Birney Imes: Pretty in Pink

March 2, 2013 9:18:20 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Friday afternoon Earnestine Mobley took me for a ride in her Cadillac. The car is beautiful, black leather interior with wood trim, OnStar navigation, heated seats and steering wheel, the works. Near the automatic stick shift on the console is a small black plaque that reads, "This Cadillac exclusively built for Earnestine Nash Mobley." As it happens, the car is pink. 


And, as it happens, Earnestine is a Mary Kay beauty consultant. The car, hers to use for two years, puts her near the pinnacle of a universe of self-employed women selling cosmetics and a dream. The dream is one of self-empowerment and financial independence. 


Mobley has not only survived but flourished in an environment that requires selling product and winning converts to the cause, who she must then train. Their sales generate royalties for the consultant who brought them into the fold.  


"We sell dreams and hopes," says Mobley. "When a woman works at a secular job, she works for wages. I work for a profit. I'm not a minimum woman." 


Indeed, she is not. A tall, imposing presence, Mobley speaks with authority and candor that belies her past as a teenage mother raised by a single mother on Columbus' Northside. 


"I had a child when I was 16," says Mobley. "I was ignorant." 


She made up her mind she wouldn't have any more babies until she had a husband. In the meantime she went to work: cleaning tables at Bernie's pizza, waitressing at Quincy's Steakhouse, driving a school bus in Caledonia, working as a teacher's assistant. 


"I come from welfare and food stamps; I'm not allergic to work," she says. 


Eventually she married Thomas Mobley and together they ran a floor covering business on Gardner Boulevard. Thomas laid flooring and Earnestine did interior decorating. 


A friend, Sharon Wilson, had been bugging Mobley about becoming a sales consultant for Mary Kay. To appease Wilson, Mobley went with her to Tuscaloosa to meet a senior sales director. She had been using the cosmetics for years; if she could make $300 a month to supplement her income, she might give it a try. In Tuscaloosa she met Patrice Smith, who drove a pink Cadillac and told of making as much as $12,000 in a month. The visit made an impression. 


"I thought they were doing something illegal," Mobley said.  


About that time the recession hit and she and her husband's business tanked -- Thomas Mobley is still laying floor covering. 


Earnestine threw herself into Mary Kay. She needed a car, and in six months she had earned the use of a Pontiac Vibe. 


"To make it simple, we show women how to wash their face," Mobley explains "As long as baby girls are born, we don't understand the word 'recession.'" 


And like any good salesman, Mobley believes in her product. 


"I don't go out without makeup," she says, "not even to the mailbox." 


In the five years she's been at it, Mobley's rise has been meteoric. She's in the top two percent of Mary Kay sales consultants. She attributes her success to hard work, service and the ability to empathize with her customers. 


"Do you know how many women have a sign on their back that says, 'make me feel special'?" she asks. "If we learn to listen to women, you can be a success in this business," she says. "Get the dollar signs out of your eyes and listen to the beat of a woman's heart, and you'll be successful." 


Mobley has been successful -- her highest monthly commission check was more than $7,900 -- though many who have bought into the Mary Kay dream have not. According to an online source, the company has an almost 70 percent annual turnover rate for sales consultants. The company has been criticized in the media for its pyramid sales structure. Mobley calls it a dual marketing system, "between me and Mary Kay." 


Founded in 1963 by Mary Kay Ash, a Dallas widow tired of seeing women in the workplace passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified men, the privately held company has grown from $198,000 in annual sales with 318 sales consultants in 1963 to 2 million consultants generating $2.5 billion in sales in 2010.  


"There's always been someone wherever I worked who sold it," a coworker told me. "I used it for a little while. It's a good product and competitively priced with department store cosmetics." 


Soon Mobley graduated to a Chevy Equinox, and then in October 2011 she hit the motherlode, the pink Cadillac. 


"Everybody said we wouldn't get a pink Cadillac in Columbus," says Mobley, who has recruited 125-130 sales consultants for the cause. "I want other women to know it's doable." 


"I remember it like it was yesterday, the day we picked the Cadillac up at Carl Hogan," she said. "I cried every drop of my makeup off." 


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.