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June 02, 2010

Top Desk

Direct Selling— The Power of Women Helping Women

by Tami Longaberger, CEO, Chair of the Board, The Longaberger Company

There are many reasons people get involved with direct selling, and we have talked about them all at some point or another—the ability to work from home, flexibility, extra income, the opportunity to build a career on your own terms.

Women far outpace men in this industry, making up as much as 88 percent of all U.S. direct sellers. At Longaberger, this number is even higher. I often ask myself, Why is this so? Through my own journey in direct selling, I have come to see why. It centers on that intangible, hard-to-measure “something”—it is as much an emotional appeal as it is a true sense of making a difference in your own life and those of others. We often have defined this intangible as “empowerment.”

Defining Empowerment

When we talk of how our industry empowers women, I often think we articulate this term without fully appreciating what that truly means. The World Bank—the vital source of financial and technical assistance to developing countries around the world—defines empowerment as the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.

These common characterizations of empowerment capture some of what is possible for women through direct selling. It is true that we increase the capacity of women to make choices—or, in our case, take advantage of tremendous opportunities—that enable them to achieve desired actions.

Yet I would argue this definition of empowerment falls short when applied to direct selling. Through products, organizations and the direct selling business model, we are providing opportunities for the advancement of the social and economic strength of women. But even considering the $114 billion in annual retail sales made through direct selling globally, mostly by women, does not measure the impact empowerment has within each woman. I am talking about empowerment on a spiritual level. I do not mean in a religious sense; rather, that we give the empowered an opportunity to develop confidence in her own capacities. As a result, these women continually innovate and improve themselves and, as is so often the case, reach out to other women to share in the experience. This is the altruistic part of our industry that is overlooked by the mass media and easily taken for granted. In my view, we are empowering women spiritually, emotionally and psychologically to grow and reach their potential while at the same time strive to improve the world around them. It comes down to women helping women.

A Powerful Journey of Self-Discovery

For so many women involved in direct selling, the sense of empowerment does not occur suddenly. I liken it to a journey, what a woman experiences as she moves from a customer to a consultant to a leader. It is a transformative process that comes to life time and again.

I had the pleasure of meeting a middle-aged woman from North Carolina. Her children are grown, and she spent much of her adult life in an abusive marriage that she did not leave for decades because she knew of no other way. She saw herself as having no choice. Finally, in her late 40s, she got out of the marriage and struck out on her own. She made a life-changing choice and found herself searching for direction.

Eventually, she was invited to take part in a tour with her consultant and other customers who were coming to visit us in Ohio. Part of that trip included a stop at my home for a luncheon. It was there that I met her and learned her story. She has since become a home consultant and started her own business. Her journey has begun.

The journey continues for so many women as their sense of personal achievement grows through recognition and the friendships that are forged. They begin to realize they are making a difference.

My Direct Selling Journey

My career in direct selling has mirrored the transformation that so many women have undergone. When I joined The Longaberger Company in 1984 (upon graduation from Ohio State University), I did not fully appreciate what direct selling can do for women. The company was started by my father, who saw the direct selling opportunity of our handcrafted baskets as a means to help people in the community improve their lives. He was rooted in our region of Ohio, and he was very proud of how our company grew. He did not completely comprehend the concept of women helping women, but he did understand what giving an opportunity to someone could do for a life. He was all about dreaming big and encouraging people to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them.

My father had a huge impact on me. He planted the seeds of direct selling. Yet my realization of how powerful a force we could become in empowering women did not begin to take shape until I came to know about two other influential women in our industry—Mary Kay Ash and Mary Crowley. I learned from these female pioneers that direct selling can be the impetus for all women, even a working mom like me, to dream big and to have it all—a fulfilling career, a happy family, and the ability and motivation to change our communities and world for the better. The legacies of Mary Kay and Mary Crowley served to inspire me; they are the epitome of women helping women.

Those of us who love this business must always look beyond the easy answers on why our industry matters. Sure, we provide extra income, flexibility, and a way to share products in unique and engaging ways with consumers. But we do much more than that. I believe that we—whether as leaders of direct selling companies or as sales consultants in the field—can empower women in so many ways and be agents of change. One life at a time.

Tami Longaberger is CEO and chair of the board of The Longaberger Company.