When my cousin suggested a day at the spa, I jumped at the offer. She had recently moved an hour away from my suburban home, and with my family scattered across Canada, this invitation meant the world to me. We hadn’t seen much of each other since we were kids, but I knew we had a lot in common.
Between treatments, we caught up over lattes in our terry-cloth robes, as if no time had passed. When I opened up about wanting to quit my job to focus on more artistic endeavours, she casually mentioned a women's-only group where I could make money without actually working. "I've earned $12,000 so far," she added. She made it sound so exclusive and I was touched that she wanted me to join.
That week, I attended an online meeting; a PowerPoint presentation followed by a question-and-answer session. I learned that the movement appeared years ago as a way, to help women to be more financially independent.
The emphasis was on spirituality, teamwork, self-development and networking. Not bad, I thought, considering that most of the work took place online.
They emailed over a contract. I signed the dotted line and transferred the funds.
The first month with the group was uplifting. I met inspiring women from all over Canada: teachers, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals, and stay-at-home moms. We attended virtual self-development workshops, did yoga, and talked about our deepest, darkest secrets in long weekly sessions led by a senior member. Meanwhile, I tried to find the perfect women to invite, but I wasn’t having any luck. No one close to me was interested, and I didn’t push.
That's when spirituality went out the window when our meetings into recruitment seminars. They told us to look for women who were open-minded and who wouldn’t ask too many questions. They said we should make invitations to join the group seem like we were doing them a favour. When people declined our invitation, we were told to respond with: "You are the darkness trying to take us away from the light.
Something didn’t add up, but my cousin was a true believer, and I didn’t want to disappoint her. I buckled down and made a long list of women I thought would respond well. I felt like I was making cold calls at an aggressive sales job. It became impersonal and joyless as I received one rejection after another. What was I doing wrong?
Things became stagnant as I struggled to bring in new members. My cousin went from a zen goddess to a bully. The group was supposed to bring me closer to people, and yet I had never felt more alone. When I brought up my concerns I was met with generic responses like, “It’s part of the process,” and “If it's hard, you probably have something to learn from it.”
If I wasn’t pitching to someone, I was in a meeting learning new sales tactics. And if I wasn’t doing that, I was playing a mental game of chicken, teetering daily between, “I’m done with this” and “That’s a lot of money to walk away from.” It consumed my every thought.
Then the four-part documentary 'LuLaRich' came out on Prime. LuLaRoe, a clothing company, had been accused of misleading thousands of women with its multi-level marketing platform. What they were describing sounded a lot like what we were doing. I was stunned, but in a way, relieved. I could finally justify leaving.
I fell for a pyramid scheme. A losing game for everyone involved except the ones who get in early. Exponential math proves that. And, what's worse, multi-level marketing companies often use the same brainwashing techniques cults do. Women were encouraged to borrow the money to join if they couldn't afford it and existing members were told to donate the fees to someone who wanted to join, but didn't have the means.
It wasn't just about losing money. Someone I trusted used my vulnerabilities—my loneliness and my pain—to manipulate me. That was a hard pill to swallow. When I confronted my cousin, she simply said that this journey wasn’t for everyone, and shrugged it off. No apology, no sign of remorse. For months I was angry with her until I understood a parasite had made her mind a host. But, I was also to blame. I saw what I wanted to see.