The Empowerment Trap

How LuLaRoe sells women a false vision
LuLaRoe inventory (Courtesy of Amazong Studios)

“Creating freedom through fashion” are the words splashed across the homepage of LuLaRoe, the multilevel marketing (MLM) and apparel company that peddles more than just colorfully patterned leggings—it also sells a lifestyle. At least, that’s how it recruited more than 80,000 “consultants,” almost all of them women, who paid thousands of dollars to become part of the company, lured by the opportunity to work from home, support their families, and still have quality time with their kids. “Join the movement,” the company said. “Be your own boss.” But as the documentary LuLaRich makes clear, the come-on more often landed women in debt. In 2016, the company generated more than $2 billion in sales; while the top 0.01 percent of its workers made over $150,000 in bonuses, more than two thirds made nothing.

But LuLaRich, available for streaming on Amazon, doesn’t just retrace familiar dangers about MLMs, a “business model” that has for decades been subject to scrutiny. It also examines what motivates women to participate in businesses that consistently fail to deliver on their promises. The company succeeded by exploiting women’s precarious economic circumstances and leveraging cultural expectations around mothering. And though currently plagued by lawsuits contending it ran a pyramid scheme, LuLaRoe is still operating today.

Much of what LuLaRoe sold to women isn’t new. Earlier iterations of MLMs—Tupperware, Amway––shaped their brand to attract homemakers as sellers (“consultants”) by promoting the role as flexible and part-time. But LuLaRoe and other new MLMs have updated this message with tropes of the “girl boss,” casting employment opportunities as “part-time work for full-time pay” that empower women to become entrepreneurs while still fulfilling traditional domestic responsibilities. Mark Stidham and DeAnne Brady, the Latter-day Saint couple behind LuLaRoe, positioned it as a “family organization,” different from corporate organizations in its embrace of family values, and distinct from unpaid domestic labor in that it could be an income source. As Sophie Gilbert observed in the Atlantic last September, LuLaRoe exploited a “structural societal failure” by claiming to have the solution for mothers struggling with work-life balance. LuLaRoe encourages women to assume responsibility for achieving this balance by appealing to ubiquitous American cultural ideals of self-reliance and rugged individualism. It does nothing to acknowledge the structural societal issues that put women in such a position in the first place.

LuLaRoe’s message clearly resonated: the consultants featured in LuLaRich explain how their own struggles balancing parenthood and professional careers led them to the company. One, Courtney Harwood, had been working in “corporate America” but worried that she was missing milestones as her kids grew up. She could not afford not to work, so she joined LuLaRoe hoping that “I could make what I was making––if not more––working less and spending more time with them.” Other consultants, like Ashleigh Lautaha, were stay-at-home mothers who wanted to find paid work but either could not afford or did not want to give up their childcare responsibilities. Lautaha explains that it “really resonated” with her that LuLaRoe would allow her to continue to “be a mom” and change the financial future for her family. Another, Roberta Blevins, hoped to achieve “the dream” to “be at home with my kids and make money.”         

While the structure of MLMs may suggest the possibility of balancing stay-at-home parenthood with professional life, they are not profitable for most women who join. LuLaRoe claimed that selling inventory at “pop-up” events hosted in women’s own homes would earn them full-time income. Lautaha recalls that women were attracted to LuLaRoe because of the “energy” and social environment at pop-ups—seeing women similar to themselves making money from home by leveraging their personal networks. For Lautaha, pop-ups were more important for networking than they were for sales; she could recruit a new retailer, which earned her more money in bonus checks than she could make selling the products themselves. Though pop-ups seemed to be selling leggings, they were actually selling the MLM myth of social and financial empowerment.

To hide the fact that the game is rigged, MLMs frame failure and success as a matter of individual effort.

