Around the time Sara Blakely first had entrepreneurial success, she attended a cocktail party. Shortly after her arrival that evening, two businessmen recognized her from across the room as the face of Spanx, the shapewear empire that had recently turned the fashion business world on its ear. By now, word of mouth had made her a household name and a featured guest on Oprah.
“Sara,” said the first man, as they approached, “We’ve read about you in the paper, and we see that you’ve invented something. Congratulations!” The second man looked at her meaningfully. ”You know, Sara, business is war,” he cautioned. “I hope you’re ready.” He patted her on the shoulder, and the two men knowingly laughed in agreement. With that, they walked off, leaving her stunned.
“I looked at them and thought, “What do you mean?’” Blakely said as she recounted the incident on Masterclass. She left early that night, and headed home for some deep reflection. “I sat on the l floor and I thought, “I don’t want to go to war,” she said. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Since the beginning, when she made her living selling fax machines door to door, while working part time on a footless pantyhose idea, Blakely has done things her way. From showing up at countless department stores to personally meet customers to the cherry red cartoon packaging of Spanx, she followed her sixth sense- regardless of how it appeared to the male dominated business world.
Traditionally, business has been viewed as a masculine construct. Traits like focus, clarity, and dominance have been celebrated in closing the deal or nabbing that corner office. There hasn’t been as much emphasis on feminine principles like vulnerability, persuasiveness, or intuition. It’s something that’s possibly stagnated growth in both genders and prevented some from thinking outside of their proverbial boxes. In fact, according to Bank of America’s 2014 Business Owner survey, predictably, thirty percent of businessmen listed confidence as their strongest attribute, while fifty-eight percent of female entrepreneurs considered empathy to be their core strength.
Though the Madmen approach to business may have appeared to tip the scale in men’s favour, they’ve experienced their own hardships too. Statistics show that men in female-dominated industries have also felt the heat of gender roles in the workplace. In a questionnaire from ScienceDirect, men working in traditionally feminine roles like nursing, have generally been seen as more emotionally sensitive and “tender minded” than those in more stereotypically masculine roles.
In recent years, society has thankfully gravitated towards a new world, where everyone- men and women- have the permission to honor the feminine as a necessary tool. Emotional strengths are now having their time in the spotlight alongside their masculine counterparts, while notable organizations are placing higher value on traits like resilience, empathy and collaboration.
While she was the CEO of Patagonia, Rose Marcario fostered a balanced energy by intentionally hiring just as many women as men. She was also committed to environmental sustainability and was one of the first to sign the White House Equal Pay Pledge, which reinforces equal pay for comparable work, regardless of gender, race, or religion. By the time she stepped down from the role in June of 2020, company revenue had tripled.
With the double standard glass ceiling now shattered, today’s female generation is finally getting its moment. A sense of community is blossoming and female business leaders are learning that perhaps everyone can get a piece of the pie. Girlboss’ Sophia Amoruso has found a lucrative niche in the millennial female market that may have been ignored in prior years. “This is the first time in my career that my purpose and my opportunity have aligned, which is empowering women,” Amoruso told the Observer of her career platform. “Girlboss is about connecting them to one another.”
Blakely has led the way for new leaders by wearing her heart on her sleeve and loading her tool kit with empathy. “I love the idea of CEO’s showing vulnerabilities and the ups and downs,” she told Stanford Business. “I don’t feel I need to put on a facade to be taken seriously as a leader.”
Looking back at her night of unsolicited advice, Blakely says, “I literally made the decision in that moment that I’m going to go about it in a very different way and I have honored very feminine principles throughout my journey.” That included going on the road and making personal connections with people in a human way. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m one of you. Here’s what it does for me. This is why it works,” she said, “I used my own butt in the “before and after” picture. And I felt like customers really connected.”
Today, Blakely is relieved that she stuck to her guns and wasn’t influenced by the static noise around her. In helping change the future of how business is done, she’s proven that if you work hard enough, there’s plenty of the success pie to go around.