October 01, 2012
The Most Influential Women in Direct Selling
by Beth Douglass Silcox and Barbara Seale
Mona Ameli, Belcorp
Dr. Oi-Lin Chen, Sunrider International
Angela Loehr Chrysler, Team National
Kathy Coover, Isagenix
Marjorie Fine, Shaklee
Shelli Gardner, Stampin’ Up!
Marla Gottschalk,The Pampered Chef
Jessica Herrin, Stella & Dot
Andrea Jung, Avon
Bonnie Kelly and Teresa Walsh, Silpada
Wendy Lewis, Jeunesse Global
Tami Longaberger, Longaberger
Candace Matthews, Amway
Cindy Monroe, Thirty-One Gifts
Kay Napier, Arbo
Joani Nielson, Tastefully Simple
Jill Blashack Strahan, Tastefully Simple
Connie Tang, Princess House
Heidi Thompson, Scentsy
The Icons of our Industry
Founding Partner and COO, Tastefully Simple
Age was no deterrent for Joani Nielson’s first boss, who focused on the leadership potential of the 15-year-old, rather than her limitations. Decades after working at Burger King, she’s thankful and consistently pays those lessons forward through mentoring, giving people hope to believe in themselves, and helping them discover personal passions and inner strengths.
“I believe there are times when people get overwhelmed with where they are and with where they want to be and only see obstacles. They may think they need to make giant leaps of change, however incremental steps a person does every day may have a greater impact,” Nielson says.
She encourages women to embrace their powerful, female intuition and not be afraid to step toward something they want for themselves. “I encourage women to believe their strengths come from within and not to wait for external affirmations,” Nielson says.
“As humans it is important to reflect upon and understand our personal definition of success; it makes everyday decisions clearer. During the ages of 25–35, people are generally growing in career advancement, that’s also when women are typically building their families. Some women choose one over the other. They think they must make a choice and haven’t recognized they can do both successfully,” Nielson says.
“Many women in my generation still struggle with the fact they can’t work a 10-hour day and still magically have a special St. Patrick’s Day dinner on the table,” she says. “Our daughters are really fortunate because they will see that their mom was a great mom and a great businessperson. Our daughters have a better perspective of what life could be going forward.”
Mother Teresa: “She led by example and lived her life in a way that others wanted to follow, but she didn’t grandstand it. She did it in a quiet, humble way. I think that’s an important reminder in leadership. Are you modeling the behavior that you want others to have? You can’t ask people to be genuine and giving if you aren’t modeling that yourself.”
“Upon my death I hope being a successful business owner is at the bottom of my list of accomplishments. I don’t ever want that to define who I am. The reality is success comes from living the life that you desire to live and leaving the legacy you desire to leave.”
Tastefully Simple: Culture Club
Joani Nielson has a long history of entrepreneurship, having started her career as owner and operator of Salon Alexis in Alexandria, Minn. In 1995 she became a silent founding partner in Tastefully Simple, Inc., and since 2000 has served as the company’s Chief Operating Officer. In this role, she oversees all operational aspects of the enterprise, including legal, finance, distribution, inventory, team relations, strategic initiatives and technology.
In addition, she is responsible for leading and strengthening banking, legal and key vendor relationships and partners with Founder and CEO Jill Blashack Strahan to direct the long-term vision, goals and mission of the company. Last year its line of easy-to-prepare foods—sold by its 28,000 consultants—led to $110 million in net sales.
Tastefully Simple’s products and consultants are fed by its culture, which is focused on teamwork, passion and helping people reach their full potential. The combination has led to recognition for the company from Inc. magazine, the Stevie Awards, The Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company magazine. For eight years in a row, Tastefully Simple has ranked in the top 5 percent of companies nationwide in employee satisfaction, according to the Center for Values Research (CVR), an employee relations consulting group.
Jill Blashack Strahan
Founder and CEO, Tastefully Simple
Jill Blashack Strahan thinks of herself as an entrepreneur, not an executive. During Tastefully Simple’s journey to the top of the direct selling industry, she saw the never-ending string of leadership lessons, the chaos of startup, the first-time decisions, and the insanity of doing $100 million in business in five years through entrepreneurial eyes.
Now as the intensity of the business mellows with maturity, Strahan works to make the best decisions as a leader—“best for me as an entrepreneur and the best for the company,” she says.
