For Emily Kenison, the How I Built This Summit was her last hope for getting her struggling start-up off the ground. She went with one goal: to meet and pitch to the person she had identified as a uniquely perfect mentor for her product-based business. This person was the Summit’s headliner, founder of SPANX, Sara Blakely.
“At the very least, I would walk out of the Summit with an extra kick of inspiration at a time I needed it the most,” Kenison said. “I was still adjusting to the fact that I quit my job and waking up each morning with a knot in my stomach.”
So, Kenison went to the Summit with a big sign that said, “Sara, will you marry mentor me?”
“I read somewhere that Sara Blakely had once mailed a shoe to a buyer with a note that said, “Just trying to get my foot in the door!”, Kenison said. “Considering my product is shoe-related, and that I love puns, I thought that could be a great idea.”
How did this all begin?
Five years ago, Kenison literally fell into her “a-ha!” moment to invent Straplets – detachable straps to go over your pumps, to keep your foot in the shoe, plus give it another look.
She just graduated from law school and treated herself to a classic pair of pumps so she could look “professionally chic” at her new law firm job. However, on her first day, instead of confidently strutting in her new pumps, she was wobbling. Her shoes embarrassingly slipped and flip-flopped with each step. Eventually, her foot slipped entirely out of her shoes and she stumbled in front of her new co-workers.
Kenison sat at her desk, with her shoes off, wishing she had bought heels with a strap when it hit her:
“Why not just make detachable straps to go over your pumps, to keep your foot in the shoe, plus give it another look?” Kenison said. “Make a strap for your shoe. It was so simple.”
Back to the proposal…
The day before the conference, NPR hosted a welcome reception, and Kenison met the Summit staff and floated the idea of “potentially” bringing a poster to get a sense of how difficult it could be.
“To my surprise, NPR’s staff was very supportive and loved the idea. They really wanted the conference to be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to meet and network with those whose stories have inspired their own journeys,” Kenison said. “NPR’s staff was already greeting me as the “poster girl,” taking photos with me, and tipping me off on when and where to line up so I could get a close seat for Sara’s speech.”
Did Sara say “YES!”?
Sara immediately saw the poster and, luckily, she started laughing. She read the poster aloud to the whole audience, and soon everyone was laughing.
She exclaimed that she “loved it” and thought it was “very creative.” It caught her attention and made her laugh as I had hoped. You can see a video of the moment here.
“I left my seat, went to the restroom, and then stepped outside. What happened next was surreal,” Kenison remembered. “Out from the side doors walked Sara Blakely and her entourage. She said loved the poster, thought it was so creative, and wanted to take a couple of photos with me and the poster and hear what I was working on. I was still in shock that all of this was happening, but I wanted to make sure I took advantage of this brief moment I was so lucky to have. After all, it wasn’t about getting a photo with her, it was about asking if she would be my mentor.”
In the midst of taking pictures, Kenison got down on one knee, asked for Sara’s hand in mentorship, and slipped a Straplet over her shoe.
“In that quick pitch, she knew (1) what my invention was, (2) what I was asking from her, and (3) from the way my hands were shaking, knew that I was so nervous, but also that I so strongly believed in Straplets that I was pushing through that nervousness to get her attention.” And from that quick pitch – she said “Yes!”
What’s it like inside a mentorship with Sara Blakely?
Kenison’s mentorship includes quarterly phone calls.
“In advance of my meeting, I email Sara my list of questions, so she can check with other departments at SPANX (if need be) prior to our call, and so we can optimize our time during the call,” Kenison said.
On their first call, Kenison said Sara's answers were direct, concrete, and provided actionable next steps.
“For instance, she gave me industry insight into big-box retailers, and thoughtful answers on which may be the right initial fit for Straplets, why, and what else I should prepare prior to those meetings – like revising our packaging to meet certain big box retailer requirements and have sample packaging ready for those meetings,” Kenison said. “After our call, she coordinated a meeting for me with one of those retailers, which was incredible! Before Sara, I was emailing and cold-calling big-box retailers. When Sara is the one requesting the meeting, the meeting is calendared right away.”
What’s the best advice Sara Blakely has given?
The best advice Kenison has received from Blakely is, “At the early stages of building and growing your company, you, as the founder, get to do everything,” she said. “This is a great learning opportunity to figure out what aspect of the business you are best at and will want to carve out for yourself as your company grows… and what areas are your weaknesses and you will need to hire for.”
Sara is well known as an incredible mentor for female founders. In a Forbes article, she said: “I think my story says that when women are given the chance and the opportunity, that we can achieve a lot. We deliver.”
“I knew that if Sara gave me the chance and the opportunity, that I could achieve even more, and am confident I would deliver,” Kenison said. “I am so grateful for this opportunity.”