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Sara Blakely’s mom on raising 2 successful CEOs: Let your kids be ‘bored’ and ‘figure it out’

Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of Spanx, turned just $5,000 into a billion-dollar business after hustling to bring her shapewear brand to market. And according to Blakely, much of her success is due to her upbringing and her mom, Ellen Blakely.

In fact, Ellen raised two successful entrepreneurs: Sara, 49, and also Ford Blakely, Sara’s 45-year-old brother, who created messaging platform Zingle, which was acquired by Medallia for $42 million in 2019, according to a company press release.

So how did Ellen do it?

“It was important for me to give them freedom to explore what they wanted to do with their lives,” Ellen told Megan Reilly, host of the “Who Is Your Momma” podcast, on Dec. 14. “They had a lot of free time, which I don’t think kids today do. I think creative free time is so important.”

“Things are so programmed now with sports and activities that their parents drive them to constantly. We didn’t do that.”

Ellen said she allowed her children to be bored and recommends parents do the same for their children.

“Sara would say, ‘Mom, I haven’t got nothing to do.’ She would be bored. And I would say, ‘You’ve got a lot of toys. Figure it out.’ I didn’t really entertain her,” Ellen told Reilly. “It’s about creativity and free time and learning to entertain themselves.”

And “Sara was a master at that,” Ellen said.

In elementary school, “she started doing these drawings, putting them in her little red wagon and selling them to neighbors,” Ellen said. “She also did lemonade stands.

“She was always doing something like that.”

Like charging the neighborhood kids to play minigolf at her house.

“Her dad and I were golfers so we had extra putters and balls and things. So she would lay out a course with beach towels with building blocks for obstacles and toys and all kinds of things. The kids just loved it. All the neighborhood kids would line up in our garage,” Ellen told Reilly.

As a teen, Sara started an impromptu babysitting service at the Hilton Hotel in her hometown of Clearwater Beach, Florida, her mother said. She convinced a pool-boy to let her use an unoccupied room and hung up flyers to get parents’ attention.

“The funny part is, the administration at the hotel did not know that she was doing that,” Ellen said. “She would come home with her wads of dollar bills, but it wasn’t about the money, it was about doing something. It was so fun for her.”

But none of Sara’s antics ever surprised her mom. “It was just the way Sara was,” she said.

Ellen said her relaxed parenting style gave her children the freedom to “explore and try things,” which led to the growth of their entrepreneurial spirit.

(It’s the same sentiment Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has expressed about parenting to raise successful kids: “Let them explore,” he said in 2018. “Be a little lose, let them explore and try their own things….”)

“Let [kids] find their passion,” Ellen told Reilly. “Pay careful attention to the things that they really like and encourage that. Go with your gut, your instincts. Do the best you can. It’s very difficult being a parent.”

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