Often that translates to brainstorming with her team in the search for marketing and sales synergy. Strahan confesses her perfectionism for communication—selecting just the right words, video clips and music to “stir someone’s soul, to inspire them to do something different, and help them see why.
“It’s cool to see growth in people’s lives and the impact to families. Money is almost secondary to their emotional and psychological growth and the ripple effect,” Strahan says. It’s a personal motivator she didn’t foresee when Tastefully Simple began, but she says, “Just flow with it. You’re meant to learn something. Take it, wring it out. It’s not going to fall in your lap.”
For the median age—a 37-year-old mom—staying home with children and being challenged with a direct sales field opportunity is appealing. The lifestyle of a CEO is attainable too, but Strahan asks, “Do they want it? Because it is a sacrifice. Whatever we say yes to, we’re saying no to something else. As women I believe we struggle with that more. That’s changing, but you don’t want it to change entirely. That’s why we give birth.”
Margaret Thatcher: “Her conviction—she was true to her belief in adversarial position and people. She made tough decisions. You’re not always going to be liked. It’s difficult to find that balance. You have to have the heart of the business and the consultant. You have to be wired with that emotion, but you have to have the left-brain decision-making too.”
“We reserve the right to get smarter.”
“You build trust when you are humble enough to admit mistakes. People’s natural tendency is to candy-coat it, but from the beginning we used the motto—we told them when we screwed up.”
Tastefully Simple: Culture Club
Minnesota-based easy-to-prepare foods direct seller Tastefully Simple grew out of Founder and CEO Jill Blashack Strahan’s gift-basket business.
Nestled in the baskets she sold to business clients in the early 1990s was a collection of gourmet foods. But when the gourmet foods sales shot past her baskets’ results, she had an epiphany: Getting together in homes, eating and talking could turn into a great business. Tastefully Simple was born in 1995.
Strahan intentionally started small so she could remain debt-free. But once the company’s early leaders developed their vision for Tastefully Simple, it grew quickly. Last year its line of easy-to-prepare foods—sold by its 28,000 consultants—led to $110 million in net sales.
Tastefully Simple’s products and consultants are fed by its culture, which is focused on teamwork, passion and helping people reach their full potential. The combination has led to recognition for the company and its founder from Inc. magazine, the Stevie Awards, The Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company magazine. For eight years in a row, Tastefully Simple has ranked in the top 5 percent of companies nationwide in employee satisfaction, according to the Center for Values Research (CVR), an employee relations consulting group.
President and CEO, Princess House
When Connie Tang was invited to the White House a few years ago, she wore a “blazing hot red jacket and black slacks,” intent on representing herself as an authentically feminine leader, not just one of the guys. “As a society, we are still defining leadership and what it looks like and what women’s role is and what it looks like too,” she says.
“Organizations fear what outside-world impressions will be if women are placed in leadership roles, but nontraditional, nonconformists are slowly breaking through the tradition or vision of what leaders look like,” Tang says.
Tang is the first woman President and CEO of Princess House. A career focused on authenticity, adaptability and personal fortitude got her there, but women executives are a decided minority in direct sales and elsewhere. She says, “There is a clear disparity and misalignment of salesforce representation and the corporate offices… and in direct sales, we probably fare a lot better than other industries.
“But direct sales is a common denominator—an equalizer—where everyone has the same equal opportunity. There are not many industries, businesses or careers where your pedigree doesn’t matter. It is all about you—the individual. It’s all in your control,” she says.
As an immigrant to the United States when she was just a toddler, Tang could have focused on her differences growing up as a Chinese girl, in what some call the “melting pot” of New York City. But she didn’t. Instead, she opted to think of NYC as a “stew.” Tang says, “We don’t become something else. We blend. It’s the synergy. One brings out the flavor of the other.
“Authenticity is really important and women struggle with it because they struggle with being true to themselves and what they believe the world expects of them,” she says. “It’s very hard to be who you are. It’s taken my whole life to grow up into myself.” She’s adapted, coped and integrated, but never lost her sense of identity.
Phyllis Wrynn, third- and fourth-grade teacher, PS 130, Brooklyn, N.Y.: “She was the first person who said, ‘You can do and be anything.’ That was the beginning. The faith and belief that she had in me was unconditional and different.”
