35 Female Founders Shaping the Channel’s Future
From that first time she answered the door and a Watkins “man” stood before her, direct selling carved out a place for women—at first, primarily as customers. Women controlled tight household purse strings and sought products to make domestic chores efficient and ease common ailments.
Yet, eager 20th century female entrepreneurs would soon shine as direct sellers themselves. Evelyn Fuller outsold her husband, Alfred—the original Fuller Brush man—on her first day in 1908 and replicated that accomplishment every day after for two years straight.
By 1910, Madam C.J. Walker—born in 1867 on the same Louisiana plantation where her parents were once enslaved—trained 3,000 “hair culturists” in the use and direct-to-customer sale of her African-American haircare products. She helped originate the role of the self-made, 20th century businesswoman, someone who promoted female talent, rewarded agent success, upheld justice, encouraged political activism and contributed to charitable causes. And let’s not forget, she was also America’s first female millionaire.
Madam C.J. Walker helped originate the role of the self-made, 20th century businesswoman, someone who promoted female talent, rewarded agent success, upheld justice, encouraged political activism and contributed to charitable causes.
“The girls and women of our race must not be afraid to take hold of business endeavor and, by patient industry, close economy, determined effort and close application to business, wring success out of a number of business opportunities that lie at their very doors,” Madam Walker said.
Reflect upon that commanding imagery—”wring success out of business opportunities that lie at their very doors.”
Sheer empowerment lives in that statement. From Madam C.J. Walker’s time until present day 2023, tenacious, brilliant and giving women have stood strong, reached out and empowered their sisters forward, while giving rise not only to some of direct selling’s most successful companies but arguably the present-day industry itself.
Generations of women have always found a way to make life the best it can be for their families, regardless of the challenges. Facing economic hardship, broken relationships and single motherhood, early 20th century women wanted more than the status quo could provide. So, it’s little wonder Frank Stanley Beveridge and his wife Catherine’s home demonstration method for Stanley Home Products exploded in 1939 and delivered American housewives a viable way to work within the confines of home and family, earn money and confidence all while building powerful social networks. Sound familiar?
Women were culturally and professionally under-appreciated into the postwar 1950s and they remained essentially “economically invisible.” But inspired by what they learned at Stanley Home Products, Brownie Wise (Tupperware), Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay Cosmetics), Mary Crowley (Home Interiors) and Jan Day (Jafra) would soon launch women to new horizons and solidify their own legacies as phenoms of direct selling.
Brownie Wise knew how to speak to the dreams of women, but even her marketing genius—the brilliance that created the Tupperware Party—succumbed to 1950s social norms. Thousands of dealer recruits and $100 million in corporate sales, the first woman on the cover of Business Week had no written employment contract and was forced out seven years into her tenure, receiving only $30,000 severance after a court battle. Earl Tupper sold his company for $16 million a few short months later.
Brownie deserves respect as the inventor of the modern party plan, but also for her plucky spirit and drive to empower women that 1950s society pushed to the periphery. “Remember the steam kettle,” she liked to say, “though up to its neck in hot water, it continues to sing.”
“For every failure, there’s an alternative course of action. You just have to find it. When you come to a roadblock, take a detour,” Mary Kay Ash said.
In 1963, Mary Kay did just that. Passed over for a promotion at Stanley in favor of a man she had trained, Mary Kay set out to make change, not just for herself but for all women. She launched the predecessor of Mary Kay Cosmetics while mourning the sudden death of her new husband, George, disrupted the status quo and turned the male-dominated workplace on its head.
“Most people live and die with their music still unplayed. They never dare to try,” Mary Kay said. That didn’t sit well with her. She pictured everyone wearing a sign that read, “Make me feel important.” She led with unwavering integrity and fervently believed her company was doing something far more important than just selling cosmetics. Mary Kay changed women’s lives.
At a time when the “American Dream” remained elusive to so many due to societal bias, direct selling made a place for women to finally become economically visible by using their social networks to advance careers beyond “mad money” earnings. Legacy female founders, like Jafra’s Jan Day and Eunice Dudley, who met and worked alongside her husband Joe at Fuller Products, Inc. for decades before co-founding Dudley Beauty Corp., helped women from all walks of life discover what was on the inside and pull it to the outside.
“Success is not money in the bank or the car that you drive or the clothes that you wear or your status in the community,” Mary Crowley, founder of Home Interiors, said. “But success is really the ratio between what you have done and what you can do.”
“Nothing was quite like the reality of getting in that car, packed up with all my things, leaving my family at home and driving in rush hour traffic at night to Ruth’s house,” Pampered Chef Founder Doris Christopher recalled.
Slow traffic gave Doris time to second guess. Was she crazy for thinking kitchen shows would work? She was scared, but she kept driving.
“It’s just such an amazing thing to think about how uncomfortable I was when I had to really do this show and how quickly those fears were at least put aside, if not totally erased by success, by the positive response we got from customers,” Doris said.
The heartaches suffered, hurdles cleared and groundwork laid by direct selling’s extraordinary founding sisters are but one turn of a spinning wheel of inspiration. The next empowering turn comes from the bold, creative and tenacious spirits of these 35 current day female founders, whose modern leadership and vision reflects many of the ideals and principles of their predecessors.
Bianca Lisonbee’s advice to women? “Be yourself. Who you are is your greatest asset.”
And from her birth, being Bianca meant embracing a unique origin story. Her immigrant parents were literally enroute from Italy to America when she was born. Her passport lists her birthplace as “At Sea” and each time she signs her name is a reminder of the name of the vessel that carried her family to a new home—Conte Bianca Mano.
“You can imagine the strange looks I get while going through Customs and Immigration when I travel. Reactions range from outright laughter to suspicious looks. The responses make me wonder if officials think I might be some sort of mermaid in disguise!” Bianca joked.
But it is precisely this unlikely beginning that engrained in Bianca an empathy for immigrants. In living that story and in its re-telling over the decades that have passed, Bianca has inspired countless 4Life affiliates and customers around the world. It informs her day-to-day as a founder within the direct selling industry, as well as the good works she undertakes through the creation of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Foundation 4Life.
