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I infiltrated a legalized pyramid scheme

A story of Amway, World Wide Group, the relentless scourge of Republicanism, and LinkedIn DMs

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Anytime a story involves LinkedIn DMs, you know something hella sketchy is about to happen. Of all the social media networks on the internet, LinkedIn is by far the most boring. If LinkedIn had a fursona, it’d be a stodgy pigeon that collects paper clips for fun.

Nothing interesting comes out of LinkedIn DMs. Nothing interesting should come out of LinkedIn DMs. I knew that before I even opened this message sent to me by a complete stranger:

“Hi Shahbaz! I love what I’m seeing on your LinkedIn profile page. I'm reaching out because I enjoy networking with people, uplifting them, and learning about their background. I feel the true value of a platform like this comes from creating meaningful connections through striking up conversations. I see that you're located in the Seattle area, did you grow up here?"

Let’s start with the red flags: The bland compliment, the generic goal, the mundanely personal question, the obviously hidden agenda behind “networking,” LinkedIn. A message that generic could be sent to anyone and get the same response. It has all the charisma of a pickup line, but with none of the fun and in exactly the wrong context.

It’s by design. A message like that is meant to flatter you and, in turn, pique your curiosity in whatever interested this complete stranger to reach out to, of all people, you. This is Step 0 in the multilevel-marketing playbook.

***

A lot of people are familiar with pyramid schemes. The entire business model is primarily based on recruiting other people into the organization and incentivizing individual members to recruit more people into the organization. Here, any money that’s made is primarily through recruitment fees. The higher up the pyramid you are, the more money you make.

And while pyramid schemes are technically illegal in the United States, if an organization were to operate on a similar model but also offer a product or service of some kind to the public, then it can skirt by as a technically legitimate multilevel marketing company — the worst kind of MLM.

This is the space where you get Herbalife, Nerium, Mary Kay, and a bunch of other shady businesses that somehow manage to operate just above the board enough to still be around. And there’s perhaps no better or more famous example than Amway.

***

Amway was founded in 1959 as a collective of door-to-door salespeople selling soap and other health products directly to the consumer. Now, it’s the largest MLM in the world, marketing over 450 branded products through its distributors, called Independent Business Owners® (IBOs), who in turn sponsor other distributors into becoming IBOs themselves and selling more Amway products. To the extent of my knowledge, this is what I was being scouted for.

It took a phone call (Step 1), an in-person meeting (Step 2), and even more LinkedIn DMs (Step Awful) over the course of a month before I was even allowed to know the company that was trying to hire me was Amway. But eventually, I found myself driving down to Renton at some ungodly hour (what kind of business meeting is scheduled from 8 to 10:30 p.m.?) for Step 3 of the recruitment process: a TED Talk-style event for other industry professionals and potential recruits.

The featured speaker for the night was an off-brand Elmer Fudd. He is a motivational speaker, most famous for a generic 20-minutes of inspiration porn about retiring early. He’s also a representative for World Wide Group, an offshoot of Amway focused on providing mentorship to anyone interested in owning an Amway business.

His talk began with an experience of capitalist ennui: investing long hours into school and work, all for a job that could barely make ends meet and offered little to no upward mobility.

In listening, I was suddenly reminded of my own anxieties concerning my future — about graduation, about grad school, about finding a job, and the very real possibility that none of these things would work out the way I wanted. The moment passed very quickly, as he soon started falling into the familiar rhythms of entrepreneurial mindsets and family values.

For the next two hours, the audience was subjected to the kind of self-congratulatory lifestyle advice you’d get out of a high school anti-bullying assembly. Very little about what he said was particularly remarkable. But it’d be hard to pick up on that if you were in a crowd like the audience that night.

Now, I’m a theater kid. I’m used to responsive audiences. But the only comparable experience I’ve had with a crowd like that night was seeing “Hamilton,” and compared to that night in Renton, “Hamilton” felt like a golf tournament.

To everyone in the room, the speaker was a mononym like Madonna or Zayn. Every word out of his mouth was a pearl of wisdom. Every joke a stroke of comedic revelation. When he dissed someone, it was the sickest of burns. When he succeeded (and he always succeeded), it was a victory for all. Sure, everything was centered around a business that anyone with a graphing calculator could see was unsustainable to the core and could only benefit a very small number of people, or even that he felt the need to both emphatically deny that Amway was a pyramid scheme and say that everything was a pyramid scheme, but the crowd that night wouldn’t have told you that.

But it was clear that the facts did not matter from the way he framed all those who disagreed with him as either immoral, jealous, or lazy. And the moment when that clicked in my head, I realized that I had essentially been brought to a meeting for a Republican cult.

***

The connection is not unfounded. Amway has long held connections to the Republican Party, most notably through Betsy DeVos, whose husband Dick is a former CEO of Amway and son of its co-founder Richard DeVos.

And in talking with other folx who had made it to Step 3 of the recruitment process, the cult-like atmosphere is very much the norm. In most of these interviews, Amway comes almost always in the midst of financial hardship, but never revealing its name until you’re in the room.

Which makes sense. The Amway that’s talked about at these meetings presents itself as a family more than a business. Not the Amway that’s known throughout the rest of the world: a predatory scam enticing its desperate targets with false promises to end their struggles, to bring them riches and success.

Because Amway can keep their promises, can’t they? Their targets always have potential, are special, are different, are worthy of their attention. And those who reject them? Haters. Losers. Debased people.

It’s a classic Republican tactic: make it seem like we’re all fighting back against the people who threaten your families, but only by upholding the very systems that keep you down in the first place. They prey on your fears, your struggles, your hopes, and desires, all to line their own pockets. And they’re just successful enough where if you realize their game, they’ll just pack up and move on to the next bunch.

Reach writer Shahbaz Khan at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @JadeMoonSpeaks

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This story was updated Nov. 15, 2019 to reflect the redaction of a name.

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