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October 01, 2014

New Perspectives

Direct Selling Entrepreneurship Goes to Community College

by Donna Duffey

An Academic’s Journey Into The Direct Selling Industry

Student entrepreneurs at the community college level come with a variety of pathways in mind to reach their entrepreneurial dreams. Some are focused on innovation and plan to create a new product or service. Some plan to purchase an existing business and apply their entrepreneurial skills to make that business grow. Some are members of an existing family business and want that business to continue to be sustainable across generations. Others are planning to reach their entrepreneurial dream by owning and operating a franchise. Some choose to be intrapreneurs in existing businesses. We believe a missing link has been a curriculum for students seeking their niche as independent contractors in the direct selling industry.

As the academic chair for Johnson County Community College’s (JCCC) Entrepreneurship program, this realization—or the discovery of a “gap” in our program offerings—led me to start a conversation with the National Association of Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) and the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF) during the summer of 2011 in Washington, D.C. The brainstorming session brought together both community college leaders of entrepreneurship initiatives and direct selling company executives from across the country.

The “working” objective of this brainstorming meeting between these two previously disconnected groups was to determine if educational material addressing this dynamic industry sector could be developed and delivered effectively through America’s community colleges. Our collective answer after two days of discussion yielded a unanimous “Yes, we can!”

So why should these two seemingly unconnected groups both care about the gap in entrepreneurship education in community colleges? While revenue and employment numbers are significant and growing, the direct selling industry reports turnover of direct selling entrepreneurs as a significant industry challenge. As a result, this turnover creates challenges for the maintenance and enhancement of quality customer relationships, and costs direct selling companies time and resources that can impact profit.

While entry into direct selling entrepreneurship is relatively simple and, in most cases, at minimal cost, the entrepreneur may have a great deal of passion for the product or service but not a full understanding of the business model. They may have little hands-on experience and clarity that an independent contractor actually owns their own entrepreneurial venture. As with any business enterprise, some of these independent contractors need to develop and sharpen selling skills, marketing skills, financial skills, organizational management skills, and customer relationship management skills—above and beyond the terrific training and support successful companies provide. One way to accomplish closing the gap is for colleges and the direct selling industry to develop and deliver high-quality educational programming at community colleges. The Direct Selling Entrepreneur Program (DSEP) was developed in a partnership between DSEF and NACCE and is now available nationally to all community colleges. It not only benefits students seeking to grow their direct selling businesses, but also helps students thinking about joining this segment of the workforce, and increases student knowledge.

The Direct Selling Entrepreneur Program is a 30-hour course designed to provide direct sellers—and those interested in direct selling—with the small-business management and entrepreneurship skills they need to succeed in this low-cost, low-risk, low-barrier-to-entry form of entrepreneurship.

Created to address direct sellers’ specific needs, the curriculum increases the options for entrepreneurship education in communities across the United States.

Developed for community colleges, the curriculum is divided into 10 modules and introduces the fundamental components of small-business management, including marketing, finance, legal issues, planning and ethics. In addition, course participants gain deep understanding of the wide variety of direct selling business strategies, including individual sales efforts, party plan and network marketing scenarios, online sales, and salesforce recruitment and training. (For more information, contact Nancy Laichas, Chief Marketing & Development Officer, Direct Selling Education Foundation, at

At JCCC, I have been able to utilize this DSEP curriculum to add one three-credit-hour course, called the Fundamentals of Direct Sales, and pair this new course with several other existing courses to create an academic credential, the Direct Sales Certificate. The course and certificate met all necessary approvals, both within the institution and at the state level, to be accredited and qualifies for financial aid just like our Entrepreneurship degree and other certificates. In addition to the Fundamentals of Direct Sales course, the 15-credit-hour Direct Sales Certificate also includes Professional Selling, Business Professional Skills, e-Marketing, and Consumer Behavior.

Although DSEP was envisioned as a non-credit course that community colleges can offer through their Continuing Education or Workforce Development departments—with a committed college faculty champion—the curriculum can be adopted into the for-credit side.