Because she shares the role of founder with her husband, David, hers were not the challenges faced by many other female founders who have shouldered that responsibility alone. But as Bianca shared, “In my experience with women who have done just that, I think it’s important for us to have a passion for what we are doing. That passion breeds a level of confidence that others are drawn to regardless of gender or anything else. Nothing can stop an enthusiastic woman who believes in what she is doing!”
“Women like Mary Kay Ash are truly legends in this industry. I love how she didn’t wait for anyone to give her permission to succeed. She found a space she was passionate about and went for it,” Bianca said.
Bianca believes it’s not necessary for females to try to be like their male peers. Women often possess a natural ability to network and connect. That’s a great advantage in a relationship business like direct selling. But what all would-be leaders must do is learn from the examples around them.
“It’s important to make sure your company provides a level playing field for growth and progress for all your employees and that would, of course, include women. This is something that needs to be visited and revisited regularly. And yes, it is very important to us because it makes for not only individual satisfaction in the workplace, but helps the entire organization move forward in dynamic ways because an employee who feels valued in their contribution will bring a lot of positive energy and talent to the table.”
Nearly 30 years after Melissa Thompson became an Avon representative, she sat in the founder’s seat at BELLAME and asked a simple question. “Why should someone have to pay us to represent our brand?” The mind-blowing answer: they shouldn’t have to.
This revelation led to Melissa’s construction of direct selling’s first omni marketing opportunity, an increasingly relevant business model in a significantly shifted post-COVID world. “We have gone from entrepreneurs looking for a brand to represent, to them looking to add us to their personal brands,” she explained.
With that comes the need for companies to respect those personal brands and provide entrepreneurs flexibility for multiple brand representation. It’s a new and exciting shift in what direct selling is and will be—one Melissa is truly excited by. She is committed to blazing a trail and changing the game with this forward-thinking business model, not just for BELLAME’s predominately female field, but for the future of entrepreneurship and the direct selling channel.
“The merging of affiliate and network marketing allows us to be perfectly positioned to be the most relevant opportunity for the next generations of social sellers. While I am beyond proud to have pioneered the omni marketing opportunity, I am even more inspired witnessing other brands moving in this direction!” she said.
Melissa’s career started by calling on customers door-to-door but eventually landed her in management, where she passionately advocated for entrepreneurs and their customers. Unlike her male colleagues who expressed equal exuberance and exhibited “true leadership,” Melissa was labeled “dramatic or bossy” in those predominately male boardrooms.
“This obstacle became a catalyst for shaping my career and later creating a brand and environment that celebrates passionate leadership,” Melissa shared.
“I experienced firsthand what it means to step into being unapologetically YOU, but it took a good 15 years to get there. I wish I could share with my younger self what I share now with others: Be confident. Speak up. Embrace who you are and what you have to offer and never, ever play small!” Melissa emphasized.
“From a field perspective, we are a female-dominated industry, yet many boardrooms continue to be male dominated. Creating the next generation of female corporate executives should be a goal for us all as an industry. It is a goal for BELLAME. I plan to help develop tomorrow’s industry leaders, whether they stay with us forever or move on. We are doing our part to ensure the long-term success of our industry,” she said.
Be confident. Speak up. Embrace who you are and what you have to offer and never, ever play small!
Mindy Lin never envisioned this path or this journey. She did see herself clearly as a mother that would keep her children safe from things she had faced as a child. But the broader scope—the ability to lead a company that would leave a whole world of women and children safer—that was a bit unexpected. However, she said, “That’s the vision and the dream now.”
“I’ve been continuously inspired by how far and how much good people are willing to go and to give to make a difference in the world,” Mindy said. Her company’s Damsel House Project, a sex trafficking rescue, and the connection of her company’s field to the work in those homes is proof.
“Put a big heart in front of a child that was rescued because of their hard work, and you will never lose them. And place a strong heartfelt mission in the middle of an industry and watch a network of people you barely know, and even “competitors” in the space, rally around to support it,” Mindy said.
Her greatest joy—the ability to make change for the most vulnerable—presents personal difficulties at times. “I would say my greatest challenge has been staying in my lane as the Founder and CEO and not taking on the hardships of the field as my own. Understanding their trauma and what they have overcome, it’s very easy to blur the lines between founder and friend, when you are an empath who loves the people you are leading,” Mindy said.
Yet, this former Mary Kay consultant has found a way. She’s always believed that nothing could stop a woman with a strong work ethic and an even bigger vision. Surrounded by women within her own company and the larger industry that so readily lead by this example, Mindy thinks of them as the modern day versions of the founding female direct sales icons like Mary Kay Ash and Doris Christopher.
“I think that we, as women, are some of the best natural innovators. We face a problem at home or at work and quickly assess for solutions. Make us do the same inefficient task twice and watch us revolutionize it with a hack or delegate it without ego to someone who can do it better,” she said.
“Today, we lead armies of inspiring women bolstered by and proud of their abilities to make a difference in the world for others, not just in themselves or in their households. What an incredible evolution of impact for young female professionals to follow.”
Today, we lead armies of inspiring women bolstered by and proud of their abilities to make a difference in the world for others.
Ursula Dudley Oglesby
Ursula Dudley Oglesby doesn’t remember a time when direct sales wasn’t a part of her life. At ten years old, her parents—who met working for Fuller Products, Inc., spent years at the company’s helm and eventually created their own beauty brand—had Ursula selling door-to-door.
“I wrote my Harvard college application essay about my escapades,” Ursula remembered. She’s certain those direct selling experiences contributed to her acceptance and later work as a student recruiter in Harvard’s Admissions Office.
Ursula had never envisioned becoming the leader of the brand that her parents, Joe and Eunice, built. But, she said, “The universe had a different plan for me.”
A 30-second fire at their company facility resulted in more than property damage. While no one was hurt thanks to quick-thinking employees, she said, “The ensuing challenges almost became too much to bear.”
