For well over a century, innovative women have driven the growth, evolution and advancement of direct selling.
Women like Mrs. P.F.E. Albee, Brownie Wise, Mary Kay Ash, Mary Crowley, Madame C.J. Walker plus many others recognized in this issue are shining examples of how the entrepreneurial income opportunity direct selling represents has been empowering women for over a century.
When the editorial team at Direct Selling News asked me to share my thoughts on how women have long been the catalyst to the evolution and growth of direct selling, I couldn’t wait to address this intriguing topic. As a front-line sales executive at Avon—what we called “The Company for Women” many years ago—addressing the enduring legacy so many entrepreneurial women have created is not only gratifying, it serves as a reminder of the roots and foundation of what we often refer to as direct selling inclusive of its contemporary labels.
When I first joined the team at Avon and was presented with the idea of developing a new path for the company, I became intrigued. After a few meetings, I made the decision to go big and join the largest direct selling brand ever built. Rick Goings, who later served Tupperware as CEO in excess of 25 years, was President of Avon North American at that time. Jim Preston, legendary Avon CEO, was at the helm. Susan Kropf and Andrea Jung—two outstanding corporate leaders—became very instrumental in leading the company for women in new directions. Andrea and Susan later became CEO and President, respectively. Today, I consider it a blessing to have been a part of Avon at such a special moment in time.
What became obvious to me from day one was the emphasis on Avon being the company for women. I knew the stats and facts relative to the percentage of women engaged in direct selling versus men (typically 75 percent to 25 percent, but within many direct selling companies, the percentages are more like 95 percent to 5 percent).
Trailblazers and Innovators
I had also experienced the opportunity of personally meeting industry icons like Mary Kay Ash, Mary Crowley and Jan Day. I only read about Madam C.J. Walker who built an incredible enterprise with women of color. Her story is legendary. Madame C.J. Walker’s birth name was Sarah Breedlove, but she would later adopt the name Madam C. J. Walker. She was born on December 23, 1867 on the same Louisiana delta plantation where her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War. This child of sharecroppers transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress into one of the twentieth century’s most successful, self-made female entrepreneurs.
David McConnell is credited with being the founder of Avon, but it is Mrs. P.F.E. Albee who is most revered for her iconic contributions to building the company for women at a time when women did not yet have the right to vote here in the U.S.
Brownie Wise made history when Earl Tupper, inventor of Tupperware, hired her to be head of sales. Brownie insisted upon complete control and focused on the “party plan” method of sales, invented at Stanley Home Products founded by Stanley Beveridge. Origins and first use of “party plan” go back to Stanley Home Products where Brownie, Mary Kay, and Mary Crowley gained their first experiences.
Women like Mrs. P.F.E. Albee, Brownie Wise, Mary Kay Ash, Mary Crowley, Madame C.J. Walker, plus many others recognized in this issue, are shining examples of how the entrepreneurial income opportunity direct selling represents has been empowering women for over a century.
Being a part of Avon impacted my thinking and my mindset. I continue to use the expression I have repeated many times over the past 20 years: “I am grateful that Avon always found room for a few good men.” After taking early retirement from Avon and becoming Publisher and Editor in Chief at Direct Selling News, I found that corporately, the direct selling industry was dominated by men at the executive level—even though the roots of the model are women—women who became some of our country’s greatest entrepreneurs; women who were instrumental in empowering the lives of millions of other women as well as a few good men.
My previous statement does not forget or deny the incredible contributions of David McConnel, Stanley Beveridge, Rich DeVos, Jay Van Andle and others to the evolution of the direct selling model. Stan Beveridge started his direct selling career with the Fuller Brush Company which was primarily composed of men. In 1931 Stan Beveridge founded Stanley Home Products from which came many outstanding women who became legendary as a result of the party plan focus. I am simply acknowledging and recognizing the incredible contributions of women in the creation and advancement of this channel of distribution.
An Opportunity for Everyone
Today, I take great pride in the research, writing and selective advisory that I often participate in. I enjoy being an observer versus being a participant. The lens of the observer is very different. The lens of the participant is often focused solely on the health and welfare of the participant’s business, as it should be. However, an observer looks to understand the wider and broader view. Having been an avid photographer at one time, the difference between participant and observer is similar to the experience of changing from telephoto lens to wide angle. The perspective is very different.
Our world today might benefit more from the wide-angle lens. A lens which reflects on our history as well as the present and future…all at once. The wide-angle lens may, perhaps, help us to better understand the value of such contemporary topics such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
There is power in questioning existing norms and disrupting accepted standards. Mrs. P.F.E. Albee challenged the assumption that men were better salespeople. Brownie Wise challenged Earl Tupper’s assumption that the best way to market Tupperware was through conventional retail stores. Mary Kay Ash and Mary Crowley challenged the assumption that women could not be entrepreneurial. Madam C.J. Walker challenged the assumption that an African American woman could not build a thriving enterprise composed solely of women of color.
The women who follow in the footsteps of these women are also challenging assumptions about what direct selling looks like and how it moves forward. Our future as a channel of distribution may be very different than the past. However, an unwavering passion to empower women may be our “secret sauce.”
John T. Fleming is the author of Ultimate Gig: Flexibility, Freedom & Rewards which provides an in-depth glimpse of the future of work and how the gig economy has fueled the growth and appeal of flexible work opportunities. John is principal of Ideas and Design Group, LLC and in both the DSA Hall of Fame and DSEF Circle of Honor. John is also a recipient of the DSN Bravo Lifetime Achievement Award. John has recently released LEVERAGE.
From the March 2023 issue of Direct Selling News magazine.