Our inaugural offering of Fundamentals of Direct Sales was during the spring 2013 semester. Several students were already direct sellers—one a homemaker and direct seller, one a retiree and direct seller, and one a full-time student and direct seller. But, the largest group was of students considering entering the direct sales field. One student was seeking to learn how this industry sector operates and wanted to apply this distribution strategy to his work-in-progress on his business plan for his entrepreneurial venture. Student satisfaction was high, with comments as wide-ranging as “Wow, I had no idea how much I didn’t know about what I do” to “Wow, this really is an interesting business model.” Minds expanded, learning took place and new opportunities were created!

Johnson County Community College (JCCC) was founded in 1969 and is located in the southwestern quadrant of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. The college serves approximately 20,000 credit students with programming for students desiring to transfer to baccalaureate institutions and students seeking an associate degree or certificate in 50-plus career fields. JCCC also delivers continuing education programming.

JCCC’s Entrepreneurship credit program began in 1992. Today the program offers 12 courses, an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree and five certificate programs. The department has created numerous additions, deletions and modifications to its Entrepreneurship offerings over the past 22 years. Working with the faculty team and the program advisory committee, and gathering information from graduates, it strives to keep the program current and topical, therefore consistently striving to create both learning content and a learning environment that yields successful and sustainable entrepreneurs.

Johnson County Community College has chosen the credit-based or academic pathway and recognizes that others are doing the same. We have also worked with numerous other community college leaders planning to launch the DSEP curriculum in their non-credit, continuing education, or workforce development divisions. Each community college is different and will identify where they can best serve their communities and positively impact their economies.

Now, at this critical time where a few colleges like JCCC have shown it can be done, I encourage more innovative and collaborative thought-yielding strategic partnerships between community colleges, direct selling companies and the Direct Selling Education Foundation to explore where direct selling entrepreneurship education can go in the future. It doesn’t matter who initiates the conversation, so community college leaders and direct selling company leaders need to get to know each other and let the conversations begin. The possibilities are unlimited. So, ask yourself, What can I do today?

America’s Community Colleges: What You Need to Know

  • The mission statements for community colleges focus on providing accessible and affordable educational programming leading to an educated and sustainable citizenry.
  • There are 1,132 community colleges in the United States—so there is one near you!
  • There are 12.8 million students attending community colleges. Sixty-one percent of these students are in credit programs; 39 percent are in non-credit programs—there is an abundance of students already present!
  • 49 percent of all students in America’s higher education institutions are in community colleges—community colleges are the place to be!
  • The average age of a community college student is 28, with 57 percent of students between the ages of 22–39—a perfect match for self-employment opportunities in the direct selling industry.
  • Women constitute 57 percent of the student population—this parallels participation in the direct selling industry.
  • 36 percent of community college students represent the first generation in their family to attend college, indicating that accessibility and affordability matter—community colleges are changing and will continue to change the educational (and economic) landscape of our nation. This is a shared value with the direct selling industry.
  • Community colleges embrace the ethnic diversity of their communities with a diverse student population of 51 percent White, 19 percent Hispanic, and 14 percent African-American—also a shared value with the direct selling industry.

American Association of Community Colleges’ 2014 Fact Sheet

The Direct Selling Industry: What America’s Community Colleges Need to Know

  • In 2013, the direct selling industry generated $31.67 billion in sales, yielding a 3.3 percent increase over 2012—this industry is not only sizable but also growing during a time when many industry sectors are not.
  • There are 16.8 million people in the U.S. involved in direct selling. Of the 313.9 million people in the U.S. population, this represents 5.4 percent of the population. Additionally, the percentage of households having a direct sales person as a member is 13.8 percent of U.S. households—this industry sector offers economic opportunity to many.
  • While many people don’t understand the method of direct retail sales, the 2013 data reports 70 percent of sales are made person-to-person and 23 percent of sales are generated utilizing the party-plan method.
  • Product categories offered to the consumer through direct selling methods range from aromatherapy to weight management. The primary product groupings include home and family care, wellness, personal care, services, clothing and accessories, and leisure and educational—product choices abound.

Direct Selling Association

Donna DuffeyDonna Duffey is Professor and Department Chair of the Entrepreneurship Associate of Applied Science degree program and its related certificate programs at Johnson County Community College, Kansas City, Kansas. She was the winner of the 2009 National Association of Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) Faculty of the Year Award.