But the family-owned and -operated business rallied, restructured and in 2008, Ursula found herself as President and CEO of Dudley Beauty Corp. “I had to use all of my knowledge and experience up to that point to lead the company. It was challenging and exciting at the same time.”
Ursula learned to trust herself and believe in her abilities and now tells young women, who are just starting their careers, to remember: “You have everything you need to be successful. You will encounter challenges and obstacles, but always remember your mission and you will prevail.”
Taking inspiration from Mary Kay Ash, an icon and legend she was privileged to meet, Ursula shared, “She let nothing stop her and built a fabulous company. Her life helped me to develop part of my mission statement. My chief aim is to give men and women a dose of hope by enriching their lives so that every time they look in the mirror, they can truly see the beauty on the outside and the inside and know in their mind that ‘God didn’t take time to make a NOBODY!’”
Ursula is no fan of bureaucracy and empowers her staff by keeping an open door and open mind. She channels her passion for business and personal development into classes that she teaches whenever she can. And to survive and thrive through the COVID pandemic, creative and innovative thinking came to the forefront of her leadership style.
Dudley Beauty Corp’s multi-channel business model faced significant challenges during the world health crisis. “The majority of our business had been through beauty salons, and they were shut down. I had to learn how to pivot quickly and to make critical business decisions,” Ursula said.
“I began to sell hand sanitizer, developed programs for the hair stylists to earn money from home and increased my eCommerce footprint. Dudley Beauty Corp. became a leaner and healthier organization as a result,” she said.
Sylvie Rochette & Amelia Warren
Like so many young mothers, Sylvie Rochette was feeling the pressure of dinner. It needed to be fast. It needed to be healthy. And she needed her kids to eat it. But accomplishing that every night with what was available at her local grocer was increasingly unlikely. It seemed like nobody cooked from scratch anymore. Everything was highly processed and boxed and not very good for you—or your family.
Sylvie began experimenting at home with wholesome seasonings and spices and soon met success around her own dinner table that would spill out to family, friends, farmer’s markets and trade shows. In 1997, she launched Epicure, which would go on to become direct selling’s largest Canadian-founded party plan company.
Amelia Warren was one of those kids sitting around Sylvie’s table and says her mother gave rise to a food movement that has nourished and changed millions of lives. “Since then, our family business has been a woman-run company, empowering women in our corporate team and our community,” Amelia said.
“We understand that for our home team to fill the cup of others, they must fill their own first. We believe in women; we empower women; we support women; we walk the walk and talk the talk,” Amelia shared.
That means equal opportunities for career advancement, a safe work environment, open communication as well as education and development opportunities. “We support our parents with flexibility (hours, remote), paid time off to attend medical appointments or a school play, paid sick days, paid maternity and paternity leave and create awareness through regular diversity, equity and inclusion training for both our home office team and field leadership,” Amelia said.
Epicure meets its Canadian and U.S. staff where they are with what they need to be successful at work and at home. They meet their field consultants and their customers using the same attention-to-need philosophy.
“Customers must be able to easily purchase from us—whether that’s online, on social media, in person, at cooking classes or via a frictionless eCommerce experience,” Amelia said. “To differentiate, we need to add value in every interaction.”
And it is the brand ambassador who remains vital to Epicure expanding its reach. “Equipping them with simple tools and strategies they can implement quickly to monetize their community, grow a robust client base and build customer loyalty is key,” she said.
Amelia leads an agile and entrepreneurial company bent on expansion and growth, applying vertical integration strategies, rapid product innovation, a focus on higher product quality and increased availability.
“While we are always evolving, as a multi-generational family business, we make all our decisions with the next generation in mind. We are not a flash-in-the-pan company; we will be here through the tough times and thrive because we have a big mission—to serve our communities by helping time-starved families connect across the table to share epic food, eat healthier and live better.”
While we are always evolving, as a multi-generational family business, we make all our decisions with the next generation in mind.
Meredith Cook is well acquainted with the success sentiment that says, “You just have to start where you are and not wait until you think you are ready.”
Despite a deep fear of public speaking, Meredith armed herself with marked up notes and took refuge behind a podium every single time she addressed a crowd during the early days of Green Compass Global. She relied heavily on them, until finally—little by little—fear loosened its grip.
“I am not embarrassed to admit any of this because I know it helps our Advocates develop confidence in themselves and know that they too can get outside their comfort zones, feel the fear but jump in anyway,” Meredith shared.
“I think that many people have been conditioned to play small and that makes sense when you understand that your brain just wants to keep you safe. Our survival instinct equates sameness with safety,” she explained.
That’s probably why naysayers perpetually popped up when Meredith shared what they thought were “unrealistic” goals. Most people couldn’t envision the rapid growth she knew her hemp-based wellness company would attain. Of course, there was also the added factor of being a female founder.
“I have encountered times when my vision was taken even less seriously, especially by male counterparts or I was patronized when casting my vision,” she said. But unwavering support, respect and belief flowed freely from her husband and Co-Founder, Sterling, as well as Green Compass’s entire executive team and many others.
“As women, one of our many superpowers is to lead with both our intuition and our intellect. In hindsight, I can confidently say that intuition, intellect and unwavering belief in myself and my vision has led to my success. There’s no room for doubt, so instead I’ve learned to trust myself and inspire those around me to think bigger—even when it’s uncomfortable,” she said.
According to Meredith, it’s vital to never let other people’s doubts shrink your vision. Women should follow their hearts and trust their intuition, then partner it with grit, determination, belief in yourself and hard work. “But you must take that leap into the unknown and get outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of where you will land. Once you jump, your safety net will appear!”
The trick to empowerment is in creating a safe environment where women can be honest, authentic and take risks. It takes connection and trust to build a sanctuary of sorts like Green Compass, where women know they can be vulnerable. It also takes a leader who purposefully targets and prioritizes empowering women, leads with empathy and admits to mistakes.
“When women know you believe in them and trust their abilities, value their opinions and expertise and care about them, they can thrive,” she said. “People need to hear from your heart and feel your energy.”
