All of us in direct selling are united by a common mission to educate the public about the legitimacy of the channel and its profound contributions to the lives of individuals, families and our economy at large. According to the U.S. Direct Selling Association, direct selling contributed $34 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014. One organization, the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF), has been working behind the scenes since 1973, joined by industry leaders in a shared cause: to educate the public on the ways direct selling empowers individuals, supports communities and strengthens economies both in the United States and abroad. And it is poised to do more.
DSEF, in fact, is heading into a new era, strengthening its mission to build relationships, share information and educate people of all ages and backgrounds not just about direct selling, but about the broader principles and benefits of entrepreneurship. 2015 has been a pivotal year for DSEF. The renewed focus has been building since the organization initiated an extensive search for a new executive director, which it found in Gary Huggins.
With more than 15 years managing nonprofits, Huggins has worked with various constituencies including educators, government officials, business executives, and consumer advocacy groups and brings with him substantial experience in policy and innovation. He previously was CEO of the National Summer Learning Association as well as Director of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan, independent effort dedicated to improving the No Child Left Behind Act.
“For 40 years, we’ve been making a case for the direct selling industry,” says DSEF Executive Director Gary Huggins. “We want people to understand that we’re leaders in ethical entrepreneurship. What happens within our industry affects the broader economy.”
DSEF Board Chairman John Parker, who also serves as Amway’s Chief Sales Officer, has personally, and through Amway, devoted a lot of time to the efforts of DSEF, because he believes in the power of the organization. He says, “The primary challenge we face as a foundation is the same challenge faced by the industry: the need for more awareness and understanding.”
Heading into his second year as Executive Director of DSEF, Huggins will continue to build on the framework of the organization’s efforts to overcome this challenge of awareness. Starting with the expansion of the board of directors as well as staff, he has plans to execute several programs moving into 2016.
The DSEF, which funds its programs entirely through voluntary contributions from industry leaders, has three primary areas of focus: consumer initiatives, academic initiatives, and entrepreneurship initiatives.
Connie Tang, CEO of Princess House, and Britney Vickery, Founder and CEO of Initials Inc., participate in a DSEF Campus Event at the University of Georgia.
While DSEF already partners with consumer groups, consumer agencies and regulatory agencies—the Federal Trade Commission, the Council of Better Business Bureaus, consumer reporters and others—the Foundation is taking its consumer outreach even further this year, expanding its efforts to share information about direct selling’s channel of distribution, extensive product offering, entrepreneurship opportunity and Code of Ethics.
To start, DSEF is increasing its commitment to the FTC’s National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW). Held in March each year, NCPW is a campaign of federal and state governments and nonprofit partner organizations that encourages consumers to understand and exercise their rights in the marketplace. For DSEF members, NCPW is an opportunity to present the industry’s Code of Ethics and inform the public about what to expect from ethical direct sellers.
Already an annual partner for the event, this year DSEF created a NCPW-themed Consumer Protection Toolkit that included materials from the FTC and other state and local consumer organizations on topics like identity theft, job scams and online shopping, plus materials highlighting consumer protection measures supported by the U.S. Direct Selling Association’s Code of Ethics. DSEF delivered the toolkit to members of Congress, FTC Commissioners and staff as well as other constituents involved in consumer protection issues.
“Our goal is to be a concrete resource in their hands as they field calls from consumers,” says Huggins. “Our industry thrives on legitimate businesses, but if you’re not familiar with the industry, you don’t know who’s legitimate and who’s not,” he adds. “Direct selling is just as much about protecting consumers as the organizations we partner with; hence, the DSA’s Code of Ethics.”
The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer, a global annual trust and credibility survey, found that academia remains among the most trusted sectors of society—higher than business, government and the media. An industry seeking to affect change, then, would be wise to build relationships among those who influence young minds every day. In fact, early leaders like Dick Bartlett, DSEF Chairman and Mary Kay Inc. Vice Chairman, recognized decades ago that the direct selling industry needed the academic community in its corner to fulfill its greater mission.
For many years, DSEF has been working with professors from a wide variety of disciplines to commission research, case studies, and white papers and sponsor direct selling education programs on college campuses throughout the United States. More recently, the organization is pushing to take those efforts to scale, leverage its network to connect with more professors at more institutions and, ultimately, promote mainstream understanding of direct selling.
