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 (55 Responses)
  1. 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.

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