Published January 27th, 2019
by Lindsey Naegle

Back in 2001, women in Glasgow and surrounding suburbs started to be approached by friends, family and colleagues with the offer of a lifetime – support and financially liberate yourself and women you love, and line your pockets with life-changing amounts of cash. Women Empowering Women, or “Hearts”, was a loosely organised party-based scheme where women turned up to each others’ houses to join, and handled fistfuls of cash over a glass or two of wine.

The rules were pretty simple. To get in, you paid £3,000 to buy a “heart” on their paper chart. As other women bought hearts, you moved up to the next tier of hearts on the chart. When you get to the top, you’re fully empowered (or something) and you get to cash out, taking £24,000 with you. I don’t need to tell you that this turned out to be a pyramid scheme. One my own family narrowly avoided getting drawn in, despite the best efforts of our neighbour.

tupperware parties
Buy this or I’m telling your husband

It didn’t take long to collapse. Once the scheme was picked up by the media, word quickly spread that it wasn’t worth the paper the hearts were drawn on. Next came the obligatory legal troubles, financial ruin, shattered friendships, threats and a couple of chibbings. A rumour circulated for years in Springburn that a woman was even crushed under the wheels of a transit van by her own sister because of the scheme.

For what it’s worth, our neighbour never got to cash out and lost every penny of her £3,000. Fairly sure she avoided chibbing or carmageddon-ing anyone though.

What was unique about Women Empowering Women, is that it never fully died. The scheme popped up time and time again across the UK, sometimes under slightly different names, but always with the same entry fee. Mainstream media coverage also kept up with the schemes until at least until 2009. Why were so many women, often well-educated and otherwise financially responsible, throwing money away on an obvious con, 8 years after it was exposed?

This isn’t a scam, it’s a scheme. I play the National Lottery and I lose every week, What’s the difference? It’s a risk and I know it’s a risk. So is the stock market.”

I’m in a bit of a financial pickle… Loads of credit card debt and a massive tax bill. I couldn’t see past the idea that this would effortlessly sort it all out.”

It’s about supporting each other. I joined with my friend – we went halves and each paid £1,500. Within five weeks we collected £24,000 between us. I haven’t seen any harm come out of it.

A couple of significant changes happened to finally signal the end of these pyramid schemes. One was the closing of certain legal loopholes around “gifting” cash amounts up to £3,000 (that entry fee was never an accident), and the other, was the absolute carnage social media brought to the way we interact with each other. Party-based schemes don’t survive in a society where it’s more normal to be in a group chat than in the same room together.

Around the same time, a certain type of business started to take off in a very, very big way. Network Marketing, otherwise known as Multi-Level Marketing (or MLM) is essentially direct marketing using our personal “networks” as opposed to store fronts. Female members are typically considered “business owners” or “bossbabes” and expected to use social media, friends and family, and other existing social relationships as a customer base. Not only are these bossbases selling products, they’re also sharing fantastic opportunities with you to own your own business, and join the thriving, fast growing [insert vaguely inspiring name here] community.

no crones allowed
Crones gone wild

To be clear, we aren’t claiming that Pyramid schemes and MLMs are the same thing (partly because there are some very distinct differences, but mostly because The Disrupt has had enough legal attention lately). But one really interesting thing that links them is the the fundamental understanding that to succeed they need to make women feel empowered – even when they’re being manipulated, or are in too vulnerable a financial state to feel like they have other options.

Interestingly, network marketing started with cosmetics company Avon. While not the first true MLM (Amway holds that dubious honour), it was the first company to recognise that women’s relationships were an untapped market opportunity. In post-war USA, women who had been recruited to the workplace while their brothers, fathers and husbands were at war, were struggling to adjust to a life of domesticity now that the men were back from Europe and back at work. These women also had strong social and community bonds, frequently spending time in the homes of other women in similar situations. Now what if those women could sell the fledgling Avon company’s perfumes to each other? Wouldn’t that just solve a whole bunch of problems all at once?

not a pyramid scheme
Where do I sign?

