The story of SPANX inventor Sarah Blakely’s success demonstrates how passion and invention can power a successful career change.
Sara Treleaven Blakely had an unusual career trajectory. From a three-month stint in Florida’s Walt Disney World to door-to-door office supplies saleswoman to one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in the United States.
Sara’s career change was rooted in a dissatisfaction with the hosiery products available and a little bit of DIY experimentation.
The SPANX founder was getting ready for a party when she realized she needed something that would provide a smooth look under her white trousers.
She took matters – and scissors – into her own hands and cut the feet off her control-top pantyhose.
Although the pantyhose rode up her legs, it had the desired result.
While still working at the office supplies company, Danka, in Atlanta, Sara invested $5,000 in developing the idea.
After two years development, she pitched SPANX to some American hosiery mills in North Carolina. Not one of the male representatives to whom she pitched saw value in her idea.
However, two weeks later, Sara received a call from a mill operator in Asheboro, North Carolina, whose daughters had persuaded him to think again about the concept.
The experience underlined to Sara how the industry had been dominated by men who did not use the products they were manufacturing.
With a patent and trademark secured, Sara approached the Neiman Marcus Group, who agreed to take SPANX in seven of their stores.
It was the start of her successful career change. Bloomingdales, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman followed suit.
Then, in November 2000, Oprah Winfrey named the new SPANX hosiery as a “favorite thing” and sales really took off.
In the first year of trading, SPANX achieved $4m sales; rising to $10m in the second year. In 2005, Sara featured in the TV series Rebel Billionaire with Richard Branson. She has since stated: “I was terrified to jump like I did. But I learned that if you aim high, you can achieve more than you ever knew you could.”
Today, the SPANX founder is a billionaire businesswoman and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012.
She remains a strong advocate of women’s rights; setting up the Sara Blakely Foundation in 2006, to help women with education and entrepreneurial coaching.
In 2013, she joined other billionaires in committing to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s pledge. She agreed to donate at least half of her wealth to charity. She states:
“I have so much gratitude for being a woman in America. I never lose sight that I was born in the right country, at the right time. And, I never lose sight of the fact that there are millions of women around the world who are not dealt the same deck of cards upon their birth. Simply because of their gender, they are not given the same chance I had to create my own success and follow my dreams. It is for those women that I make this pledge.”