After faring poorly on her LSATs, working as a greeter at Disney World, and selling fax machines, Sara Blakely pondered why she was not wearing her cream pants. (Really, all of this fits together.)
As Blakely describes it, she disliked her day job while her undergarments prevented her from wearing a special outfit. Put the two together and you get the invention of Spanx.
Where are we going? To the value of corporate women.
Why a Spanx Needed a Woman
When Blakely tried to find a manufacturer for her “shapewear” idea, the men who made panty hose did not get it. Also about to get a “No” during her 10 minutes with a Neiman Marcus buyer, she took the woman to the ladies room. There she demonstrated how a Spanx prototype transformed the fit of her cream pants.
The woman placed Spanx in seven stores and the rest of the story is history. Sara Blakely became the youngest “self-made” female billionaire in the U.S.
The Value of Gender Diversity
I know that we are talking about correlation rather than causation when we cite the impact of “strong female leadership.” But a 2015 study from the research group MSCI found that firms with a “critical mass” of women at the top generated a substantially greater return on equity than firms without gender diversity. Critical mass just meant three or more women on the board. So yes, with or without women, these firms might just be better run. However, academic research has demonstrated that diversity leads to more innovation.
Still, less than 20% of all corporate board seats are held by women.
Our Bottom Line: Human Capital
Sara Blakely saw the world through a different lens from the men who manufactured panty hose. We needed her vision to create a new product.
My sources and more: During a morning walk, I learned about Sara Blakely from NPR’s “How I Built This.” A perfect springboard for the broader topic of gender diversity, this captivating podcast took me to Catalyst, this Slate column and this paper. I especially recommend Catalyst.