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How multilevel marketing schemes prey on vulnerable women, according to new book

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Emily Lynn Paulson was a 33-year-old mother of five, married to a successful and supportive man and living a comfortable life in Seattle when a “friend” from the past reached out to her via Messenger. This friend was someone from high school with whom she really had no relationship, but Paulson was feeling lonely and isolated as a stay-at-home mom, so she agreed to get together for a glass of wine.

That’s how Paulson stumbled into multilevel marketing (MLM) and it dominated her life for six and a half years. Sometimes called direct marketing or pyramid marketing, MLMs derive their revenue from non-salaried contractors who sell the company’s products or services to friends and family. The contractors’ earnings come from a multilevel commission system in which 96-99.7 percent of people selling for MLMs lose money. While Paulson was one of the few MLM success stories, it ultimately led to addiction and compromised her physical and mental health.

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“This is the pretty much true, absolutely ridiculous, definitely catty story of my life in an MLM, but it’s more than that,” writes Paulson in “Hey, Hun: Sales, Sisterhood, Supremacy, and the Other Lies Behind Multilevel Marketing.” “It’s also about how MLMs operate, their role in the lives of suburban women across the United States, and the belief systems, systemic racism, and White supremacy that course through their trainings, marketing, and one-on-one interactions.”

Paulson, who now lives in central Oregon, writes that it took her a long time to “gather the guts to write this book.” She didn’t want to offend people she loves and some part of her believes that working for an MLM wasn’t all bad, “but if you keep reading,” she writes, “you’ll probably disagree.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. Why were you susceptible to the lure of MLMs?

I was looking for an escape outside of the mundane nature of being home with a bunch of kids and I was looking for a connection. Oh, here’s a whole community. I was looking for money. Oh, you can make millions from home. I’d love to get away. Oh, we have all these trips you can go on. That’s really what roped me in. It’s vulnerability that makes people really primed for these MLMs.

Q. Your 2019 memoir, “Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Beyond the Filtered Life,” is about trauma, excessive drinking, disordered eating, and recovery. Much of your addiction took place while you were a top seller for an MLM. Were those two parts of your life feeding off each other?

Once I joined the MLM, the wine was really linked to meeting with friends, talking about products. When I had a couple of glasses of wine, I could send messages, texts and DMs that I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable with otherwise. The more success I had, the more opportunities I had to drink because I was going to parties and retention events. It was this vicious cycle.

Q. What inspired this book — shifting the focus from you to this larger issue?

After the first book, I realized that being vulnerable and honest can help a lot of other people. And realizing that I was complicit in this system that does hurt a lot of people, I wanted to be just as loud on the other side. This is information I wish I would have known.

Q. Was there anything you discovered during your research that surprised you?

I didn’t realize how much money politically was tied up in MLMs. I didn’t know it was a $200 billion industry. In an MLM, you’re taught it’s your small business, it’s just you’re supporting your neighbor, supporting your friend, but these are huge corporations.

There are lobbyists, there are politicians who get money from MLMs. Even the United Nations gets money from MLMs. So there’s no incentive for the government to investigate them.

There’s a body called the Direct Selling Association. It’s self-governing and self-serving. It’s like the NRA being in charge of gun control. You have the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) investigating things, but it’s a very slow process. They’ll shut one MLM down, but then five more pop up. It’s like this game of Whac-A-Mole. And if they do get investigated a lot of times, it is the independent contractors, the consultants themselves, who are affected. It’s not the companies that suffer, it’s the women, mostly women.

Q. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that being in an MLM is like being in an abusive relationship, where the abuser isolates you further and further from your real life. Does that seem accurate?

Absolutely. You have to pay to get in so you’re in debt when you join and you have to earn your money back, which most people never do. And then you’re blamed for it. If you don’t get any customers, you didn’t work hard enough. If you quit, you didn’t work hard enough. There’s always something that you can be blamed for.

One thing people ask is, “Why didn’t you leave when you figured out it was bad?” Because it’s never all bad. There’s always something good that’s keeping you in and maybe leaving will be worse in some way, either financially, socially, emotionally.

Q. You write that once indoctrinated, you eventually ignored your own intuition and went against your values. Why do you think you allowed that to happen?

Part of the reason was I was drinking a lot. And it was being confirmed for me that what I was doing was working. I was successful so I thought that even if people say this seems culty or weird, or it’s a pyramid scheme, it’s working for me.

Then, you find out it’s not going to work for everybody. It’s like the worst parts of capitalism, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American Dream. It’s unpaid labor and you’re hoping eventually you’ll make a sale or recruit somebody. But many times you don’t.

Q. You write that most MLMs are founded by White men who remain at the top of corporate leadership and on corporate boards, while women are the sales force, recruiting, selling products, and being exploited. What does that say about progress or the lack of it for women in America today?

It’s a very misogynistic industry. The avatar of an MLM is a 42-year-old White woman with 2.5 kids. It’s not diverse and it’s upholding this capitalistic, White supremacist idea of what an ideal woman is. And you’re supporting the patriarchy. It’s, “Be this certain woman, work as hard as you can to get to the top of the ladder, but even when you’re there, all you’re doing is elevating these corporations under the guise of having a small business.”

Q. You spent six years hustling and making money for the MLM, at the expense of your physical and mental health, and important relationships. Did anything positive come out of your experience?

I met some amazing people. I got to travel. I did earn money. I got to do a lot of public speaking. But I’m not one of those people who says everything happens for a reason. The things that are good about it weren’t because of the MLM. It could have been a different non-MLM company.

Q. Any advice for women currently in MLMs?

If you’re reading this and feeling defensive, ask who’s benefiting from the work you’re doing, who’s benefiting from the money you’re making. Get your information from someone other than your upline [the person who recruited you into the MLM]. Do a profit and loss statement. Protect yourself.

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