at 7:43 am | Reply
  5. Shane Duarte

    Wow, 20 minutes on a success story in the field of women's undergarments. Fascinating, just fascinating. Great job, Fareed.

    August 25, 2013 at 11:40 am | Reply
  6. Angela Johnson

    Sara is my new hero. I've been in the fashion world for almost 20 years, have owned two fashion companies, I'm a fashion design instructor teaching design and business classes, and I'm a serial Entrepreneur so I was blown away by her story. I especially appreciate the part where she talks about how her ignorance about the industry was what helped get her in Neiman's because I am one of those in the industry always following protocol (going to trade shows, trying to find the right sales reps in the marts, etc...) and approaching sales and manufacturing in traditional ways. I have a degree in fashion design, but had no business training so I have had to learn by trial and error on my own dime like Sara did when she patented her own product and handled her own marketing. Sara....congratulations on what you've accomplished. I can't wait to show your interview to my Fashion Entrepreneurship students.

    August 25, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  7. Simon

    Is the full interview available somewhere on the internet? I watched it live and would like to show it to my sister

    August 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Reply
    • emmyfoval

      I would also like to know if the FULL INTERVIEW IS AVAILABLE....people are talking about it but I missed it when it was on live but would like to see it.

      August 26, 2013 at 11:57 am | Reply
  8. Joe S

    First... in my opinion, GPS is normally one of the most insightful, balanced news shows on the tube..... BUT

    This segment seemed oddly inconsistent with much of your prior excellent work.

    Clearly, there are hour upon hour available elsewhere on fashion and women's garments ... please don't lose your focus
    on what is happening on the world stage, versus what, in the final analysis, is closely akin to fluff.

    August 25, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  9. Lyn Pestana MD

    Sara put on panty hose, cut the legs half way and thought about a better way to cover her "BUT"! She patented the idea
    by reading a book and writing a proposal, hired a lawyer to write it. Searched for a manufacturer, wrote letters and visited some companies to produce it. Did she EARN one billion dollars? What about the inventors of lycra and nylon, the engineers who designed the machines to produce it, the seamstresses who sewed them, the truckers who delivered them, the sales people who stand 8 hours a day to sell them? What about a neurosurgeon who trains for 17 years after college to learn their craft, get up night after night to save peoples brains. What about the farmers who grow our food,
    the agricultural workers who break their backs in the hot sun picking our food, the construction workers who build our homes, our roads and bridges, the ballet dancer, the great poet, the writer, the teachers, the food inspectors? How do we value these people – how much are they paid. The people who allow us to survive. How about the scientist looking for a cure for obesity and cancer, aids vaccine, cheap clean energy, an end to violence. What is their motivation, their passion?
    When we place value on triviality not reflecting really hard work and contributions to humanity we become corrupt. If you think of the truly great inventions in history you will see people whose passion was not to make a quick buck but to serve humanity – Jonas Salk, Beethoven, Michealangelo, Benjamin Franklin , etc. We will create a generation of kids
    dreaming to invent the next Snuggies, Sham Wow..........I know many people will be angry with my comment because they are also "dreaming" about becoming the next overnight billionaire. Wake up America? What are our real values?
    PS I wonder what PAC Sara will contribute to?

    August 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • Diane Edwards

      I agree with you on who should be role models for the youth of our country. You are most assuredly correct about the pay disparity, however That is what comes of a free economic society. Equality across the board would equal communism/ socialism and I for one prefer our democratic society. I am happy for this woman and her success. It's not like she graduated high school and started making grandiose sums of money like the professional athletes in this country.

      August 26, 2013 at 2:27 am | Reply
    • Emma

      I don't think it's fair to compare her rewards with neurosurgeon's awards. A neurosurgeon will make very good money as long he/she is active. If Blakely had failed, she'd working at McDonalds. There are millions of people who had an idea and failed. From stable income's perspective, it's better to have good education in a field that's in demand and not gamble that an idea may work. BTW, quite a few doctors build medicine-related businesses with little risk and become very wealthy.

      August 26, 2013 at 10:31 am | Reply
  10. Brandon

    Lyn Pestana MD – I've spent the last 20 minutes reading about Spanx and viewing images on Google to try and figure out what they are – to no avail. However, after making Billions I'm assuming this product fills some need; you'll have to ask a woman, I guess.

    August 25, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Reply
    • Diane Edwards

      They reduce the the appearance of bumps, bulges, and creases that would be visible through fitted clothing. Since since a lot of women have some excess fat around the hip area the elastic from underwear pulls in and you have "panty lines". This undergarment has no elastic concentrated in one area as to cause these unsightly bulges.