Women push to do more and be more, prioritizing family and wearing an array of “hats” multiple times a day in order to balance work and life. Kathy Coover—a self-proclaimed over-achiever—doesn’t see that changing. “Over-achievers often think we must do everything ourselves, but training others and learning to trust others is crucial to your success and well-being,” she said.
Kathy did her fair share of swapping hats when Isagenix was a fledgling direct selling company. “That’s where I believe true learning happens,” she said. And that hectic, unbalanced time taught her to embrace her passion for field sales and marketing, then stretch to grow into the rest.
Soon, Kathy used her decade as a top field leader to simplify business growth for associates and gave them what they needed to succeed. “It was special to me because it allowed me to link arms with the field and work together for a common goal. To this day, I believe bonding and collaborating with the field creates the most successful outcome, culture and loyalty,” she said.
Post-pandemic, amid a competitive business climate that not only includes other direct selling companies but also the likes of Amazon, people who want and need sustaining incomes demand simplicity. “If it’s not easy, they’re not interested in the model because they have other options like becoming an Amazon influencer. People want to know exactly what they will get paid, so affiliate options become very desirable,” Kathy said.
According to Kathy, direct selling companies must continue to adapt and create platforms for like-minded Millennials and Gen Z to create bonds, seek personal growth and fulfillment, learn new life skills, challenge themselves and take control of their destinies.
“When used properly, these influencers can attract many new customers, and customer base is key,” she said.
For female entrepreneurs, Kathy said, “They aren’t dependent on anyone else to make or break their careers; promote them or hold them back; review their work or judge them in any way. It’s a very satisfying feeling to be in control of your career.”
Were she able to advise her younger self, Kathy shared that she would remind herself of a few simple facts. “Success takes time. Be patient with yourself. Set big goals with deliverable actions attached to them. Constantly evaluate your results and make necessary adjustments. Collaborate more. Collaboration stimulates everyone to be creative and think out-of-the-box. Watch what other successful companies and leaders are doing to get ideas to expand your reach. Never stop challenging yourself.”
“I was tired of people telling me how far I could go,” Nancy Bogart said. And the company she founded in her Missouri kitchen not only propelled her career to unimaginable heights, but also offered limitless potential to so many others.
Nancy was told “no” over and over because she was a woman. She was ignored because she was a woman. It happened so frequently, she said that, “It became quite comical to me. I sometimes would just mentally take note and think what a fun chapter they would be in my book someday.”
On days when rejection seemed to pile up, it was that future success story where she focused and gained immense inspiration to keep going. “Our first bank said ‘no’ to us, but our second bank said, ‘yes.’ They got over $30 million in business that the first bank missed out on,” she said.
Nancy’s best advice? Stop second-guessing. It’s a waste of time. Arm yourself with double-checked facts; be true to who you are; and just go for it. “If you screw up—you can fix that too!” she shared. “Write your story, sister!”
Nancy also took a deep dive into the histories of direct selling’s legacy pioneers before she started Jordan Essentials, reading book after book. Then she cultivated “deep roots” with contemporaries—Jill Blashack Strahan, Joan Hartel, Joni Rogers-Kante, Madolyn Johnson and more—who each became amazing friends and mentors.
Deeply rooted relationships like these create a unique vibe within the industry—with customers, consultants and coworkers. “I do not see this anyplace else. I love it!” she said.
As Nancy thinks about the future, meeting the challenges brought by competition and consumer needs, she said, “Those deep roots weather the storms and have kept us going 23 years later—and they will keep us going long into the future.”
“My business is not in my kitchen anymore, so it’s 100 percent very different than I had envisioned and much more spectacular than I could have imagined. I am so very grateful and humbled daily,” Nancy shared.
Yet, as her story continues to unfold, it can at times be personally challenging to drive corporate growth without succumbing to her workaholic tendencies, and she constantly strives to find and maintain balance and fulfillment in each aspect of her life. Nancy’s most significant obstacle as a direct selling founder has been striving to succeed without losing sight of her original purpose.
Write your story, sister!
Michele Gay & Madison Mallardi
Driven by achievement and a diligent focus on earning the next level, field leaders at LimeLife by Alcone simply burned out in the early days of the company. Their businesses caused friction at home and took a toll on the women and their families. When Michele Gay and Madison Mallardi figured out what was happening, they re-prioritized female wellness over results and changed their model for success.
“We didn’t know if that was going to lead to our decline, but it didn’t feel right to push women to the point of breaking. What we discovered was that by asking them to pull back, they were able to achieve much more,” Michele said.
Rethinking how time and energy are spent, especially when it comes to work/life balance, remains top of mind for everyone. With no limit to earning potential, the ability to make a difference in lives quickly and access to support from people who want to help you, direct selling makes sense. But perhaps the most compelling advantage is the way direct sellers can immediately practice and adopt desired entrepreneurial behaviors for success.
“If you put 100 direct sellers in a Tony Robbins training, most will leave and put into practice the behaviors he is hoping you will adopt. I don’t think you get that result with 100 non-direct sellers,” Michele said.
“The key is for the next generation to understand that owning your own direct sales business is real entrepreneurialism,” Michele said.
But if you’re just getting started, Madison believes in perseverance. “Don’t be discouraged. Working in this industry is a journey, not a destination. Make time to celebrate the wins—big or small—even if it feels like there is no time.”
And take a look at direct selling with a wide lens. Few jobs allow kids to see their moms in action at work. “I think it is very inspiring to the next generation to watch their parents in direct sales; doing what they love; putting in the work; and going after their goals. Children are more likely to be entrepreneurial and have higher expectations for their careers one day,” Madison explained.
With the normalization of social media influencers monetizing their personal brands, Michele said, “I think we have a real opportunity to turn the negative stigma of our model into the very best financial opportunity for influencers.”
Amber Olson Rourke
Amber Olson Rourke’s passion for the direct selling industry lies in helping women find their voices. Tapping into a woman’s truest and strongest voice can help her learn to use that voice for good and create a business that can increase and optimize her life choices down the road.
