Sara Blakely’s Irritation of Rolled-up Pantyhose Led Her to Become One of the Youngest Female Billionaires

Sara Blakely is an entrepreneur and founder of Spanx. Like other women, Sara struggled with finding the right shapewear. After several tries with traditional shapewear, she decided to cut off her pantyhose’s feet to substitute for an undergarment beneath a pair of white pants. She noticed there were no panty lines, but her self-made undergarment kept rolling up her legs all night. At this moment, Sara knew that she had to solve this issue for other women. 

I admire Sara Blakely for not settling for rolled-up pantyhose. She discovered a way to relieve women from an irritating issue with her invention. In my Ted Talk, Patenting Solutions to Life’s Little Annoyances, I discuss how an annoying email pushed me to take the risk of quitting my job and start my own law firm to work with inventors.

Life’s irritation has a way of turning a frustration into a success story. In the ocean, oysters make pearls in response to the irritation of sand on their flesh. Sara turned an irritation of rolled-up pantyhose into a pearl. Because she found a solution to an annoyance, Forbes deemed her the youngest female billionaire in 2012. In the same year, Blakely made Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

While on a mission to save women with her innovative shapewear, Blakely worked as a door-to-door fax machine salesperson in Atlanta for seven years. As someone with no experience in creating shapewear, Sara faced obstacles in finding hosiery mills to design her undergarment. After an internet search, she discovered that North Carolina contains the nation’s majority of hosiery mills. Cold calling these mills proved to be a challenge, often faced with people hanging up on her. In some instances, Blakely could not even reach the right person to aid in her endeavors. 

What do all great inventors and entrepreneurs do when they realize that one particular route is not working in their favor? They shift their focus on other methods that will allow them to execute their idea. Believing strongly in her product, Sara made the decision to file for a patent.

While drafting her patent, Blakely made another attempt to reach out to hosiery mills. Determined to receive an answer, she took a week off of work to drive from Georgia to North Carolina to meet someone in person. What seemed like a failed trip resulted in a hosiery mill calling Blakely when she reached her home. Finally, a hosiery mill answered. 

In the prototyping stage, Sara learned that men utilized mannequins when designing their shapewear. No wonder traditional shapewear was uncomfortable for women. Before Spanx, designers did not take into consideration the varying sizes, shapes, and curvatures of women.

Like the oyster that faced the irritating feeling of sand in its flesh, Sara had to deal with plenty of sand in her journey to success. However, she was willing to find solutions and fully fund her idea. 

To pay it forward, Sara gives back to the community through the establishment of her nonprofit organization, The Red Backpack Fund. During the pandemic, 1,000 grants valuing at $5,000 were provided to women entrepreneurs in the U.S. In addition to providing monetary aid, Sara provides educational opportunities to women with a free annual pass to access her Master Class. An online platform that allows entrepreneurs to take classes on a wide variety of subjects. 

Today, more women are becoming entrepreneurs, breaking into male-dominated industries, like engineering. According to a study conducted by American Express, there were about 13 million U.S. women-owned businesses in 2019 alone.

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