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Headquarters: Boise, Idaho
Founders: Mindy Lin, Chief Marketing Officer; Bethany Hughes, Chief Services Officer
|Bethany Hughes and Mindy Lin|
The data is startling. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five women report having been raped at some time in their lives, another 5.6 percent have experienced sexual violence other than rape within the past year and 13 percent report experiences of sexual coercion at some time in their lives. For college women the numbers are even higher.
Coercing others to engage in sexual acts against their will has emerged as an international issue, with more than 21,000 human trafficking cases reported since December 2007, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center—and 12,490 tips or reports have already come in this year through August.
These are troubling statistics, even more troubling for the women counted in those statistics. So many feel helpless to defend themselves or aid others. But here’s where direct sales comes in: Two women decided to create a business in order to empower women to defend themselves.
Damsel in Defense, launched in 2011, is the first direct sales party plan company to sell self-defense products. It’s a mission-driven company, with products to protect women and proceeds to fund national and international charities, such as the Women’s and Children’s Alliance, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and Wipe Every Tear.
Company founders Mindy Lin and Bethany Hughes strive to educate women about how to protect themselves in dangerous situations.
Like many entrepreneurs, Mindy Lin and Bethany Hughes started operating out of their homes, a situation that didn’t last long, however. They quickly outgrew their 120-square-foot office that housed them in 2011 and moved to a 6,000-square-foot space and, most recently, have built a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and office space in Boise, Idaho.
The beginnings of Damsel in Defense were humble and somewhat unplanned. The women met at a “moms group” in 2009, Lin says. “We were both transplants from California and both very safety-minded people.” The mothers in the group, she recalls, “didn’t carry anything to protect themselves besides themselves.”
About that time, she adds: “My household came into financial constraints and Bethany, being a very generous friend, approached me and said: ‘Hey, I think I have an idea for a business. What do you think if we sell personal protection products to women at a local swap meet?’ I almost fell over. Her offer was extremely generous to split the cost of the business and split the profits.” But Lin says she wasn’t comfortable with the swap meet platform. Instead, she suggested a direct sales approach, based on her earlier experiences selling Mary Kay cosmetics.
The women hosted some initial events in Idaho and immediately saw a lot of interest from women who had no idea where they might find these types of personal protection products on their own. “Most women don’t go into a cop shop on a regular basis,” Lin says with a laugh. The products themselves can be intimidating to women, she notes. Consequently, the idea of bringing the products into their homes where they can be comfortable with their friends was the perfect way to educate them and allow them to try out the products.
Based on the immediate high level of interest among women who attended their initial events in Idaho, Lin and Hughes enlisted their husbands’ support in holding down the home front and taking care of the kids while they embarked on a nationwide effort to recruit 100 people over the year. “Within a year’s time we had recruited 1,000 people,” Lin says. That explosive growth, she admits, “was a little bit scary.”
As they traveled around the country to events where they demonstrated their products, one surprising outcome was the significant interest among husbands, Lin says. “Husbands would pull their wives away from other tables selling other products and say, ‘No, you don’t need another necklace, purse or whatever—I’ve been telling you that you need to carry something like this.’ That’s when we realized that there was something different here that we had captured,” she says.
But, even more important, according to Lin, the real impetus behind their passion was the impact on and the personal stories of women. “At every single event we went to there was always that one woman who would come up to the table and start crying and say, ‘Thank you for doing this, thank you for offering this. If I had had something to protect myself he couldn’t have done that to me.’ ” Those experiences and interactions, Lin says, are what brought the mission to life.
Addressing Explosive Growth
Damsel in Defense quickly filled a niche that was not being addressed for women. The company offers products such as pepper sprays, stun guns and other personal and protective devices, packaged attractively in pink and other feminine colors. Damsel in Defense provides not only the products but also a forum for women to share experiences, provide support and discuss various aspects of personal defense.
The company was launched as a bootstrap effort, with no outside investors. As a result, it started with zero debt and remains debt-free today. Success came quickly for Lin, who is Chief Marketing Officer, and Hughes, who is Chief Services Officer. Very shortly after their launch, their husbands left their jobs to join the business. Six months in, Lin says, “We said, ‘You guys are going to have to quit your jobs and come help us here because we’re drowning in the growth.’ ” Jimmy Lin is now the company’s Chief Financial Officer; Chris Hughes is the Chief Procurement Officer.
That transition was one of the early “bumps in the road,” Mindy Lin says. Working with Bethany Hughes had gone very smoothly, but bringing the husbands into the mix changed the dynamics from both business and personal perspectives. “It was like, ‘Hey, now I don’t just live with you, now I live with you and work with you.’ ” For herself, Lin says, a life as a business executive was never on her radar; her ideal had been to be a stay-at-home mom. “And that’s what we were before all this happened,” she says. “It’s been a huge transition for us to go from that to this.”
