How Billionaire Spanx Founder Sara Blakely Achieved Success With These Four Underrated Traits

Spanx founder Sara Blakely with Mika Brzezinski, Co-host, Morning Joe, MSNBC at Fortune’s “The Most Powerful Women” event, October 2013 in Washington D.C. Image by Stuart Isett.

By Jennifer O’Callaghan

In 2000, Sara Blakely was invited to a cocktail party. Shortly after her arrival, two salesmen recognized her from across the room as the face of Spanx, her shapewear brand which had recently made big waves in the undergarment world.

“Sara,” said the first man, as they tentatively approached, “We’ve read about you in the paper, and we see that you’ve invented something. Congratulations!” The second man looked at her meaningfully. ”You know, Sara, business is war,” he cautioned. “I hope you’re ready.” He patted her on the shoulder as the two men laughed in agreement. With that, they walked off, leaving her stunned.

“I looked at them and thought, ‘What do you mean?’ Blakely said as she recounted the incident on Masterclass. She left early that night and went home for some deep reflection. “I sat on the floor and I thought, “I don’t want to go to war,” she said. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Blakely resolved that she’d find that way without compromising her femininity or who she was in the process. Even in the humble beginnings of the Spanx empire, she’d always danced to her own beat, whether that was showing up at countless department stores to personally meet customers or designing the cherry red cartoon packaging. Blakely followed her sixth sense, regardless of how it appeared to others. This strategy earned her a spot on Oprah, which eventually made Spanx a household name. By her thirties, Blakely was named one of Time magazine’s one hundred most influential people in the world, and this past month, she was recognized by Forbes as one of America’s Richest Self-Made Women.

In recent years, thanks to the influence of strong-minded women like Blakely, society has gravitated towards a new type of leadership, where everyone – women and men – have permission to honor the feminine as a necessary career tool. Traditionally, the business world has been viewed solely through masculine eyes. Traits like logic and dominance have been celebrated in closing the deal or nabbing that corner office. Meanwhile, equally important feminine principles like vulnerability and intuition haven’t received much attention. 

But thankfully, these days the tide seems to be turning. Notable organizations are finally following Spanx’s lead and placing a higher value on traits like resilience and collaboration. Here are the four underrated key traits Blakely has always leaned on while navigating the turbulent world of business.

1. Empathy

Looking back at the unsolicited advice she received at that party, Blakely told Masterclass, “I literally made the decision at that moment that I’m going to go about it in a very different way and I have honored very feminine principles throughout my journey.” That included putting herself in the place of female consumers to understand their needs and traveling to stores across America to make human connections. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m one of you. Here’s what it does for me. This is why it works,” she said, “I even used my own butt in the “before and after” picture. And I felt like customers really connected.”

2. Vulnerability

Clearly, Blakely is someone who constantly puts herself out there. She pioneered the movement for a new type of business leader by wearing her heart on her sleeve and loading her tool kit with honesty. “I will do things highly embarrassing or seek out things I know I’m not that good at and do them,” Blakely told Inc. CEO Scott Omelianuk. “If all of a sudden becoming embarrassed becomes the goal, the fear of what others think of me is not so gripping. If you make a mistake, what’s the worst that will happen? I chose vulnerability in my path from the very start.”

3. Intuition

In 2021, Blakely came to a crossroads when she had to decide on external funding after holding Spanx independently for twenty-one years. When the opportunity to partner with Blackstone came up, she allowed her inner voice to do the talking. “I have run this business, I’ve run my life, very, very connected to intuition, which we all have. It’s an inner knowing,” she told Moira Forbes. “I just always said, ‘I’ll just know, I’ll know when it’s the right time for the business.” Blakely’s inner sense helped guide her through a pivotal choice and provided the clarity she needed to recognize Blackstone as the right partner for Spanx.

4. Kindness

As a leader, Blakely practices kindness, not just in the business world, but with her employees as well. In October 2021, in celebration of the Blackstone deal, it was announced by major news outlets that she’d surprised Spanx employees with a first-class trip to their dream destinations. She also threw in an extra ten thousand dollars for their trip expenses. Additionally, in response to the pandemic, she also donated five thousand dollars to one thousand female entrepreneurs. “Five thousand dollars is what I started Spanx with twenty years ago, so my hope is that giving them this money will help them and their families,” she explained. “They took a bet on themselves, these women, and during this time, I want to bet on them.”

Today, Blakely is relieved that she stuck to her guns and wasn’t influenced by the static noise around her. In helping change the future of how business is done, she’s proven that if you work with an open, authentic heart, there’s plenty of success to go around. “I love the idea of CEOs showing vulnerabilities and the ups and downs,” she told Stanford Business. “I don’t feel I need to put on a facade to be taken seriously as a leader.”

Thanks to the impact of trailblazers like Blakely, women and men are finally beginning to see the future of business through balanced eyes.  Her example shows that the masculine way is not the only path to success in business or any career. With more females than ever who are comfortable running businesses their own way, there’s hope that the double standard glass ceiling will shatter soon enough.

Spanx Founder Sara Blakely. Taken in 2012 by David Shankbone

Jennifer O’Callaghan is a Toronto-based journalist and entrepreneur. She has a background in broadcasting and theatre. She also loves to write about creativity and self empowerment. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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