On Sunday morning, I had the pleasure of listening to a great interview conducted by Fareed Zakaria, the host of GPS (Global Public Square) on CNN. Mr. Zakaria interviewed Sara Blakely, the youngest self-made female billionaire in the United States. Her story is one of personal achievement and success but it is rooted in dealing with failure.
As Sara explained during her interview with Mr. Zakaria, her father would ask her a question each night at the dinner table that you don’t often hear in too many homes. The question was “What did you fail at today?” When asked about the biggest influence on her life, Sara mentioned her father and the power of this question.
It is important to understand that Sara started her career working at Disney World and then sold fax machines for Danka for seven years. She tried to get into law school but she could not pass her LSAT entrance exams.
At age 27, she moved to Atlanta, and while still working at Danka, spent the next two years and her entire $5,000 in savings researching hosiery patents and visiting craft stores to find the right material for her product. Eventually coming upon a solution, she wrote her own patent from a Barnes & Noble textbook and incorporated her company under the name Spanx. Turned away by numerous mills who did not see the value of her idea, she eventually found a hosiery factory in Asheboro, North Carolina, that was willing to make her product. She successfully pitched her idea to Neiman-Marcus by personally taking the buyer to the ladies restroom to show her the benefits of Spanx in person. Bloomingdales, Saks, and Bergdorf Goodman soon followed.
Spanx helps women draw the line on pantylines. The company, which also caters to men, makes footless and footed hosiery, tights, and body shapers to give wearers a slim and smooth look. Spanx now has annual sales in excess of $500 million and Sara Blakely is the sole owner.
Sara handled all aspects of the business from marketing, logistics, and product positioning (preferring that Spanx be sold alongside shoes rather than in hosiery). This was all done by a woman who did not have a business degree or take any business courses.
Listening to the interview, it was clear that Sara possessed a number of unique skills and attributes. First she had the vision to develop a unique business idea and the drive to bring it to market. As she tells her story, this was not easy. She had to find a company to manufacture the goods and find companies that would place the unproven product in their stores.
Her years in Sales equipped her with another key characteristic of successful people, the ability to accept rejection and persevere, something that anyone who has worked in this field of business can understand. The influence of her father to see failure as part of life and to learn some lessons from these failures allowed her to continue on her journey.
This story is totally transferable to any industry including Transportation. Men and Women’s underwear is a mature business just as is Transportation. Even in established businesses, there are opportunities to innovate. Almost every accepted mode of transportation whether double stack trains, LCVs or multi-temp trailers was started by an entrepreneur who had an idea and had the courage to take his or her product to market.
I encourage everyone to download the audio podcast of Sara’s interview with Fareed Zakaria. This is an inspiring story, similar to many successful Silicon Valley stories. As so many young graduates struggle to find employment in this economy, and others around the world, Sara’s story should encourage people to look for products that do established things in new and better ways, to pursue your dreams, and to embrace (rather than fear) failure as “life lessons” on the road to success.
To learn from the successes and failures of some CEOs in the Transportation industry, there will again be a CEO track at this year’s Surface Transportation Summit on October 16. Register early and save on your registration fee.
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