Show or Business

"Tell me one thing, one very simple thing," an enthused, smooth-spoken 30-something woman says to the crowd of about 50 gathered in a small LAX Westin conference room. "Would you jump out of a plane without a parachute for $2 million?"

The listeners shake their heads.

"Four is a very good number for me, so I'm going to double it. Four million dollars, same thing. All you have to do is jump out of that plane. No?"

Still no takers.

"Well, unfortunately you have lost $4 million, and the reason for this loss is because the plane was actually on the ground."

It's an "aha!" moment for the crowd — or at least it is intended to be. She's making a point about the importance of being fully informed and knowledgeable before accepting or declining an opportunity.

Never mind that a jump from a 747 sitting on the ground could easily be lethal. This presentation ultimately is less about reason and more about feeling, the zeitgeist of American "can do" spirit.

"We don't necessarily look for the needy," the speaker says with a flowing cadence. "We look for the greedy."

This talk is being held by Financial Destination Inc., aka FDI, a multilevel marketing organization, or "MLM," but it could be any one of countless similar events held around the country for people seeking a path to higher income.

While all of tonight's speakers and just about the entire crowd are African American, MLMs started in this country as a mainly suburban, white-as-Wonder-bread phenomenon — Amway.

In an MLM, the corporate entity creates a tangible product or service — FDI specializes in telecommunications, financial and lifestyle services — and then recruits independent sales and marketing associates who go out and recruit other associates who then go out and recruit other associates, on and on.

An associate makes a percentage of all money generated by every associate under him in the tree structure. Thus, associates are urged to focus more energy on recruiting associates than on selling the underlying goods and services. To critics, these are pyramid schemes.

Where does all the money come from?

All associates are strongly urged, or sometimes required, to buy plenty of what the company is selling themselves. In many cases, they are required to pay a onetime and/or monthly fee to become an associate.

With FDI, all who sign up to become an "Independent Marketing Director" must buy their own personal FDIVoice customer membership at $39.95 to $129.95 per month, and also must choose one of three levels of IMD membership, with up-front fees ranging between $29.95 and $299.95.

"We generate more than $100 billion a month in revenue," the woman tells the crowd. "If you're looking for a part-time income, we've got it. If you're looking for full-time income, you've got it. If you're looking to supplement your income, replace your income or realize your dreams, you guessed it, we've got it."

The audience responds as if listening to a Baptist preacher. "All right!" "Oh, yeah!" "That's right!"

It's easy to understand why people came to the Westin this day. The economy is tougher than ever in their lifetimes. Uncertainty is palpable, and many people who do have regular work despise their job routines.

They want a new future, and FDI offers it. What if even a fraction of this is true? What if a modicum of work at FDI in the near future resulted in even a few hundred dollars every month, forever? The crowd is told that a select few MLM'ers have even become millionaires.

The presentation plays with thoughts and emotions. Is rejecting FDI a defense mechanism, an excuse not to undertake the consistent hard work and acceptance of uncertainties required of bare-knuckled business?

Or is joining FDI an escape from more conventional, responsible pursuits? Then again, what constitutes such a pursuit? Los Angeles is full of people who work passionately and diligently for years only to receive a negligible financial reward.

Sitting in this room, it's impossible to know who really makes how much money, working how hard, when signing on for an MLM. Signing on becomes an act of faith, as unknowable as the afterlife.

The final speaker is a sharply dressed older gentleman. He is a "Presidential," a member of a rarefied elite within the organization who have found plenty of people to whom they can sell.

"People say, 'I don't know nobody,' but you have a spouse and 10 grown children," he says.

"You gotta stick and stay until you get your pay."

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