      August 26, 2013 at 2:34 am | Reply
  11. impressed

    that was one of the best interviews Ive seen today, sarah in a long time.
    im a guy and I was truly inspired by your story.....NOW TURN IT INTO A BOOK PLZ so I can buy it ;)

    August 25, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  12. Pete & Candace

    Great interview! So fun and inspiring to see an 'alternative' type learner hit the jackpot with a great idea and perserverence!
    And hearing her later comment about her dad encouraging 'failure' (and, of course, overcoming it) was priceless!

    August 25, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      How will any of this help the city of Detroit, MI and it's 700,00 inhabitants? Has this broad Sara Blakely any suggestions here? Or are you two just another couple of mindless Tea Partiers with nothing of any value to say? All I see here is a bunch of frivolous bogs praising this Sara Blakely. Has she ever experienced true poverty herself? I doubt it!

      August 25, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  13. Jay Rich

    Overlooked is Sara's comment that "the universe gave her the idea". I did not see the interview but it is interesting that Sara has thought about the blessings that came her way, and against the background of her steadfastness and good upbringing, attributes her brainstorm to a divine source. She either was or is now a spiritual person who trusted her intuition(sometimes referred to as your gut or inner voice) and followed it successfully. From what I can tell she allowed her heart and intuition to overrule her mind and persevere. Sara's spirituality is a lesson in and of itself.

    August 25, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Reply
  14. Paul Gibbs

    The second half of the interview was more powerful than the first half – where can I see it online please?

    August 26, 2013 at 9:06 am | Reply
  15. jeff

    A great story on so many levels. The woman was persistent after some crapola jobs and pursued an idea that actually results in a product that must be made and for which there is demand. It's not shuffling money or byproducts of money around and gambling with it with the end result profits made from nothing and sometimes causing financial ruin for society. I'm talking about banks. I assume Sara hires people for her business who get paid, which is good for them and society in general. Anyone who can't recognize all the benefits for her enterprise is a simpleton and/or plain jealous. I for one admire the young lady and hope she becomes a gazillionaire. Lastly, she serves as a model for all people with an idea and the guts to pursue it, especially young women. Awesome.

    August 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  16. Eddie Fonseca

    Sarah Blakely repersents a hard working young woman, in America this is what the American Dream is all about hard work and the spirt of Capitalism which America is all about, also results in creating a great product which people are willing to pay and buy for. We should have more young women like Sarah Blakely who be a role model to all women in America, and they can learn to inspire to become our next CEO's in corporate America.

    August 26, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  17. j. von hettlingen

    Sara Blakely's Spanx are no doubt excellent shapers and make many women's day. I wonder if it's healthy for the skin, if somebody wears such a slip whole day long, every day?

    August 27, 2013 at 6:38 am | Reply
  18. Ken Blackwell

    The second half of the interview was far richer and gave greater depth to the first half. There are many young people including my 17 year old daughter whom I'd love to share this with – is there any way to get access to the entire interview?

    August 27, 2013 at 10:56 am | Reply
    • Larry Clemens

      I totally agree with you. I was very disappointed when I showed the interview to my child and it didn't have the story about her father encouraging them to fail and how she thinks its fear of failure that keeps most people from succeeding.

      August 31, 2013 at 11:39 am | Reply
  19. MJ Layton

    Ms Blakely, you mentioned 2 websites on your broadcast. I know that one was but did not catch the other one. I work in the food service industry and myself and 2 coworkers have an idea and I have looked it up on and have not found it. I would like to possibly register the idea and then start working on drawings and finding someone to do a prototype.

    August 28, 2013 at 11:27 am | Reply
  20. Keith Penhall

    Great first segment... but the second segment was even more informative... are you going to post that one as well? I've linked it to my FB page for all 5 of my classes this term... would love my students to see/hear the development process from idea, to prototype, to manufacture, to success! Thanks for a great interview!

    August 28, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  21. Sandra M

    Ms. Blakely is deserving of her success; she's hard-working, persistent, smart, and likeable. Yet, that can be said of many people who have a great idea and the same personal qualities, but don't get a break. Some of them told Ms. Blakely that they'd gone through the proper channels,. i.e. trade shows etc., without her success. Could it be that the difference is lookism? What if Ms. Blakely wasn't attractive or had a visible disability? The part lookism plays in this so-called merit-based society should be discussed.

    September 3, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  22. Alex DeNoble

    I agree with Keith Penhall. I am a professor as well and I started showing the interview to my students when it unexpectedly shut off at 3:17. The real educational piece comes after this point. Why can't you post the whole interview? Students from Entrepreneurship classes can really learn from her experiences and story as described later in this interview.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:16 am | Reply
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    November 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply
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