Power Players

This self-made billionaire failed the LSAT twice, then sold fax machines for 7 years before hitting big—here's how she got there

Spanx founder Sara Blakely.
Marla Aufmuth | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

In 2012, Spanx founder Sara Blakely was crowned by Forbes as the youngest self-made female billionaire. Today, at 48, she's worth a whopping $1.1 billion today, according to the publication's estimates.

I spent five years interviewing some of the world's most successful people for my book, "Getting There: A Book of Mentors," and had the honor of interviewing Blakely herself.

It was an inspiring conversation and she offered so many pearls of wisdom. But what I really wanted to know at the time was how she got to where she is today — a powerful female entrepreneur who started a multimillion-dollar shapewear company.

For as long as Blakely could remember, she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps and become a trial attorney. She debated in high school and continued to in college, where she also majored in legal communications.

Eventually, when the time came for Blakely to take the LSAT, she bombed it. Devastated yet determined, she signed up for an LSAT prep course, studied her "a-- off" (in her own words), took the test again...and then did one point worse.

Working at 'The Happiest Place on Earth'

"In my mind, the universe was now telling me to drive to Disney World and audition for the role of Goofy," Blakely said. "That's literally how I responded to my defeat. But [Disney World] only auditioned people for the character roles every once in a while, so in the meantime I got a job at Epcot." 

How Sweetgreen became the Starbucks of salads with a valuation over $1 billion
How Sweetgreen became the Starbucks of salads with a valuation over $1 billion

When she finally tried out to be Goofy, Blakely was told she was "too short to wear the costume." They made her a chipmunk instead, which she actually didn't end up doing.

"The way Disney worked was that you had to stay where you were initially employed for a period of time before you were allowed to transfer positions," she explained.And so, Blakely continued to wear her brown polyester spacesuit and put people on Epcot rides.

Eventually, she got tired of working at Disney World and returned home to live with her mother.

Seven years of fax machines

Still without much direction, Blakely got a job at a local company selling fax machines door-to-door. "It was the kind of place that would hire anyone with a pulse," she said. "On my first day, they handed me a phone book and said, 'Here are your four zip codes. Now get out there and sell.' There was no list of accounts that were likely to buy from me. I had to 100 percent drum up my own leads."

Blakely would wake up early and drive around cold-calling from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. "Most doors were slammed in my face. I saw my business card ripped up at least once a week, and I even had a few police escorts out of buildings," she recalls.

Sara Blakely (Photo: Gillian Zoe Segal)

Blakely never gave into drowning in the misery of her job, and it wasn't long before she grew immune to the word "no." At times, she even found her situation amusing.

"During my fax-selling stint, I would spend much of my free time trying to figure out what I really wanted out of life and what my strengths were," she recalled. "I knew I was good at selling and that I eventually wanted to be self-employed. I thought, Instead of fax machines, I'd love to sell something that I created and actually care about."

Thanks to Spanx

One day, something fortuitous happened to Blakely.

"In the hopes of looking better in my fitted white pants, I cut the feet out of a pair of pantyhose and substituted them for my underwear," she said. "This allowed me to benefit from the slimming effects of the pantyhose's 'control top' while allowing my feet to go bare in my cute sandals. The moment I saw how good my butt looked, I was like, 'Thank you, God, this is my opportunity!'"

And with that, came the birth of Spanx, a unique type of body shapewear: Thin, comfortable and invisible under clothes. Little did she know it would end up becoming a multimillion-dollar company.

I knew I was good at selling and that I eventually wanted to be self-employed.
Sara Blakely

Blakely credits much of her success to her father, who encouraged his kids to fail.

"We'd sit around the dinner table and he'd ask, 'What did you guys fail at this week?' If we had nothing to tell him, he'd be disappointed," she said. "He knew that many people become paralyzed by the fear of failure. My father wanted us to try everything and feel free to push the envelope. His attitude taught me to define failure as not trying something I want to do instead of not achieving the right outcome."

Behind every incident of failure is an opportunity or lesson — or, as Blakely puts it, "a chance to build your character." Spanx wouldn't have existed if she didn't fail the LSAT.

"Everybody has a multimillion-dollar idea inside them," says Blakely. "Edison said, 'Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.' The same holds true for innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship."

Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of "Getting There: A Book of Mentors" and "New York Characters." She received a B.A. from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Linkedin.

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