Jo-Anne Jaeger: “She was confident. She wasn’t afraid to be who she was. She had an amazingly giving heart and was one of the smartest and savviest businesspeople.”
Princess House: Focused on the Heart of the Home
As Princess House prepares to turn 50 next year, it is already celebrating the growth rate of a youngster.
Since 2009 the company has revamped its product line, increased support for its fast-growing Hispanic market, and revolutionized its events. The result: more consultants and higher sales despite a soft economy. Last year the company’s more than 25,000 U.S. consultants produced $102 million in net sales, up from $94 million in 2010.
For years Princess House was known for crystal figurines, beverage ware and serve ware. But Princess House had always had two key initiatives: Field First, which keeps the staff in close touch with hostesses and consultants; and Voice of the Customer, which sends employees to visit customers’ homes to watch them cook and see the products they use. Both programs showed the same trend: Family life was moving into the kitchen. So Princess House did, too. It tripled its high-quality stainless steel cookware line and reduced crystal. Today’s product line includes bakeware, cookware, entertaining products, dining accessories and home accents, plus packaged food products. More than 85 percent of sales are from kitchen-related items.
Launched in 1963 by Direct Selling Association Hall of Fame member Charlie Collis, Princess House is now led by Connie Tang, its first woman President and CEO.
Co-Owner and President, Scentsy
“Don’t expect to be comfortable when you are growing, or to grow when you are comfortable.” It’s a motto Heidi Thompson clings to. “I was a comfortable stay-at-home mom, now I’m a busy executive making decisions that affect thousands of lives. I’ve had to grow to do that,” she says.
Thompson discovered—to a large degree out of necessity—comfort is overrated when you are $700,000 in debt and your fledgling direct sales company is your family’s only hope. “I needed to allow myself to be uncomfortable, not worry about what other people think and just focus on how I am growing,” Thompson says. She still battles a “scared-to-death” fear of public speaking, but the nerves are slowly fading.
Today she often glimpses a bit of herself in Scentsy’s consultants. “It’s people who never saw it in themselves and they are now these amazing women that they never thought they could be. It is very inspirational and motivational for sure,” she says.
Eight years ago, Scentsy was just getting started and so was Thompson in Direct Selling 101. Lack of funds prevented her and husband, Orville, from taking much advice, but they found infinitely better options on their own. “You don’t have to follow conventional wisdom to be successful because we didn’t,” Thompson says.
The couple works together all day, every day, and Thompson relishes it. “It’s brought us closer together as a couple. We don’t always initially agree on things, but we’ve learned to be patient until we do and to compromise. We have different strengths and weaknesses and together we make a whole,” she says.
That reflects the experience of many top Scentsy sales leaders, essentially CEOs of their own businesses. “Many of them get to the point where they need help running their businesses, and we’ve seen more and more instances of husbands—often with corporate jobs—quitting their work to join them,” Thompson says.
My mom: “She was right there for us to help us get Scentsy off the ground. She worked at least two years without pay and never complained. Then she wanted to sign up to be a consultant. She’s built a very successful business and is now 71. Along the way she taught me all those things that are important: dedication, perseverance and she modeled faith for me because she always believed in us.”
“Being a mom is the most valuable executive training.”
Scentsy: Fragrance, Fondue and Fashion
From the time Heidi and Orville Thompson launched Scentsy in 2004, they were determined to build their business around core values of simplicity, authenticity and generosity. Their ideals launched one of the industry’s growth rocket ships.
The couple works hard to ensure that those key values extend to everything that happens within the Scentsy family of brands: the company’s original Scentsy Wickless brand of scented, wickless candles and other fragrance products; Velata, which offers patent-pending silicone fondue warmers and premium Belgian melting chocolate; and Grace Adele, which offers a “style system” of accessories that includes handbags, clutches, wallets, clip-ons and jewelry. Velata and Grace Adele were both launched in 2012.
Scentsy developed three distinctive brands to provide their consultants a way to get a larger slice of the economy by providing additional opportunities to engage with hostesses. Each of the company’s brands appeals to a slightly different group of consultants and consumers, and consultants may offer any or all of them. Each has a separate consultant agreement and starter kit.
Scentsy’s 2011 net sales were $537 million, solely from Scentsy Wickless sales. The Thompsons believe that the Grace Adele brand has the potential to equal Scentsy Wickless revenues in three years.