The most fundamental difference between pyramid schemes and MLMs, is that MLMs do actually sell products and/or services in addition to recruitment activity. For legal purposes, the product or service being sold is understood to be the core of the business, although in some instances I spent/wasted hours poring through websites and promotional materials, and still came away unsure of what exactly I would be selling if I were to join. Some of these are so vague, I’m not even sure if they’re really MLMs. By the end of this “product” video I know where to get an email list, templates, marketing coaching, and “expert” guidance on how to promote my new business – but absolutely zero information on what it is that I’m supposed to be selling. But the dozens of “honest review” websites telling me how great the programme is and why I should join their “power circle” is are suggesting it probably is.

It’s also frequently unclear how reasonable it would be to expect to earn any type of decent or liveable earnings from selling just the product or service. Every type of MLM I have encountered saves big bonuses and earnings for members who recruit other members into their “downline”. You see, you move up a trapezoid-like management structure as you recruit people, and they subsequently recruit people. Eventually reaching a level where you can “cash out” a certain amount of bonus or earnings. One MLM famously offers members a car once they reach “Level 3” and achieve a certain number of credits. The rules of advancement in MLMs are often incredibly obtuse to new members. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Warhammer 40k is easier for a novice to understand than many of these recruitment packages.

To try to gain more of an understanding of this world and the incomprehensible dialect spoken in it, I joined some Facebook groups for women in network marketing to get some insight. The names alone were a clue that this was a world I was going to struggle in – names like badass business babes, empowerED females’ and ‘making it WORK!’ made me feel like I was signing up to a corporate musical rather than a business advice group. I spent around a month connecting to various communities and lingering among the constant recruitment posts, and I can’t say I’d recommend it. The relentless optimism soon felt more pathological than persuasive, which was mainly because it felt so inauthentic. Once I spotted someone I knew in a local Glasgow group, and felt like a witness to something seedy as she encouraged us all to become cheerleaders for a life I knew she didn’t have. All in the name of getting more bossbabes on the company’s roster.

badass business babes
Being badass doesn’t come cheap

In a way I absolutely understand how the promise of using just your social circle to make extra money can be so appealing. Are you tired, stressed out? We understand. Want more time for your family? We want you to have it! Broke, worried about how you’ll pay the bills? You deserve wealth, darling, and we want to give it to you. The reassuring, comforting tones in the vague recruitment materials tell us that we can make money. Empower ourselves. Get rid of all this worry. And support other women to do the same.

I used to judge anyone who got involved in MLMs very harshly. They’re gullible. Dumb. They don’t “know better”. But looking at my own bank statement and creaking credit card balances after a particularly indulgent Christmas and New Year, I can see how the idea of some extra cash and financial stability is a very relatable desire. Besides, everywhere I look people keep telling me I’m in a gig economy. Everyone has a “side hustle”. Could these be the companies that will let me turn my side hustle into big bucks?

side hustle
Side hustle time

Obviously, no. The average person will earn no more than £200 per year from an MLM, and that’s of those who report actually earning money. Over 97% of MLM recruits actually lose money. And this is well publicised too. More and more MLM firms collapse or mysteriously shut up shop every month. So why do women continue to join?

Does it speak to the lie we all tell ourselves about succeeding in capitalism; that we’re somehow special and the system won’t ruin us like it does everyone else?

Or are the reasons a lot more like the ones Women Empowering Women shared. “It’s a risk and I know it’s a risk. So is the stock market.” “I’m in a bit of a financial pickle.” “I couldn’t see past the idea that this would effortlessly sort it all out.” “It’s about supporting each other.”

Whether the empowerment we’re being peddled is sold to us by women we know and love, successful bossbabes or badass business bitches, it isn’t real. If MLMs, pyramid schemes, and Germaine Greer have taught us nothing else, it’s that when your sense of community with other women is being directly targeted by someone promising cash in exchange, this is rarely a positive transaction. Surely the social networks women develop within friends and family units are far more valuable commodities than £200 of commission from Juice Plus?

By the way –  that Make It Work video I couldn’t figure out? I eventually watched all 7 of the product videos. It turns out that I would be selling digital marketing. The salaried, full-time job I do now. And my total cost to do the job I do now, for no promise of additional pay? Over USD$6,000.

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Lindsey Naegle

by Lindsey Naegle

Lindsey's articles appear as if from a dream, ethereal yet fully formed. A business executive, she writes on marketing and social media and most definitely doesn't actually exist.

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