[Inside the Pink Pyramid] Women Join Direct Sales For All Kinds of Reasons

Mary Kay Make Money Website Screenshot 08-01-12 at 2.19 PM

Everyone in the direct sales industry will tell you this. Last week, Mary Kay’s Vice President of Compliance, Laura Beitler told me on NPR’s On Point. Then Joseph Mariano, head of the Direct Selling Association said it. And then Mary Kay’s Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility, Crayton Webb said it again, on KERA’s Think.

The direct sales industry clings hard to this line that women join Mary Kay and other MLMs “just to make a little extra money.” Maybe it’s the holidays. Or “they want to send their kid to summer camp.” The DSA has even attempted to collect data to back this up; their 2011 Industry survey revealed that 88.8 percent of direct sellers only work  their businesses part-time.

There are a couple of problems with this argument.

For starters, it’s a little too convenient for me. Mary Kay promises a “lucrative full-time opportunity,” (see that claim right there in a screenshot from their website, above, red circle mine). It puts out press releases billing itself as a job creator and the answer to our unemployment woes. In fact, it’s currently pursuing recent college grads, advertising its career potential to twenty-somethings saddled with student loans and facing down a tepid job market. But as soon as we start asking how much money you can really earn in Mary Kay, the tune changes. Now it’s oh don’t worry, most of these women aren’t relying on us for their income anyway. Really? In this terrible job market that you just told us about, with all their debt and unemployment issues?

Next, there’s the issue of what the statistic doesn’t tell us. Okay, almost 90 percent of direct sellers only work their business part-time — but is that because they really just want a little extra pin money, or is that because they can’t book a full slate of parties to generate full-time work? It’s unclear.

And last, there’s the fact that almost everybody I interviewed told me that initially, they “just wanted to make a little extra money…” but once their recruiter started outlining all of the income potential before them, they wanted in, in a big way. Lynne thought it would be just a sideline — until her recruiter convinced her that she could replace her full-time income. Mary Kay knows women are coming in with this idea — but it wants to convert as many as possible to the career path, because those are the folks who buy the most product. Lane, writing over on Jezebel yesterday, was similarly skeptical until she heard her recruiter’s pitch:

I bought into the lure of easy money hook, line, and sinker. She told my coworker and me her own rags to riches tale, which included how she had kept her family afloat during her husband’s layoff. She talked about financial freedom, economic success, and then showed us her newly earned pink Cadillac. I was sold, and I was going to sell Mary Kay cosmetics to all my Goth and Grunge friends, and I was going to make a killing.

In fact, even if you make it clear that this is just going to be a hobby for you, a successful Mary Kay sales director will find ways to increase your inventory purchase. One woman I interviewed emphasized to me over and over again that her Mary Kay business was “just for fun” — she felt very strongly that she’d gotten what she wanted out of the experience and didn’t want to say a bad word against the brand. When I asked her how much inventory she bought during her orientation, she said: “$2500. That felt reasonable for me as a part-timer.” She never turned a profit.

All that aside, I think the “people join for all different reasons” defense is completely genius. It sounds so vast and grand, so overarching. When there are so many different reasons, how could we ever expect these companies to keep track of how successful their sellers really are? Who is to even say how we can define success? It gets pretty existential.

It also provides a reassuring cover for people who are struggling to make a go of their business. Rather than admitting the business is failing, they can just say “oh it’s fine! It was never going to be full-time anyway.” The company gives them an out — and nobody looks too closely at what really went wrong.

But what bugs me the most is the patronizing tone that undercuts the whole notion of women as successful business owners. What started out as powerful message about women achieving economic independence gets stripped down to silly housewives wanting some extra pin money to frivol away on… more makeup, of course! When Mary Kay wants you to buy inventory, the rhetoric is all about how you’re investing in your business, because you’re serious about your career and charging your way up their Ladder of Success. When things don’t work out, well, what did you expect? You were just shopping.

Filed under Beauty Labor, Career Opportunities, Customer Cult, Makeup, Mary Kay

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  1. Posted August 1, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure there’s a small percentage of women who do succeed with Mary Kay–but you’re right. It’s not most, not even close from what I’ve learned from your reporting!

  2. Posted August 1, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Success in Mary Kay depends on how much one recruits, how much one frontloads, and how much they got others to do likewise. I feel that National Sales Directors are upheld as what Mary Kay success is all about, as these are the women who recruited, frontloaded, and taught others to do likewise the most! Look at what NSD such-and-such did, look at how fast she made million, look at this video of NSD Gillian Ortega allowing an underling the “privilege” of opening her mail from Corporate, and hey, look, if you meet this hefty ordering quota for this month, you get the honor of going to NSD Pamela Shaw’s home and participating in a “clothing giveaway” consisting of Shaw’s old glad rags! (And Virginia, I wish to God I were kidding with those last two.)

    NSD Gillian Ortega once said to her audience at a Fall Advance that “We all have teams in here…if you choose not to move forward in any level, you then rob everybody of their dream. EVERYBODY of their dream, not just me the National, you rob everybody of the dream. That’s a powerful thing, isn’t it?” A consultant’s choice not to recruit and frontload hoses everyone above her in the food chain, and some MK directors like SSD Pam Garner-Moore go as far as to not even offer potentials the choice to just join for the discount, instead telling the potential that “We have no personal use positions open” and that “You will want to have products in hand and that is a privilege.” Lawdy, how do these people even SLEEP at night?

    So yeah, I’m inclined to believe that climbing the career ladder in MK = success, while remaining stagnant = Dream robber/constant recitation of the phrase, “I SWEAR I’m happy and right where I want to be in my MK business!” to anyone who questions their income.