Amber grew up in direct sales with parents who first built large, successful field organizations, then worked as executives. She had a front row seat to the power and beauty of the business model. Eventually, the trio worked together to build Neora.
“Hands down, this industry provides one of the best platforms to directly impact people’s lives,” Amber said.
Direct selling companies are inherently agile and lean. This nimble way of doing business can accelerate execution to market, as well as individual employee growth when compared to traditional corporate environments.
“Within Neora, we have several director level managers who started in our call center and worked their way up. And I know this to be true in many other companies as well. When we identify good people, we invest in developing them,” she said.
“Anyone who is going to make a truly big impact has to be willing to take risks, willing to deal with disappointment, willing to advocate for their ideas and have a massive amount of passion and vision,” Amber said.
These are the characteristics Neora cultivates within the ranks. “For us, it is all about creating a culture where everyone feels valued, included and has an equal seat at the table. If you create that environment, the right people will rise up regardless of what gender, ethnicity or sexuality they are. We are very proud of the diverse nature of the people who have risen to leadership roles within Neora,” Amber said.
Intuition has never led Amber wrong. She has, however, deferred to those who were more seasoned and later regretted it. So now Amber listens to her truest and strongest voice and stands firm in her viewpoints. At the same time, she’s challenged herself to calm those nurturing tendencies that come so easy and stop riding to the rescue.
“If you fix everyone’s problems, you are robbing them of the opportunity to learn the lessons and are making them dependent on you for the solutions. An effective leader creates other leaders, not followers. So, changing my natural responses to be ones that coached and challenged people in love, so they could develop into leaders is not something that came naturally to me. I had to put in the time to develop this skill,” Amber explained.
Chani Reeve & Misty Kirby
“Women who decided to go for it will always be a source of inspiration for us. We admire anyone who is brave enough to share their vision with the world,” Chani Reeve said.
And in many ways, Chani and her fellow founder, Misty Kirby, are exactly those kind of women. Paparazzi Accessories was born organically from customers who loved and purchased their products at fairs and expos then wanted to host home parties. Word-of-mouth spread, the requests became more frequent and Chani and Misty sought new ways for others to participate.
In the beginning, they were quick to dismiss Paparazzi’s potential for changing lives. But their field of consultants proved they could apply the business model to overcome incredible obstacles and hardships to shape lives they never dared to dream about. Almost daily, the company founders feel lucky to hear their stories of perseverance and success.
“Women are notoriously adaptable, and there is no doubt that younger generations will find innovative ways to reap the same rewards from the business model for years to come,” Chani said.
Direct selling offers hope and empowerment, but it takes hard work. “We’ve found that people are often hoping for an easy fix, with their focus being on finding the next best thing, rather than resolving issues as they arise. We have always been problem solvers and continue to address issues head-on which is not always easy, but always worth it,” Chani said.
This means facing the largest of obstacles for any company—growth. “When a company starts to become successful, in order to maintain a growth curve, you have to grow individually. Growth can be a roadblock or a challenge. Finding more space, more employees and keeping up with inventory can become overwhelming if you let it,” she said.
Learning opportunities are disguised as problems and obstacles. So, staying open to that education and trusting your instincts along the way is the best advice for young women just starting out in their careers.
“Mentoring the women within our corporate organization is important to us. We strive to do this by reinforcing the company vision and our mission statement. Women empowering women is at the core of our business. Sometimes, the only way to grow is to step back and let them make their own mistakes. Once they have learned the ins and outs, place them in roles that allow them to use their strengths—and everything else falls into place,” Chani said.
One of Patty Brisben’s constants in life is education—the never-ending desire to learn and teach. Disseminating information about women’s sexual health has made all the difference for her and the lives of countless others that have heard her speak; worked and advocated alongside her; and purchased Pure Romance products.
Sharing and contributing to society’s knowledge base through college lectures meant Patty connected with men and women from all walks of life who shared some degree of commonality—they were in some way ignorant about their own and each other’s bodies. During Yale Sex Week—a favorite of her experiences—she remembered thinking, “These are the people that will run our country one day, and they don’t even know their anatomy.”
“To this day, when I’m out and about, I run into someone that tells me I spoke to their class, and that it influenced their career. Now they are physicians or gynecologists or working in women’s sexual health. It really makes me so happy. I am so proud of all the doors we have opened for women’s sexual health through Pure Romance and the Patty Brisben Foundation,” she said.
Patty never expected Pure Romance to grow so rapidly. She never looked at the company as a way to sell products. Instead it was a path toward education and empowerment for consultants and consumers. She surrounded herself with positive, good people who pushed her forward and helped when times got tough.
It was vital, she learned, to turn off the noise and stay clear of negativity. “I feel extremely lucky that when I started there weren’t dozens of social channels where people could openly express their opinions. You can’t get caught up in the negativity and opinions of others if you want to continue growing as an entrepreneur and business owner. You need to spend your energy on growing your company,” Patty explained.
Staying true to her “why” guided Patty through many challenges, including potentially dangerous ones like when she was not taken seriously as a female founder by men who joined her company. “It has the capability to change the dynamic in the room when you bring others that may not support your vision fully to the table,” she said.
“I look at everything as a learning opportunity, and we can all focus together on getting better and stronger.”
That means empowering others by always listening, bringing people to the table and allowing them to present their ideas and opinions.
“My biggest reward is seeing people who have come from nothing who build confidence and succeed. I have witnessed this throughout my career, and it is what keeps me excited and fulfilled every single day,” she said.
Jesse McKinney, Amanda Moore & Genie Reese
There’s no way Jesse McKinney, Amanda Moore and Genie Reese’s founding expectations included leading Red Aspen through hypergrowth during a global pandemic, but that’s the amazing ride they got.
“I did not envision how fulfilling it would be, how hard it would be, nor the impact this company would have on women across the United States,” Jesse shared.
“It was a difficult time to have children and be a woman because trying to manage a work/life balance was challenging,” Amanda agreed.
Red Aspen offered little pleasures—indulgences for at-home self-care—and their product popularity launched them into hypergrowth and the subsequent management of thousands of brand partners from a small home office space.
