Have A Talent For Sales?

Sharon Howard recalls hanging out in the kitchen of a friend’s home in Dayton, Ohio, about a year ago with 25 or so African American women she had just met, all eating, talking, and listening to music. As a consultant with Our Own Image, a direct-selling company of African American-inspired home and party products, Howard, 47, had just told the women about the company and its mission of empowering women and selling products targeted to African Americans. She sold about $800 worth of merchandise that night, earning 20% off the top, persuaded three other women to commit to becoming hostesses, and also made a lot of new friends. Howard joined the company after receiving an invitation in 2003 to attend a launch reception for the fledgling Our Own Image. “The products were fabulous and I realized I had the opportunity to be on the ground floor of a new company focused on people of color.”

More African American women like Howard, who are looking for financial independence or just some extra dough, are attracted to direct selling. Some of what’s driving the trend is the rise of direct-sell companies selling Afrocentric products, ranging from home decor items to cosmetics, says Amy Robinson, spokeswoman for the Direct Selling Association (www.dsa.org) in Washington, D.C. Nearly 80% of direct-sales consultants are women, and about 6% are African American, according to the association.

Direct selling is the sale of a product or service from a representative or consultant to consumers via home-based parties, brochures, or one-on-one presentations. Consultants keep a percentage of what they sell and often earn a smaller cut of what consultants they recruit sell. Howard says she has earned as much as $3,500 a month in extra income with her Team Supreme group of consultants.

Our Own Image (www.ourownimage.com) uses that model. The Ohio company was started by a mother and daughter team of lawyers. Gail Littlejohn and her daughter Erica Littlejohn Burnette used $30,000 of their own savings and a $1 million investment from The Antioch Co., a privately held firm in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to fuel the venture, which is now a division of Antioch. What motivated the two women to start the business was a desire to be entrepreneurs and their own shopping frustrations. “I used to take a brown crayon and paint the Santa Claus on cards. That is a shared African American experience for women 45 and older,” says Littlejohn. Our Own Image has more than 600 consultants in 30 states, with sales of about $1 million in 2004 and a projection to hit nearly $2 million this year.

Firms like Atlanta-based Aularale Skin Care and Cosmetics (www.aularale.com), and Warm Spirit Inc. (www.warmspir it.com) in Exeter, New Hampshire, are also creating a buzz. Warm Spirit sells everything from aromatherapy products to herbal remedies. In August the firm announced a special offering for its consultants — a line of clothing by fashion designer Francis Hendy.

For the industry at large, the median gross income for consultants is about $200 a month for