  3. Rachel
    Posted August 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I have seen many lives changed thanks to direct selling. The respect, confidence, recognition, success, and camaraderie gained while operating your own direct selling business is something to be valued, not driven down by someone who has never experienced the benefits and positive results of the industry themselves. The way you speak about an industry that has done so much for people by supporting them to succeed, become leaders, and follow their passions in life is quite offensive.

    • Nemarosa
      Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      I notice you don’t mention MONEY as one of the benefits of a direct selling business. You may find enrichment in all the rah-rah multi-level marketing personal development crap (they have lots of books and DVDs to sell you on this subject), but most people who join are looking to make some income.

      MLMs advertise themselves as a good way for people to make extra or “executive” income, but their actual numbers show 90-99% of people who join don’t make back what they put in as expenses. Spare your silly platitudes, it’s supposed to be a business–that’s how it’s advertised–not a personal development course. How much did this wonderful respect, confidence, recognition, and camaraderie cost you? The numbers tell you how much it cost others.

  4. Posted August 2, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Here is the youtube.com video Scrib refers to above of Mary Kay National Sales Director Gillian Ortega. Gillian set-up an unsuspecting woman on her Mary Kay team to stop by her home. Gillian then has HER open Gillian’s OWN National Sales Director trip Fed Ex packet! The box contains Gillian’s flight tickets, fancy hotel info, and incredible trip itinerary.

    This is a sickening display of elitism – made even MORE pronounced when you see Gillian all Barbie Doll blond with her ever-present Bump-it and the woman she sets-up is black. As you will witness, this woman feels led to… in Mary Kay way fake-ness… act ALL EXCITED for Gillian! If you watch her body language and listen closely, it actually sounds like she is struggling with being ALL EXCITED for Gillian though.

    Watch as Gillian uses words such as, “Where are WE going?” Gillian is the ONLY one going in THAT kitchen, but this woman she has opening her box has evidently bought loads of inventory to get Gillian there, so she ‘gets the honor’ of opening said box.

    THIS is the true Mary Kay way folks! The Pink Cadillacs are referred to as a TEAM’S car, but the “winner” is only one woman. The woman who has ‘successfully’ talked enough money/inventory out of the most women.

    Don’t miss this folks!

    If the link doesn’t work above, just cut and paste this:

  5. Posted August 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    There are many positive things about the direct sales model. It can be a low-risk way to start a business with the opportunity for flexibility that many women want. As a co-founder for Hybrid Her, I wanted to create a company for women that like social selling but with no pyramids, multilevel marketing or really any rules at all. You create a business, you reap the rewards. Simple as that.
    Check us out if you are looking for an alternative and are tired of lining the pockets of someone else.

  6. Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    With all due respect Ms. Sole-Smith, it seems to me that the only person patronizing women here is you. Why is it so hard to accept that men and women can enter a direct selling business with all sorts of differing motivations and make intelligent choices? Apparently you find it difficult to accept that a women can decide to have a hobby or engage in an activity for fun. (By your own account, you reject this sentiment when women have expressed it to you.) You also find it difficult to accept that others can join a direct selling business with one motivation then change their goals as the business grows (or diminishes.) That’s the beauty of such micro-entrepreneurship – limited risk, great potential – if you choose to pursue it. Women (and men) make intelligent choices every day – about direct selling and everything else in life. Fortunately, direct selling companies give people the ability to make those choices, with extraordinary protections and guarantees – like the ability to return inventory they have purchased. Sadly, you seem to think that women cannot make informed intelligent choices and choose to fit everyone’s experience into your skewed narrative. For a more accurate perspective, I hope your readers will go to our websites http://www.directselling411.com, and http://www.dsa.org.

    Joseph Mariano – President, Direct Selling Association

  7. Jacquie
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Amen Joseph Mariano! Funny how you say women are lured by easy money. Not once do I see in any publication that working your own business is supposed to be easy. Simple maybe but not easy. Anyone looking for the lottery or golden ticket joins a direct sales company thinking the money just rolls in. Folks without drive or vision or any work ethic are much better off begging on the street then actually doing the W-O-R-K it takes to grow any business. Direct Sellers like Mary Kay offer only an opportunity. Not to mention this “frontloading” you speak of? Sustainable growth in any business where you are providing a product deems it wise to have some degree of access to that product. However persuasive someone may be only adults can sign up for Mary Kay or most other Direct Sales companies. Only they can make choices about their initial investment. No where in any company agreements or literature does it say inventory purchase is mandatory It is always an option for each adult independent consultant to choose, If they feel pressure that is on them. Buying a house, opening a restaurant, signing up for a credit card all have policies and statements in writing that explain the rules and requirements of a company. Thinking women realize this. If you are so vague as to be overwhelmed by high promises and pie in the sky overblown pictures of easy money from someone you barely know DO YOUR RESEARCH. If you are unwilling from the start to take the lead in your life then continue punching the clock at your J-O-B this type of opportunity is NOT for you.

  8. ashley
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I think direct sales companies are fine.I think the inventory thing is not needed.Unless you are doing scc’s all the time,inventory is not needed.Most womencan can wait a few days to a week.Amazon and eBay sell a crap ton,people can wait.Mary Kay is a good opportunity,if you do not get sucked into the glitz and glam,avoid large inventory purchases.I have heard a lot of sales directors use scripture as a way of getting women to order more than they need,to me that is a dishonest way to work.I have clients,however if There is an item that is not available,then they are perfectly fine to wait for it.

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  1. [...] the author of the Harper’s cover story, shows what nonsense this is. Today she blogs, [Inside the Pink Pyramid] Women Join Direct Sales For All Kinds of Reasons. The post starts with a screenshot from Mary Kay Inc’s. website, clearly touting how [...]

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