“Hypergrowth forces you to reach new levels of flexibility, dedication and determination,” Jesse said.
But Jesse, Amanda and Genie were unwavering in their support of each other and bent on riding that roller coaster together. “I firmly believe that our established support, trust and compassion for each other helped us be successful as co-owners of a business,” Jesse said.
Developing and empowering women inside their headquarters that they call the “Treehouse” is a major priority and practice for positive company growth. “As founders, our mission is to inspire women to stand up, stand out and stand together by uniting passion with purpose,” Amanda explained.
With a 90 percent female staff, women drive forklifts and trucks. They may hire in for shipping, but move quickly to the support team. Company leaders dig into employee talents and channel them into the best corporate roles for individual growth. “Ultimately, creating a space where team members can grow in their profession, is a valuable tool in building empowered team members,” Genie said.
When they consider the stories of legacy female founders of direct selling, it’s easy for these three determined women to see parallels to their own experience. They began as a small team with limited funds, alongside a big dream they wanted to accomplish. Following the lead of pioneers like Mary Kay, they created and continue to operate Red Aspen in a way that empowers their brand partners and allows them to be successful.
“We are continuously amazed at how hardworking, close-knit and supportive our direct selling community is. We are not just a network of female business owners, we are like a family,” Jesse said. “The people, places, events and decisions that we have met, been, had and made at Red Aspen have helped us, as Founders of the company, to be better leaders, visionaries and entrepreneurs.”
Dr. Katie Rodan & Dr. Kathy Fields
Timing is everything. And six months after Rodan + Fields launched their retail brand in 2004, Estee Lauder Companies came calling, and they were acquired. But department store traffic fell off with the recession of 2008 and soon Founders Dr. Katie Rodan and Dr. Kathy Fields risked it all to buy back their company and relaunch their brand in the direct selling channel.
“Based on our Proactiv experience—a brand launched on infomercials in 1995 during a recession—we learned two things that influenced our decision to retreat from retail: First, recessions bring out the entrepreneurs—and second, alternative forms of selling and distributing products can be highly successful,” Katie said.
In the beginning, they never imagined they would create skincare brands that would rival the biggest companies in the world. But they did and, in doing so, invented a paradigm shift in the way acne, and now other skincare and haircare issues are treated. In turn, the lives of millions of people across the world changed. Skin issues should no longer take a toll on self-esteem or confidence.
“We heard a lot of ‘no’s’ before we launched Proactiv. When we started out, neither Katie nor I had the business background that made traditional investors trust our vision. There were many closed doors,” Kathy remembered.
Relaunching Rodan + Fields as a direct seller also presented challenges, but they stuck to their vision. “We had a passion and have always been compelled to go forward,” Kathy said.
“Unlike a lot of guys who were born with ‘swagger,’ I’ve observed that, especially in women, achieving success is stepwise and comes from proving to yourself that you can do hard things. In other words, personal growth doesn’t happen overnight. Self-improvement is a worthy lifelong pursuit and much of what I have learned about myself, I learned through being an entrepreneur,” Katie shared.
Balancing it all hasn’t been easy. “We are women with families; we are also entrepreneurs, practicing dermatologists and take our commitment to our R+F community and practice patients seriously. We have learned you must collaborate and partner. It’s all about getting our aces in the right places—surrounding yourself with the right people, the right expertise and the right talent,” Kathy explained.
As Rodan + Fields celebrates its 15-year anniversary, they are proud of their majority female executive team, consultant base and the many women serving in leadership roles. “We also value balance,” Dr. Rodan said. “We are strong believers that the best teams have diverse perspectives and expertise.”
They respect the strong vision and steadfast purpose that trailblazing direct sellers like Mary Kay Ash and Brownie Wise applied while creating legacy brands. “It’s inspirational to think about these strong women, who thrived against all odds and succeeded in building companies that have been around for decades. We are still talking about them today,” Kathy said. “What they created is incredible—they truly had no playbook.”
“Love,” Heidi Thompson said, “is the fuel and reward for what we do.”
And it’s love that surprised her the most over the years and influenced so many corporate decisions—from how to finance operations to the amount of time personally invested in the lives of their people.
“I tend to view the employee experience from the position of a mom and advocate for policies and practices that support that point of view. I find that when we create an environment where moms can feel valued, supported and understood at work, even the men find work more pleasant,” Heidi explained.
Scentsy’s intuitive Founder relishes the child-like wonder, contagious optimism, connection, love and kindness of her chosen industry. And the impact of the company that she started in a tiny, converted barn on the family sheep farm has surpassed her expectations time and again.
“I was looking for a way to get out of debt; then it was to provide a living for my family; then it became about setting a good example for my children and serving people who believed in and helped us. Serving others motivated every good decision and led to every positive impact,” Heidi shared.
But at times, fear drowned out her voice. “As we grew, we hired people who were more educated and experienced than me. I knew what needed to happen, but I couldn’t explain myself well enough to data-driven executives. I felt intimidated and went along with decisions I didn’t support. Fear stopped me from speaking up,” she remembered.
Scentsy’s culture suffered; sales declined. To return to growth, Heidi said, “I had to trust my instincts; overcome my fear; advocate for necessary change; and reform the executive team with people who could respect my voice.”
Heidi stopped limiting her potential. As Sir Richard Branson once said, “If people aren’t calling you crazy, you aren’t thinking big enough!”
Out the window of their first “office” was a vacant 320,000 square foot building. It was for sale for $15 million. Her husband and Co-Founder, Orville said they should find a way to buy it because in five years Scentsy would need it, and it would cost twice as much.
“I thought he was crazy. That building was 1,000 times bigger than our little office, and our sales were less than $500,000 per year!” Heidi said. Turns out, Orville wasn’t thinking big enough back then. Scentsy occupies more than 1.5 million square feet today.
“Direct selling will always appeal to people at a certain time in their lives. Each year there are new people entering that time of life, but there are also people leaving that time of life,” Heidi said. “We see our market as a target with a certain demographic as the bullseye. Each year the people in that demographic change—so must we.”
