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Mohamed A. El-Erian

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Spanx Billionaire Founder Redefines Failure and Inspires Others

Posted: 08/25/2013 9:49 pm

If you haven't already done so, I would strongly suggest that you become familiar with the story of Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. Not because she is said to be the youngest self-made female billionaire ever, and not because of an amazing business success that runs counter to conventional wisdom about business training and experience; but because she seems to epitomize the combined power of hard work, persistence, innovation and humility.

I have heard Blakely's story several times, including Sunday on CNN's GPS show with Fareed Zakaria. Every time, I come away with insights that I am eager to share, especially with my 10-year-old daughter.

Blakely's initial claim to fame and fortune is a product that, in her description, makes women's figures look better. The idea came to her as she prepared for an evening out. Frustrated by how she looked in white pants, she took scissors to traditional panty hoses and created what has evolved into a popular range of "body shapers."

Today Spanx offers a rapidly-growing product offering that benefits from increasing adoption (including abroad). It is opening stand-alone stores (five at last count). It is even extending the concept of body shapers to men's undergarments. In the process, Blakely believes -- and others confirm -- those who use Spanx can end up feeling better about themselves.

The journey from initial concept to today's unlikely reality was a long and difficult one.

Blakely faced many obstacles. She confronted a daunting string of early rejections and skepticism that would have probably derailed many (if not most) others. She had very little money to support her entrepreneurship. She also lacked any formal business training. Yet she managed to overcome all this, and shares with us wonderful stories here on how.

So, what made her persevere and prevail in the face of such overwhelming odds?

Having heard her interviewed several times, it comes down to more than steadfast conviction in a brilliant new idea, personal dedication to entrepreneurship, and a desire to make a difference.

Yes, they are all "necessary" conditions; but I doubt they would have also proved "sufficient" given all the headwinds that Blakely faced. Understanding the difference provides important insights for those committed to improving their parenting skills and our education system; and especially so in a world that is yet to overcome harmful conscious and unconscious biases - regarding gender, race, religion, sexual orientation etc. -- that are detrimental to empowering, enabling and enhancing human talent.

Through her upbringing and early employment, Blakely evolved her definition of failure from the traditional construct into a more inspiring and constructive one: Rather than interpret failure as the lack of success, she deemed it to be the lack of trying.

This simple and subtle change was the result of a father who encouraged Blakely and her brother to always extend their thinking, activities and aspirations (he would regularly ask his kids at the dinner table about their failures, commending them for trying); and of a job that exposed Blakely to many rejections (that of selling fax machines door-to-door).

One last point. While I have heard Blakely story several times, I do not know her personally. Yet, having come across other very successful entrepreneurs, I cannot but admire the humbleness that comes across whenever she recounts her story -- all of which makes her success even more inspiring for the rest of us.

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