The Foundation is responding to a rather urgent situation: A lot of college students are coming out of business, marketing and entrepreneurship programs without having had any introduction to the direct selling industry.
To help strengthen its ties to the academic community, the DSEF recently established an Academic Advisory Council (AAC), a strategic group of leading professors from business, ethics, marketing, consumer studies, entrepreneurship and economics. During their respective terms, AAC members will collaborate with DSEF on the development of initiatives that advance the understanding of direct selling as a viable path to entrepreneurship and serve as the Foundation’s strategic connection to engaging academics in a variety of disciplines.
Dr. Victoria Crittenden, a professor and Chair of the Marketing Division at Babson College as well as a DSEF AAC member, teaches an Entrepreneurial Marketing course to her undergraduate students in which direct selling permeates the content—through case studies, published direct selling interviews, even a guest lecture from Joan Hartel Cabral, Founder and President of Massachusetts-based Vantel Pearls. The students’ final project is to read The Mary Kay Way: Timeless Principles from America’s Greatest Woman Entrepreneur, and relate the book’s lessons to leaders they’ve learned about throughout the semester. Crittenden recalls one of her recent students, who saw entrepreneurship through new eyes after reading the book. “Mary Kay Ash humanized entrepreneurship so much that it really brought it home for her,” Crittenden says.
Building a solid base of case studies and research, workshops and campus visits will go a long way toward moving direct selling further into the public’s awareness, while strengthening companies’ branding and image. And for academics, the benefits are clear: publishing and research, closer engagement with companies facing real-world business challenges, and the potential for corporate internship and other career exploration programs for their students. Aside from commissioning research and sponsoring campus programs, DSEF maintains an online archive of academic research papers and case studies with findings applicable to the industry and the broader business community. Another way that the Foundation and its academic partners are seeking to advocate direct selling to younger generations is through Campus Programs. At these events, students hear directly from industry executives as they share their own experiences and learnings. DSEF’s most recent program was held at Florida State University with Randi Farina of Living Fresh Collections speaking to students, and the organization plans to hold at least four Campus Programs a year going forward.
In years past, working the topic of direct selling into a college curriculum may have been like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Not so anymore. Entrepreneurship has become a more attractive option for college graduates who are facing a lagging job market, and were raised in an era during which trust in big corporations has eroded. And self-employment carries cache, thanks to legendary figures like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But you don’t have to be a Harvard dropout, move to Silicon Valley, land a few venture capitalists or build the next Microsoft to become a successful business owner.
To meet demand, more colleges have launched entrepreneurship programs, but even for those who don’t offer an entrepreneurship track per se, direct selling case studies and discussions can present a great fit, complementing courses on ethics, economics, supply chain, women’s studies and many more. “Today, there’s a more natural fit for direct selling in the college environment. They didn’t know where to fit us before,” Amway’s Parker says.
Kerry Tassopoulos, who is Vice President of Public Affairs, Compliance and Risk Management at Mary Kay Inc., says speaking to college students is “a practical opportunity to share with them how easy it is to have a business of their own, and help them understand the depth and breadth of this business.” Tassopoulos is a DSEF board member and the Education Committee Chair.
Dr. Brenda Cude, a professor at the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA) in the Department of Housing and Consumer Economics, hosted Foundation presentations earlier this year during Thinc Week, an annual campus-wide initiative designed to inspire entrepreneurship among students and faculty. Cude, who is a DSEF board member, Consumer Committee Co-Chair and AAC member, says that while many of the student attendees had prior exposure to direct selling products, few understood the business model before the event. Nor did they attach those products back to million- or even billion-dollar corporations with international markets, supply chain challenges, advertising budgets, leading-edge research and development, and even a few crash courses in reputation management. It was an opportunity to share knowledge about the channel of distribution, counter myths and misperceptions, and build trust.
During Thinc Week, Cude and DSEF hosted “Start Something… On Your Own,” an event for undergraduate students from five different UGA courses as well as students from Athen Technical College. Among those direct selling leaders at the event were DSEF board members Connie Tang, CEO of Princess House, and Britney Vickery, Founder and CEO of Initials Inc.