Taking that first step—the initial foray into a lesser known industry or business—that’s what Sarah Shadonix shared was the hardest part of founding a company. A novel idea sparks excitement, but that idea alone doesn’t make for a successful company.
“We have to flesh it out, cast vision to others and show them how they can win alongside us if we want to succeed. Along the way, we encounter naysayers and critics who tell us all the things that are wrong with our idea,” Sarah said. “But we have to keep going. We have to filter through the noise, identify the valuable feedback, continue to ideate, adjust, build consensus and momentum and never give up.”
By founding Scout & Cellar, a clean-crafted winery, Sarah stands firmly straddling a line between direct selling and the alcohol beverage industry, which has been a man’s world for generations. “The alcohol beverage industry has a diversity problem that includes, but also extends beyond gender,” Sarah said.
To her way of thinking, that means the entire alcohol beverage industry is missing out. If customers aren’t represented in the boardroom, on leadership and marketing teams, how can they speak authentically to customers or prospective customers?
“We should be hiring women, listening to them and creating space for them to grow and elevate,” Sarah explained. But it’s about more than just creating opportunity for workers, diversity is vital to creating opportunities for businesses too and expanding the entire alcohol industry.
“That’s what we’ve done with our mostly female field of independent consultants and our executive team. But we have a long way to go and can do so much more to broaden our diversity beyond gender,” she noted.
The direct selling industry “empowers women and others to work a meaningful business in the pockets of their day and still be present as parents, partners or in other relationships and also have other careers,” Sarah said.
That’s the best part of direct selling. “That’s how we win. We must continue to create and emphasize this opportunity—the side hustle is always in style.”
While direct selling carries a stigma that remains an obstacle, Sarah commits Scout & Cellar to lean fiercely into their core values, respect the regulatory environment and celebrate their spirit of innovation. They do so to overcome the negatives because direct selling positively impacts people, offers fast-paced and innovative product lifecycles and allows individuals to work with people from diverse industries.
Like many people laying the groundwork for their own company, 24 years ago Joni Rogers-Kante thought it might be easier than it really was. She launched SeneGence with a flagship product—the first, long-lasting lip color ever—and it took the market by storm. Success seemed inevitable, and it was.
As Joni shared, “What a journey we have had! Putting a company together from scratch was definitely a learning experience and test of grit!”
Success, she said, is never achieved alone. Hers is a family company with husband Ben and their eldest son Alan in vital roles, and many staff members include husbands, wives and children of employees. “This creates a legacy both inside and outside the walls of our offices,” Joni explained.
Being a company founded for women by women makes empowering them to be successful part of the SeneGence DNA. Call it paying it forward, perhaps, because Joni fondly recalls her days as an independent distributor and the connection she felt to Mary Kay Ash. “I met with Mary Kay Ash personally on several occasions and was blessed to learn this industry directly from her. She was not only an influence, but a role model I hope I’ve lived up to,” she said.
Today, Joni advises women, “You know best what works for you. However, you must be honest with yourself and recognize your own shortcomings and put together a plan to overcome them. Trust your gut and do what feels ‘right’ for you, your family and your life.” And show up for work every day—consistency pays off.
Despite encounters with people who thought they knew best and tried to convince Joni of it, she’s remained consistent in her vision and commitment to the unique SeneGence culture. She’s learned that credentials and resume expertise don’t always “fit.” The nuances associated with really knowing and understanding a company is vital to contributing to its success in the long term.
That said, Joni believes adapting to an ever-changing market is at once the industry’s biggest opportunity and challenge. “We can’t allow ourselves to get caught up in, ‘This is how we have always done things.’ We must access and evaluate our business constantly. However, we must always be true to who we are, protect our company culture and keep our independent distributors’ best interests at the forefront of everything we do.”
Chrissy Weems & Bella Weems Lambert
Hard work is at the heart of the Origami Owl origin story. Chrissy Weems wanted to teach her then 14-year-old daughter, Bella, the importance of work ethic, perseverance and chasing dreams. Bella had her eye on earning enough money to buy a car, but the company this mother/daughter team created in 2011 turned into something far greater.
Growth came quickly, and Chrissy unexpectedly found herself leading the home office team and Purpose Partners (field distributors). “We never could have anticipated how quickly we grew. Because of my daughter’s dream and ambition, my life as well as the lives of countless others have been changed—truly changed—in immeasurable ways,” Chrissy said.
Today, Origami Owl is but one brand under the umbrella of Think Goodness, a collective launched in 2021 that broadens its overall product portfolio to include wellness, lifestyle and good-for-you beauty products. They’ve also established the Giving Goodness Foundation, a nonprofit that expands and focuses their charitable endeavors to create a ripple effect of good in the world.
“It’s the people. Observing the growth in our internal team members and with our Purpose Partners has been beyond fulfilling. I’m so passionate about helping others find meaning and purpose in their lives. It’s inspiring to witness the change in confidence, self-esteem and personal growth these women develop by being part of our mission,” she said.
Direct selling provides the opportunity for individuals to create change in their lives, and Chrissy believes the same can be true for the industry itself, but there are challenges. “As a channel, we’re antiquated and misunderstood. There are many misconceptions about direct selling based on poor leadership and shady practices from bad actors within the industry. This stigma hurts us all,” she said.
By collectively making forward-thinking decisions as industry leaders, credibility can be gained. The industry needs to face fear: “fear of change, fear of channel conflict in an omni-channel world, fear of losing leaders, fear of innovating our businesses to remain relevant in the modern world,” Chrissy said. “The world has changed. I believe we must evolve and adapt.”
It’s a customer-centric world. The way consumers shop and what they have access to have drastically changed. While many direct selling companies have robust back-end reporting systems and commissions engines, their front-end eCommerce experiences fall short. She’s certain that to succeed, customer experience must be a top priority.
“Social media is reshaping the way people see direct selling,” Chrissy said. Having grown to adulthood within the industry, Bella is expanding her reach and finding success cultivating relationships on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. “We must evolve with the times by utilizing new tools and strategies to foster relationships and share incredible products, Chrissy explained. “Influencer marketing is what the direct selling channel has always been, and utilizing social media is just the new way of doing business in today’s world.”
