This story originally appeared on KERA News.
A sound system blaring Red Hot Chili Peppers, an elaborate stage, lights that pulse with the music and change from purple to fuchsia to electric blue. This isn’t your grandmother’s Mary Kay convention. And a handful of women just won a Skagen watch.
Frills And Thrills
This annual conference has a lot of frills. Giveaway prizes, company cars on display, guarded glass cases full of jewels. Jewels you can earn by selling a lot of Mary Kay.
This all started back in 1963 when Mary Kay Ash launched a cosmetics company in Dallas. Her mission? To get rid of the glass ceiling. The direct sales company took off. Back in 1979, Ash told “60 Minutes,” she never expected it.
“My objective was just to help women, it was not to make a tremendous amount of sales,” Ash said.
Ash was known for an iconic pink Cadillac, which became a company prize for hitting sales goals. Today, who actually drives those pink Caddies? People like Christine Jesse.
“I’ve been able to provide for a family of five, which is a lot in California,” Jesse says.
Mary Kay Pays All The Bills
In their suburban Los Angeles household, Mary Kay is the only source of income. Christine’s husband actually quit the insurance business two years ago to jump onboard.
“Our income from training my team and then my sales, also my personal sales, made over six figures.”
Janelle Witmer, a 31-year-old from Lancaster, Pennsylvania quit, her gig at a local bank to pursue Mary Kay full time. She pulls down about $65,000 a year. Then, there’s a company car.
“We currently drive a 2014 BMW!” she exclaims.
Flexible hours, a job full of incentives and the potential to make serious money: Jesse and Witmer have seen it all unfold.
Not Buying In
Critics of Mary Kay say only a small percentage of salespeople are in the same boat. Journalist Virginia Sole-Smith appeared on KERA’s Think after investigating the company. She participated in a Mary Kay orientation and says she met a lot of desperate women.
“We had a lot of single moms, a lot of people who had been laid off, or their spouse had been laid off, really strapped financial situations,” Sole-Smith said. “And they all told me how Mary Kay was going to be their answer. But what worried me was they all seemed to be buying far more products than they could actually sell.”
And that does happen. Mary Kay has heard these complaints before. With 3.5 million independent salespeople, known as beauty consultants, and $4 billion in annual global sales, company reps say something is obviously working.
Seminar attendees are obviously believers. In total, 27,000 of them will arrive in waves throughout July for five, back-to-back conferences.
Dallas resident Bianca Jackson has a full-time job fundraising for Genesis Women’s Shelter. She calls Mary Kay the dessert on her already full plate.
“I am a graduate student, I’m paying back graduate student loans. I also recently got engaged so I’m planning my dream wedding and my Mary Kay income is what’s going to do that for me,” Jackson says.
That’s the dream hundreds of women at the Mary Kay seminar have already achieved and the dream thousands more are banking on.