When you think of direct selling companies, I bet you don't think of these words:

Female empowerment.

Family values.

Community outreach.

But, maybe it's time you do...

While direct selling might have caught a bad rap in past decades, the core philosophy that drives many direct sales companies is not only incredibly practical for many women who'd like both structure and freedom in their work lives, it's also progressive.

Organizations like Avon, Mary Kay, Thirty-One Gifts, and others have a much more complex and positive effect on the people and communities they work with than most realize.

Direct selling can empower women to meet their individual goals.

The people who participate in direct selling partnerships are overwhelmingly women, and always have been. Mary Kay Cosmetics was founded by a woman back in 1963, and recruited other women to be Mary Kay representatives.

Thirty-One Gifts, which offers its consultants bags, totes, home decor, and more, was also founded by a woman, Cindy Monroe, specifically to help other women become independent business owners. The company has done that successfully and currently empowers close to 70,000 consultants.

The women who are independent sales consultants with Thirty-One Gifts have the opportunity to become true entrepreneurs. This opportunity can present a flexible scenario for many women, especially for moms who don't want to leave their children, but who do want to have the opportunity to run their own businesses.

What's perhaps more important than even the opportunity to become an entrepreneur is the level of sisterhood and support that Thirty-One Gifts offers its consultants. In addition to marketing and sales support, like a subscription to a personalized e-commerce site and professional marketing emails sent on her behalf, the brand also offers a network of other women that the consultant can learn from and connect with. Whether it happens through being part of a sales team or during the high-energy annual conferences, such access to a community of like-minded women can be both profoundly comforting and inspiring. It's this support that makes the difference between just talking the talk, and truly walking the walk, between paying lip service to women's rights and providing the scaffolding to help them blaze their own trails.

Direct selling marries the progressive values of women having careers with traditional family values, thus enabling them to find work-life balance.

Direct selling companies like Mary Kay and Thirty-One Gifts also marry two seemingly conflicting values to a degree that many companies haven't yet been able to.

If women in the past wanted a chance to have careers, this often meant they had to leave the home to work. As we all know, for some mothers, this leads to a highly difficult choice: stay home with the children and give up any chance of having a career, or work a 9-5 position and miss spending most of the day with her kids.

There's nothing new about this dilemma, and mothers have been coming up with creative solutions to resolve it for as long as women have been in the workplace. For many, direct selling has become one of those creative solutions.

Companies like Thirty-One Gifts offer the knowledge and sisterhood these women need -- which can have a reassuring, stabilizing effect for women who are just starting out as entrepreneurs -- while still allowing them to work on their own time. Consultants can run an independent business, while still picking up their children from school and supervising weekday play dates. When I speak to audiences of women, they frequently share with me their challenge of wanting to start a business but not knowing how to begin to structure it. The training materials, like how-to videos, and promotional content, like flyers and graphics, are a solution to that challenge and simplify the process of "becoming one's own boss" tremendously.

In this way, Thirty-One Gifts and other direct selling companies that are targeted mainly toward women are promoting both the ability for women to run their own business where and when they want, and strong family values.

Direct selling companies can have an outsize impact on the communities they work with.

Many direct selling companies were founded with corporate social responsibility as a basic value. In fact, 72% of direct selling companies support philanthropic activities through financial donation, product donation, or by supporting their consultants' individual philanthropic efforts.

This is a huge percentage, and it equals a huge impact. Direct selling companies are supporting Mayan women artists (LulaRoe); efforts to end domestic violence (Mary Kay Cosmetics); and confidence-building programs for women and girls (Thirty-One Gifts), not to mention the countless other causes their consultants support with help from the companies.

This emphasis on giving back to the community may be due to the fact that direct selling is all about relationships. Certainly, there are some companies that may focus primarily on profits, but the smart ones know that finding new customers is a lot harder than nurturing the ones you already have.

These direct selling organizations focus on helping their independent sales consultants grow their own networks. They emphasize the idea that in order to lift oneself, you must help lift others, too.

That's why direct selling companies often place a strong importance on trainings and get-togethers for their consultants. The hands-on learning is important, of course, but so is the feeling of sisterhood and support that these trainings generate.

Some companies, like Thirty-One Gifts, go even further, incorporating volunteerism into their consultant gatherings. This can have a multiplying effect, encouraging consultants from many different areas of the country to begin volunteering with their own teams back in their hometowns.

A great example of this community-mindedness is Thirty-One Gifts' Heroes campaign, which runs through the month of July 2017. The company is encouraging people to celebrate their heroes, whether they be a single mom whose daily heroism often goes unsung or brave members of a local fire department, who humbly declare they're just doing their jobs, by sharing their stories on social media with the hashtag #CelebrateHeroes. The company is also offering new product embroidery designs to support the campaign that feature American and Canadian flags, first responder symbols, and of course, the small word that means so much: "Hero."

Direct selling companies have their detractors, and they always will. But the new generation of direct sellers, in particular, are working hard to change the face of direct selling into something that's helping women, helping families, and ultimately, helping their communities.

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Shama Hyder is founder and CEO of The Marketing Zen Group, a best-selling author, and an internationally renowned keynote speaker. Her most recent book is Momentum (May 2016).

Published on: Jun 13, 2017