Mary Kay Ash once said, “Women only step into 10 percent of their potential.” That has stuck with Cindy Monroe for years and inspired her to not only live in more of her own potential, but also to help other women tap into more of theirs.
Her journey with Thirty-One Gifts has taken many turns, and as one would expect some were within her control and some without. The company has exceeded her expectations for growth over and over again, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t learned valuable lessons about the nuances of being a female founder.
“There have been times when the feedback I received from my male direct reports was less than honest, simply because I am a woman,” Cindy recalled.
“I think men are used to cutting to the chase and being direct with other men. When it comes to communicating with women, they learn to respect the females in their lives, such as their mothers and wives—which I admire—but when it comes to business, I need to hear it straight. There have been moments when the company suffered because men would hold back from telling me the truth. I value honesty—even if it’s uncomfortable—and as female executives, we need it,” Cindy said.
She has led Thirty-One Gifts with heart and built the company culture with relationships at its core. And it’s the love, respect and admiration she feels for the employees and sales associates and their families that continues to inspire her. “The relationships that I have because of direct selling totally exceed what I have ever thought was possible in a career!” Cindy said.
Getting to know kids’ names, their dogs and favorite vacation hideaways—even when their daughter or son gets married—these details build authentic relationships at corporate and between sales associates, but especially with customers.
“The challenge today is it’s easy to get away from that and rely too much on social media tools and influencers to promote products. We need to lean back into our core of building relationships,” Cindy said.
Social media hearts and likes don’t qualify as a “connected contact,” and as Thirty-One Gifts focuses its efforts on relationship building, consultants find more sales and sponsor new team members.
If given the chance to speak to her younger self, Cindy would say, “Embrace change early and see it as a positive. Invest time into an executive forum before you ‘need’ it. Listen to your inner coach and don’t give the data too much weight. Create a margin between your role at the office and home. Set clear expectations for your team and hold them accountable.”
When Mary Young’s husband, Gary, told her he wanted her to take the job of CEO, she argued against it. She never envisioned herself in such a leadership role. She was Gary’s partner. They were a team, going back to the days when they founded Young Living.
“I didn’t believe that I could do it,” Mary remembered.
Yet as Co-Founder of a wildly successful direct selling business, Mary assisted Gary in nearly every facet of the company. She knew the business well and over time came to realize she could take charge; she could lead; she could inspire others to join her.
Using logic and common sense as her guide, Mary learned the business from the ground up, sharing in the decision making with Gary until his passing. “There was a tremendous loss without my husband,” Mary said. “But gradually, we have filled those gaps and so many employees have risen to great heights in understanding how we want to grow our business.”
The power of the CEO, she said, is to work to empower others. Mary enjoys looking for opportunities, encouraging and watching people grow and become successful in their individual responsibilities.
“We have many female leaders at Young Living who are guided by nature’s journey in our mission to empower wellness, purpose and abundance for communities around the world,” she said.
“The appeal of direct selling lies in its potential for individuals to become entrepreneurs, own their own businesses, and create their defined success. It’s a thrill to see women, especially in some other countries, where they have little opportunity to create their own independence and financial freedom. Today, more women want to be entrepreneurs. They want to have their own businesses and create their own success. Young Living offers this kind of freedom for women of any generation,” Mary explained.
What advice would she offer to young women entering the channel through corporate direct selling or the field? Surround yourself with honest, skillful, intelligent people who care about others and about doing what is best for the business. Communicate and be open to those you hire. Listen and never jump to conclusions. Carefully consider the best interests of the company, brand partners and employees in every decision.
“With strong female leaders who continue to share our story, we can challenge outdated perspectives and promote an exciting future full of discoveries of success in the direct sales industry,” Mary said.
Developing female leaders is absolutely a purposeful target for Erin Bradley, and she believes that direct sales offers a unique opportunity for women to truly learn what it means to lead.
Leadership roles in typical corporate jobs often resemble an “or else” scenario. It’s a leadership style with “many sticks and not enough carrots,” Erin said. But direct sales is different. “Instead, leaders have to blaze a trail; create the map to guide their team; inspire them to follow it; and cheer them on at every stage. It’s a lot more work but far more rewarding and with more enduring results.”
This crystallized for Erin when demand and growth at Zyia Active surged during the pandemic. “It wasn’t easy. We had to rethink most of our supply chain, double our staff and triple our warehousing capacity in a very short timeframe,” she said.
While exciting, the pace paired with safeguarding the health and safety of staff challenged them. However, Erin said, “This period in our growth cemented a lot of partnerships and taught us who we could rely on both internally and externally.”
“The majority (around 70 percent) of our leadership roles are held by women. To date, we’ve never hired a woman into a leadership role from outside the company. Each manager, director or VP grew into their role by rising to challenges through our high-growth period, mentoring others and demonstrating initiative and teamwork at every turn,” Erin explained.
This is surely a by-product of a culture that places cooperation and community in high esteem and relegates competition and division to the trash heap. “It’s a delight to see leaders from different teams organizing events together, training each other’s teams and shouting out each other for a job well done. That doesn’t happen everywhere,” Erin said.
To Erin, people matter more than projections, numbers and data. “If you surround yourself with good, smart people who share your vision and your drive, you’re going to accomplish incredible things, and the numbers will work and fall into place.”
Erin believes society no longer believes direct saleswomen are simply filling their time or earning “mad money.” With the help of social media, women are leveraging direct sales opportunities to support families, build wealth and intentionally, ambitiously and strategically “own” their time.
Lines between influencer, affiliate, sales representative and enthusiast blur. As Millennial and Gen Z women continue to opt out of the 9-to-5, Erin believes there’s no better fit for someone who wants to forge their own path, become their own brand and own their life.
“I think the changemakers of the future will be familiar with the sales and marketing tools from different industries and continually find ways to take inspiration from other sales models to drive growth,” Erin shared.
From the March 2023 issue of Direct Selling News magazine.