A product promising to help people look thin has given its inventor a big fat wallet. Thanks to her ingenious idea to combine insecurity, enormous underpants, and elastic sausage casings, Sara Blakely, the forty-one-year-old inventor of Spanx, is now the world's youngest female self-made billionaire.
Forbes magazine's annual billionaire issue features Blakely on the cover and an interview with the entrepreneur inside. According to the publication, the fact that she made her money without the help of a husband or an inheritance puts her in an elite group of dizzyingly rich ladies that includes Oprah Winfrey and Meg Whitman.
But Blakely's life wasn't always legless panty hose and dollar signs; after graduating from Florida State University in 1993, her early post collegiate career was characterized by heartbreak and ennui. Her first big adult disappointment came at the cruel white gloved hands of Mickey Mouse himself, as her dreams to play Goofy at Walt Disney World were dashed when she was told that, at 5'6", she was two inches too short. From there, she went on to work for a company that sounds a lot like Dunder Mifflin of The Office fame, cold calling Clearwater, Florida area businesses and attempting to sell them fax machines. She worked there for seven years.
During her tenure as a fax flinger, she had an idea that would end up making her a very, very wealthy woman — the stretchy, shaping thighs and legs of nylons, but without the attached stockings. She didn't tell anyone about her billion dollar idea for a year after it first occurred to her because she didn't want to be pooh-poohed out of it by naysayers, and when she approached a patent attorney, he asked her if he was on Candid Camera. It took her two years to convince a factory to manufacture a run of her shapewear. But Blakely was undaunted. Now, for better or worse, the retooled girdle of the twenty-first century is now available in 35 countries and in 200 varieties.
Blakely says that she hopes young female entrepreneurs with a big idea and a whole lot of pluck refuse to be intimidated by what they don't know. Not knowing how things work, she reasons, can lead people to do things differently. And that can pay off.
At the very least, it can make millions of people look suspiciously unlumpy in form-fitting clothing.