The organization also just released an Executive Guide to Academic Engagement, a how-to manual for direct selling executives seeking to connect with the academic community. “Many people say that they don’t have time to go talk to students, but you’d be surprised at the benefits it can bring to your company,” Tassopoulos says. “A professor could recommend an intern who becomes your next valued employee. This is one of the aspects of our business that has serendipity. You never know when a conversation with a professor will help your business.”
Dr. Elizabeth Davis, Dean of University of San Francisco School of Management and a member of the DSEF board and AAC, says, “Whenever you engage the academic side of the house, there’s a short- and long-term payoff. Short term, we can generate more non-publishing opportunities by sending graduate student teams to work on identified organizational projects of significance in direct selling companies. That’s an easy way to get both universities and companies immediately connected.” She continues, “In the longer term, we have the potential to work with direct selling companies to collaborate on research projects by gathering data. That requires building trust between researchers and the industry. To attract researchers, you have to be willing to provide data.”
Dr. Linda Ferrell, a professor of Leadership and Business Ethics at Belmont University, as well as a DSEF board and AAC member, was first introduced to DSEF when Foundation staff attended a meeting of the Academy of Marketing Sciences, for which she serves as president. She’s now an ardent supporter of bringing more direct selling education into the classroom, removing the industry from its silo and bringing it into the mainstream. “I’ve seen students’ attitudes change about the industry; they get more clarity around it,” Ferrell says.
“I encourage [executives] who have a story they want to tell to partner with us,” Ferrell adds. “I know they’re short on time, but there’s something so positive that’s going to come from working together.”
To further expand its reach, DSEF, in partnership with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, developed the Direct Selling Entrepreneur Program (DSEP), a 30-hour, 10-module course that provides participants with the entrepreneurial skills to help them achieve their self-employment goals. DSEP introduces students to the fundamental components of small business management, including marketing, finance, legal issues, planning and operations, all through the lens of direct selling.
A course about effectively running a business from a direct selling perspective has the potential to meet the needs of many audiences. With that in mind, DSEF is developing an online version of the course to reach more students at community colleges as well as through other delivery partners.
Kevin McMurray, Deputy General Counsel for USANA Health Sciences Inc., taught the DSEP in Utah during fall 2014, at Salt Lake Community College’s Miller Campus. In the audience were local students, including aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as local distributors from such companies as USANA, Thrive and 4Life Research. “The course materials were exceptional; they provided students in the seminar an overview of the industry and what it was like to be an independent contractor,” McMurray says. For those who already were independent distributors, “the course enabled them to become a lot more familiar with the direct selling model. It gave them the opportunity to evaluate what they were doing to build their businesses and consider how they could improve.”
Given McMurray’s role with USANA, he was able to open attendees’ eyes to regulatory and compliance policies as well as their rationale. For current direct sellers, the discussion reminded them of the responsibilities of owning a direct selling business, while students of entrepreneurship learned that direct selling companies make considerable investments to preserve the integrity of their respective organizations and the industry at large. “We want the sales field to know that it’s not about us or you; it’s what we can do to build long-term success for everyone. There’s a reason for compliance, so direct selling companies can operate long-term.”
NACCE, which represents more than 300 community colleges throughout the United States and Canada, is working alongside DSEF to promote DSEP to community college entrepreneurship program administrators and faculty. Dr. Rebecca Corbin joined the NACCE as President and CEO in January 2015. Formerly an administration vice president for a community college, where many students were shifting gears in their careers to start their own businesses, “I’d seen the value of direct selling, and I’d always believed in it, so one of the first partnerships I formed in my new role was with the DSEF,” she says. For students, Corbin adds, one of the biggest takeaways from the DSEF-designed module is that it encourages plenty of self-reflection—an inventory of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Those are invaluable lessons to learn early in the entrepreneurship journey instead of later, when you’re in the trenches.
“All businesses have a high failure rate,” Corbin adds. “Entrepreneurial training closes the gap and decreases that failure rate. Can you imagine the revenue implications of that?”
The Future Holds Tremendous Promise
When direct sellers have a voice in the continuing discussion about how entrepreneurship can make a profound difference in people’s lives, the industry as a whole benefits.
“Look at what’s happening in the marketplace. People are more interested than ever in independent work, entrepreneurship and finding fulfilling career opportunities,” says Huggins. “More than ever there’s an appetite for what our industry offers. DSEF’s work with academics ensures that our form of entrepreneurship is better understood by educators and the next generation of leaders.”