Understandably, infrastructure issues also emerged. “We weren’t the typical company that plans for a year and then pre-launches and then hard launches—we were just like ready, set, launch,” Lin says. “We were just very prayerful from the very beginning. We were like, ‘God, please bring the right resources and the right people along to coach us and mentor us through this as we go.’ We were fortunate to find Bob early on.”
Bob is Bob Hipple, the CEO of Damsel in Defense, a role he assumed in January 2014. Hipple was a great find for the company, Lin says. He originally was brought in to develop a compensation plan for the company’s 400 “Pros”—the salesforce of mostly women who were selling the company’s products through in-home parties and demonstrations. Hipple’s knowledge of the direct sales industry, built over 38 years, was too good to pass up. He’s had experience as a distributor, keynote speaker, company executive and business consultant, including a role as VP of sales for a top direct seller during its early growth period.
Initially, the women ran the company on QuickBooks and Excel for almost a year before putting in direct sales software. “A lot of people think you have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on software and have all of this venture capital money,” Hipple says. He adds that Damsel in Defense proves this is not the case. From humble beginnings the company has used its profits to fund infrastructure improvements—and to support initiatives aligned with its mission.
The company’s founders bring different competencies and personalities to the mix, Hipple says. “Mindy is very outgoing and runs the marketing department, communications and field development; Bethany is quieter and very businesslike and runs all events, schedules and hotels, and does all of the contract negotiations.”
From those initial 400 Pros, the company has grown significantly to about 4,600 active Pros in all 50 states, Hipple says. They’re extremely passionate about the company and its products. He says it means a lot to company executives that women have chosen to represent Damsel in Defense.
Company executives have made great efforts to keep a strong connection with the field. They have weekly training calls that serve as recognition opportunities and also allow sales leaders to share best practices with the newest Pros. Lin and Hughes even send out weekly videos, called Monday Minders, where they take a fun and personal approach to announcements. To further its training capabilities, there is a custom training portal where Pros have access to more videos, audios, and documents on topics they need to build their business. Lin says, the company is also working on a product that will send scheduled emails with videos and instructions to give brand-new Pros simple and clear steps for how to get started and what to do next in their business.
She adds that even with these improvements and the scaling of the company, growth has been very organic. There is no debt, and the executives have never touched their credit line. Today, Damsel in Defense has 20 full-time employees, and since its launch in 2011 it has paid out more than $5 million in commissions and sold more than $21 million in retail products.
From an initial 400 Pros, or consultants, Damsel in Defense has grown significantly to about 4,600 active Pros in 50 states.
“The compelling piece is what we call the mission side of the business,” Hipple says. “We actually are protecting the lives of women with the products that we sell and giving them the ability to be safe, to be equipped, to be empowered and to be a little bit more educated about their surroundings. We’ve attracted many women who have never been in direct sales because they feel passionate about what they’re doing and the products that they’re selling.”
As the company’s website states: “Our mission is the heart of our company, and we love to partner with organizations making a difference, especially those aiding victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. By investing in our products, you are supporting our mission in many ways. You are supporting an independent businesswoman while empowering yourself and others. You are also supporting the charitable organizations that we have partnered with and donate a portion of our monthly sales to.”
The Damsel Mission is based on three principles:
- To equip women with products to protect them
- To empower women to protect themselves
- To educate women by encouraging them to back up their purchases with self-defense training
The mission is personal. Hughes herself was the victim of sexual assault as a young woman. Her bio references that attack, and hope in the aftermath: “Being a woman of strong faith Bethany knew that God would use her tragedy for good and that there would be healing.” Empowering others to prevent the same situation has done just that for her.
In addition to the national and international charities the company supports, Pros nominate an organization each month to also be supported through the company’s “Choice Charity” program. This support is not just monetary in nature; the company has recently taken a more direct role in aiding women who have been sexual assault victims, specifically those who have been victims of sex trafficking.
“We’ve always had a huge heart for those who are sexually exploited, whether through assault or trafficking,” Lin says. In July 2015 the company announced the Damsel House project. The first home being funded is in Cambodia. Damsel in Defense is supporting Destiny Rescue, an international charity that is funding the home and supporting the girls. The organization rescues the girls; brings them in; offers them counseling, rehabilitation and restoration; and then reintegrates them back into the community.
“We’re very excited about that project and excited to be able to help expand the organization we partnered with,” Lin says. “The reality is that because of the statistics, and because we’re a mission-based company, we attract survivors. Many in our field have been impacted by sexual assault. Through their Damsel business, and through helping others avoid the trauma they’ve experienced, they find healing by being a part of this mission,” she says.
“What happened to them now has purpose, and it can be used for good.”
Lin goes on to say that although Damsel’s products are equipping women who are at the proper age to carry them, 70 percent of women are assaulted for the first time before the age of 18. “We have a clear calling and are unshakeably compelled to expand this mission within the reach of a younger demographic. We very much look forward to the potential to empower families and young girls to protect their hearts and bodies against the devastation of chilhood sexual assault.”