Sara Blakely's Poetic Gift of $5 Million
I’ve been so moved by the acts of kindness around the world, so I wanted to do my part.
–– Sara Blakely, CEO, Spanx
By John Millen
That’s what Sara Blakely said in announcing she would donate $5,000 to 1,000 female entrepreneurs –– a total of $5 million, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is not only a generous donation but is also a poetic symbol of Blakely’s own origin story.
As she said in a video on Instagram:
$5,000 is what I started Spanx with 20 years ago so my hope is that by giving them this money it will help them and their families, and their employees. They took a bet on themselves, these women, and during this time, I want to bet on them.
I love what she’s done here not only as a role model for women and girls but for other CEO’s and senior leaders –– she’s connecting with and extending her own hero’s journey.
I am always trying to help leaders find and share their own stories, their truth – their authentic selves.
It’s not an easy path. It takes determination and courage to push past the fear of being so real, of sharing your true self, but those few willing to do so become truly great leaders.
Understanding and sharing their true nature gives them a deep sense of confidence.
Spanx CEO Sara Blakely
Blakely’s tale is a classic. She grew up wanting to be a lawyer like her father but was unable to obtain a high score on the LSAT. After trying her hand at stand-up comedy, she sold fax machines door-to-door before starting her company, Spanx.
If you are not familiar with Spanx, the company says it sells “the largest selection of slimming intimates, body shapers, hosiery, apparel, and the latest innovations in shapewear for men and women.”
Blakely’s Spanx story
The origin story of Spanx is that Blakely was going to a party and didn’t want panty lines to show through her white pants, so she cut the feet off pantyhose and later patented the idea.
While she possessed little knowledge about fashion or retail, in 2000 Blakely, at age twenty-seven, began her shapewear and legging company, investing her life savings of $5,000.
One of Blakely’s biggest lessons is to embrace failure, a lesson she learned as a child. In an interview with Entrepreneur, she talked about how her father helped shift her mindset:
My dad encouraged us to fail. Growing up, he would ask us what we failed at that week. If we didn't have something he would be disappointed. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying. Don't be afraid to fail.
Her previous experience as a saleswoman came in handy when she was growing Spanx. “When I cold-called to sell fax machines door-to-door,” she said, “I learned very quickly that if I could make somebody to laugh or smile, I’d get another thirty seconds before they’d slam the door in my face.”
Sara spent two years trying to convince manufacturers to take a chance on her before a mill owner in North Carolina agreed to help her. He had been convinced by his daughters to take on this invention, which they told him would be a “goldmine.”
“I must have heard the word ‘no’ a thousand times,” she said. “If you believe in your idea 100 percent, don’t let anyone stop you! Not being afraid to fail is a key part of the success of Spanx.”
Blakely didn’t let the word “no” deter her from pursuing her vision. She continued to push forward until she heard “yes.”
Blakely was America’s youngest self-made female billionaire, according to a 2014 Forbes profile, which estimated her privately held company earned "over $250 million in annual revenues and net profit margins estimated at 20 percent.”
In 2013, Blakely became the first female billionaire to join The Giving Pledge, the campaign founded by Melinda and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, which has the mega-wealthy pledge to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
Today, this mother of four young children continues to be an advocate for women through her Sara Blakely Foundation, which supports women in education and entrepreneurship.
Which brings us to her $5,000 gift to 1,000 women who own small businesses. Sara Blakely’s story comes full circle.
What’s your origin story? How do you tell your story to yourself and others?
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