MLMs are built on exploitation; because money is made by recruiting people rather than selling products, it is inevitable that the consultants on the lowest tier of the pyramid will be taken advantage of. To hide the fact that the game is rigged, MLMs frame failure and success as a matter of individual effort. They appeal to a familiar and compelling adage of the American Dream––anything is possible if you are willing to work hard enough. And if you don’t work hard enough….  “The business responds to the amount of time, energy, and effort, and discipline you put into it,” as Stidham says. Any other reasons given for not being able to “turn that box of clothing into a million dollars” is just an “excuse.” Lautaha describes the company’s response to retailers who complained about their lack of profit: “It works if you work it…. I guess you weren’t working hard enough.” Framing LuLaRoe as a “pure meritocracy” helped shield the company from scrutiny because retailers were blamed for failing to make money. In reality, a pyramid scheme will always leave new recruits with no profit, no matter how hard they work.

Harnessing this narrative of individual responsibility was in fact how LuLaRoe went about recruiting women. The company encouraged them to strive to “have it all” personally and professionally: it would only take a career change. But as Anne-Marie Slaughter famously wrote in the Atlantic nearly a decade ago, individual efforts can only get women so far. The rhythms and expectations of professional life that conflict with family responsibilities make it almost impossible for women to “have it all.” Without structural transformations that remove the expectation of a traditional family structure in which one parent stays home, and without cultural change that mitigates the gender biases that leave women performing most domestic labor, women in professional roles will struggle to fulfill family and professional responsibilities.

Though Slaughter emphasized structural constraints and LuLaRoe pushes individual responsibility, both nevertheless frame the central challenge for women within the mainstream, middle-class feminist ideal of “balance,” which scholar Catherine Rottenberg defines as “the promise of successfully negotiating the two pulls on contemporary liberated middle-class womanhood”—namely, career advancement and motherhood. LuLaRoe’s appeal to this white, middle-class feminist ideal helps explain why its retailers seem to be mostly white and middle class. While LuLaRoe retailer demographics are not available, consultants featured in LuLaRich are almost all white, and the Direct Selling Association reports that 87 percent of people involved in direct sales are white. In terms of class, an AARP study found that “current and former MLM participants tended to be well-educated, married, working as a paid employee, and living in a house owned by a person in their household.”

Certainly MLMs can’t address structural biases in our economy, but LuLaRoe was able to convince recruits that the company had a social mission. An ad for the company depicts retailers chorusing, “We are mothers, building a community, making a difference, through social retail.  We are LuLaRoe.” While LuLaRoe’s own practices undermine the commitment it claims in the ad, it is clear why many women have found this vision attractive. Retailers featured in LuLaRich describe how the community of sellers stood out from other professional experiences because it was supportive, like a “family” or “sisterhood.” Blevins says that LuLaRoe “felt different” because it wasn’t competitive; each seller received different inventory, which let them share customers who wanted different sizes and patterns. LuLaRoe consultants (often in good faith) drew on trust built in their networks to convince other women to join the company, not realizing that MLMs distort friendships and other relationships for exploitative ends. The same AARP study found almost 70 percent of MLM participants were recruited by someone they knew personally, including friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, and classmates.

For some who thought they could realize their commitment to the common good by working for LuLaRoe, the opportunity to help others get out of it is now fulfilling that ideal. Some of the retailers who came to realize the exploitative nature of the company have banded together to help extricate women who were once in the same position they were. As journalist Jill Filipovic observes in LuLaRich, LuLaRoe’s successful recruitment actually demonstrates that suburban women are an untapped source of political power: If women can leverage their personal networks to sell billions of dollars’ worth of leggings, what kind of transformation is possible if that political power were redirected toward the flourishing of all? The 2020 presidential election offered a glimpse of this potential: for instance, suburban women in Ohio disillusioned by Donald Trump’s presidency drew on their experiences as mothers to persuade other moms to vote for Joe Biden.

While confirming the insidious nature of multilevel marketing, LuLaRich also shows us that women’s motivations to participate in MLMs hold promise for redirection toward the common good—“the good of ‘all of us,’” as Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in veritate, “made up of individuals, families, and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it.” LuLaRich portrays women exploiting other women, motivated by myths about MLMs and individual responsibility. But the women who suffered by working for LuLaRoe highlight the need for different goals––solidarity, systemic change––and in so doing may hint at a society where everyone can flourish.

Published in the January 2022 issue: 

Emma McDonald is a doctoral candidate in Theological Ethics at Boston College.

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