Alternative Views: 5 Highlights from a Conversation with SPANX’s Sara Blakely
Each quarter, Blackstone convenes industry leaders to discuss the trends, challenges and opportunities they’re seeing in their sectors. The result: unique insights, gleaned from the scale and breadth of the world’s largest alternative asset manager. In 2021, Blackstone invested in SPANX, the mission-driven womenswear brand and category creator of women’s shapewear founded by Sara Blakely. Blakely recently joined Blackstone’s President Jon Gray to discuss her journey as an entrepreneur and her mission to elevate women everywhere.
“Blackstone is proud to back many innovative, female-founded and led companies over the last several years including Bumble, Hello Sunshine, Supergoop!, and of course SPANX, the mission-driven womenswear brand founded by Sara Blakely,” Gray said.
Here are five key takeaways from the conversation.
1. Entrepreneurship starts with the right mindset.
Sara Blakely started SPANX in 1998, after using her $5,000 in savings from selling fax machines door-to-door to develop her product. But Blakely started laying the foundation for the brand at just 16 years old, when her father gifted her a cassette tape by a motivational speaker. Blakely said the tape taught her how to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and visualize what she wanted in life—eventually motivating her to build SPANX.
“Mindset has been a huge part of my journey,” said Blakely. “I spent 16 years in school being taught what to think but no one taught me how to think. I became so hungry for how to think and how to think in a way that could propel my life forward… the mindset is why SPANX exists.”
2. Focus on your purpose.
Blakely started SPANX to fill a gap in women’s wardrobes and created a new category of shapewear in the process.
“Most inventions and great brands start with a frustrated consumer,” Blakely said. “I was dressing for a party in Atlanta and couldn’t figure out what to wear under white pants. So as a frustrated consumer I cut the feet out of control-top panty hose and put them on under my pants.”
SPANX’s success since then has been driven in large part by Blakely’s focus on the company’s mission: to elevate women. “Purpose is so important for a company that is grounded and has staying power and continues to grow,” Blakely said. “For me it really became a focus of advocating for women through product design. I felt that our perspective had been neglected, and the people that were making the products before were not the ones wearing them… SPANX has had that as its north star from the beginning.”
3. Build trust with your customer.
The connection SPANX has made with its customers has allowed the brand to expand from shapewear into apparel and other categories. Powerful brand loyalty is also enabling SPANX’s successful pivot from a wholesale-only distribution model to a robust direct-to-consumer platform. Blakely said going online has been a gamechanger in the U.S. market and she’s excited to expand SPANX’s online offerings globally.
“We went all-in on digital, and our consumer was so thrilled to find [SPANX] easily and everywhere. Our transition to digital has only magnified the opportunity to touch more women’s lives,” said Blakely. “I wanted to become the category leader and show that by caring the most, really magical things can happen. Now I just feel like the sky’s the limit for the brand. The consumer trusts us, she’s so excited and she knows we care about her.”
4. Value your team.
Blakely attributes the success of SPANX to more than her own drive and ingenuity. You have to hire for your weaknesses, she said, and everyone at the company has had a part in making SPANX the brand it is today. After Blackstone’s investment, Blakely gifted everyone at SPANX two first-class airline tickets to anywhere in the world and $10,000 to show her appreciation for her team.
“I was really trying to think about how I could honor the employees in this special moment in the company’s history. I thought about what I cherish most in my life, and it’s memories. So I thought, how can I give everyone a memory in this moment?” Blakely said. “SPANX got here not by me, but by the team, by all of us. Everybody’s thumbprint is on what we’ve done in some way,” said Blakely.
5. Use your intuition.
Blakely trusts her gut, she said. She was looking for a partner to help her build on what SPANX had already accomplished, rather than turn it into something it wasn’t, and after meeting the team her intuition told her Blackstone was the right partner. We aim to empower founders like Sara to realize their vision for their companies and help them reach their full potential.
“Organically I knew it was the right time for the company, the right time for me, the right time for the next chapter for this brand,” Blakely said. “It was really special to find a partner with unbelievable resources and the right value system—one that really understood our mission and didn’t want to change that but wanted to amplify it. I found that in Blackstone. People make all the difference and the people at Blackstone stood out to me.”