In the late 1940s, Earl Tupper had a problem. He’d invented a storage product that could revolutionize the American kitchen—if only housewives could be convinced to use it. Enter Brownie Wise, a divorced single mother, who instantly saw the potential of Tupper’s product and began marketing it through her own social network. Using in-home demonstrations (including throwing a sealed container of food across the room to prove its effectiveness), she recruited other women to sell to their friends and neighbors.

And like that, the Tupperware Party was born.

Today, over 16 million people participate in direct sales in more than 1,000 multi-level marketing (MLM) companies in the US. Products still include kitchen gadgets, but have broadened to jewelry, home décor, essential oils, handbags, health supplements, and cosmetics—generally items of particular interest to women. Parties have moved from living rooms to Facebook groups, and MLM now goes by the gentler name of “network marketing.”

Companies like Thirty-One Gifts, doTerra Essential Oils, Jamberry Nails, Pampered Chef, and Stella & Dot train women to become experts in a distinct product line to market to their social networks. Depending on the product and company, they may be called consultants, stylists, wellness advocates, or agents, but the goal is the same as it was for Wise: Educate your friends and neighbors in this wonderful product, sell it to them, and then recruit them to do the same.

Golden Opportunity

Why do women willingly offer their personal networks to pitch products? The easiest answer is that many truly love the merchandise and want to share it with others. Beyond that, MLM companies appeal to women by promising to fill a gap between the marketplace and home.

Consultants are sold not only on the product, but the distribution model itself. With so many women struggling to achieve good work-life balance—even with things as simple as finding reliable childcare or finding the energy to do laundry after a day at the office—MLM companies step in and offer a seemingly better way.

“You were born to do this!” declares one recruitment page. “Our life-changing opportunity has helped more than 100,000 women take control of their future, and you could be next!” Others emphasize flexibility and the chance to set your own hours. These offers are especially appealing to Christian women who value their roles as mothers and wives. In fact some companies, like Thirty-One Gifts, were established with explicit religious overtones—the "Thirty-One" being a reference to the woman in Proverbs 31.

MLM companies also present women with established leadership tracks, clear goals, and quantifiable levels of success—things often missing from both domestic and professional life. Since a distributor's success is dependent on the success of those selling under them, “uplines” provide oversight, training, and mentoring for new recruits. At first glance, MLM appears to have mastered what Fortune 500 companies have yet to learn—how to recruit women and get them to “lean in.”

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All that Glitters

But can these companies fulfill their promises without straining their sellers’ own finances (as they end up investing more than they earn) or their personal relationships in the process?

Some women join with modest goals, like getting deals on products they already purchase. For a minimal investment, MLM consultants are rewarded in free and discounted merchandise. “I’m just doing it to pay for my habit,” said Heather St. Clair, one customer-turned-consultant. “I figured I was spending this much money anyway so I might as well find a way to make it cheaper.”

But for those who want to establish a steady source of income, the answer becomes more complicated. A Federal Trade Commission report predicts that, factoring in time and financial investment, only 1 percent of MLM participants earn a profit. (A quick review of a company's income disclosure statement confirms this.) Distributors may recoup investment in the form of product or discounts, but it takes a high level of recruitment and sales to actually make money.

Christian money guru Dave Ramsey points out that MLM opportunities require what any other job does: hard work, good people skills, and commitment. It seems that the key to being successful in such companies is staying in for the long run in order to make it into the top tier of sellers. So is the investment ultimately worth it? The answer is a resounding “maybe.”

Pursue Giftedness

If a woman is particularly skilled in sales and marketing, like Tupperware’s Brownie Wise, an MLM company may be a path to financial security and personal freedom. But if she isn’t, she may ambush herself by investing her time and energy into promoting a product instead of developing her unique giftedness. Even if she does meet with a modicum of success, she may find it difficult to transfer that success to another company. Unlike a graphic designer who can take her portfolio to any number of prospective clients, the MLM distributor is tied her specific company, both because of limited knowledge base (having only been trained in the company's specific product line) and because of the intrinsic structure of MLM. A lateral move to another company is often impossible.

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Instead women need to consider whether they could be just as successful investing the same time and energy into their own entrepreneurial efforts. Those thriving in MLM companies often gush with gratitude, claiming that the company has "blessed" them and given them opportunities they never dreamed of. While this may simply reflect the confidence gap (the phenomenon in which women predictably downplay their own achievements), it may indicate something deeper. Perhaps women are not dreaming enough. Do women see themselves as dependent on these companies? Do they not realize that it is their own hard work and social networks that make these companies successful in the first place?

In one recruitment video, a woman who sells essential oils describes the characteristics of a successful “wellness advocate” with her company: a love of people, experience with the product, a desire to learn, tenacity, and the ability to mentor others. These traits, though, would make any woman successful regardless of what company she worked for. In fact, these same characteristics would make her successful if she chose to pursue her own business ventures.

While some of us may be made for multi-level sales, not every woman is. God’s creative design demands that no program or pre-packaged marketing technique will lead to success for every woman. Instead as image bearers, we possess distinct gifts and the capacity to create within ourselves. We are responsible to develop and steward those gifts, using them to serve others as God leads. This may mean hosting parties for kitchen gear, demonstrating stick-on nails, or pitching the perks of health shakes. But then again, for many of us, it won’t.

So the next time a friend or coworker tries to recruit you to sell a product, take the opportunity to evaluate your own skill set, dreams, and desires. And then do what Brownie Wise herself did—do whatever you do best.

Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of the book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image (Moody, April 2014). She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog on Twitter at @sometimesalight.