A Conversation with Dato’ Vijay Eswaran
By John David Mann
There are a number of ways one could describe Vijay Eswaran. Founder and Executive Chairman of a massively successful, breathtakingly diversified global conglomerate. Widely respected economist (featured speaker at the Commonwealth Business Forum of CHOGM 2007 and 2009, in Uganda and Trinidad/Tobago and panelist at the World Economic Forum’s East Asia Summit in Vietnam, as just a few examples). Author of the bestselling book on business and spirituality, In the Sphere of Silence. But the description that intrigues us most is “ardent proponent of global network marketing.” That company he chairs happens to own a network marketing company whose business is spread over some 200 countries around the globe. Vijay, or “Dato’,” (an honorary title, something like the “Sir” of knighthood, conferred on Eswaran by the Sultan of Pahang) as he is called in his home country Malaysia, is a passionate and articulate spokesman for the future of network marketing and its value not only to individuals but also to the economy of the world. — J.D.M.
What first led you to become involved with the network marketing model?
I got recruited into my first MLM way back in the fall of 1981, while I was studying economics at the University of London as an undergraduate. I had just turned 21.
I never really got into building a network and a team at this point. I had enough fun retailing the stuff. I don’t even recall recruiting anyone. The university is a great place to be. Going to college is an experience I strongly recommend to anyone. But I never understood the need to relate academic performance to one’s success in life.
Most people who’ve been truly successful in terms of building who they are have created a legacy that has little to do with the subject matter they actually pursued in college. We don’t really remember Gandhi for being an exceptional lawyer. If you look at Churchill, Kennedy or anyone else you look up to—Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King—it’s never been about their academic performance. It’s not like they actually were exceptional professionals. They created their own path in life.
I’m sure our readers will relate to that.
Yes, let’s not forget that neither Mr. Gates nor Mr. Jobs finished college, nor did Larry Ellison or, for that matter, one of my favorite icons, Sam Walton.
So although I did finish college and did my post-graduate work and all of that, I think of this as a segment in my life where I was predominantly finding myself, as opposed to it actually leading me to where I wanted to go.
That’s what it was. London was a very interesting experience for me, because I had to survive. I worked all manner of odd jobs, ranging from security guard to driving a London taxi cab.
For me, college life was about standing on my own two feet, leaving the sanctity of home and the comfort zones that I grew up with, to take on the world in its true form. A rite of passage.
And to be on the other side of the world, I suppose, in different cultures. You grew up in Malaysia, yes?
All over Malaysia. My dad was in the civil service and was moved around quite a bit. We rarely spent more than two or three years in one town.
You were being groomed from an early age to be a man of the world.
Somebody certainly had a master plan. I wish they had tuned me into it much earlier on.
That would have spoiled the surprise.
Still, it was not fun being uprooted from my friends and circle of buddies, the neighborhood and all that. Starting all over every couple of years has its downsides. But it also taught me how to adapt, adjust and accommodate.
So you pursued post-graduate studies in the United States?
Yes. Upon graduating in London, I was hired by one of the larger accounting firms, the Big Four, as they were known at the time, and part of the training required me to be in Chicago.
There I met up with a professor who had been part of my undergraduate program at the University of London and was now teaching at the University of Illinois, in Urbana. He convinced me to enter a new graduate program that was just beginning in a study called Management Information Systems—which is basically what IT is today.
So this was fairly new at the time.
I was probably one of the first several batches to come out of that program. That’s where I did my post-graduate work. Then I taught for a bit at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, then worked for a while for an IBM subsidiary in Arkansas.
It was back in Illinois where I picked back up the thread of network marketing, by a most curious circumstance.
I had lost touch with network marketing when I first went to work in Chicago. I got caught up in the excitement of putting on a suit and working for a big accounting firm. But by a strange quirk of fate, that same professor who had gotten me into that IT program in Chicago was also in my upline—and he not only got me back into grad school, he also got me back on track in network marketing.
This time I got a proper grounding. In Chicago, I really learned what network marketing was all about, all the groundwork and fundamentals, and I began doing rather well. I made one of the top titles in the company in some eighteen months.
Now, at the age of 24, I was making more money in networking than I was earning in my paycheck. Still, it never crossed my mind to become a full-time networker. I think it was more a cultural issue, for me. I didn’t think my dad would have accepted it. And that was rather important to me.
Eventually I had some differences with the way the company was being run, and decided I could not stay with them. For various reasons, I walked away from my network marketing business at that point.
What led you back across the ocean to Asia?
It certainly wasn’t planned. I had spent about ten months working with a company in Australia, and before returning to Canada, which is where I had been living at the time, I decided to take a few months off and return home. It was now thirteen years since I’d left for London, and seven years since my last visit home. So I went back.
While I was in Malaysia, as a favor to a friend, I went over to Sri Lanka to cover an IT job for him. In Sri Lanka, I met my wife—and this changed my whole perspective. I thought perhaps I’d stay and work in Southeast Asia for a while, maybe a year or two. I’ve been there ever since.
I got married and I went back to corporate life, taking over as general manager of a company. Here I was, at the age of 32, running a company of about a thousand employees under me, most of whom were older than I was. Things were moving along quite well, and in terms of corporate life, I thought I had everything under control.
What happened that led you back to network marketing?
Somewhere along the way I realized I wasn’t having as much fun as I thought I would. I could work my way up the ladder again and become CEO of an even bigger company. But this life was just a whole different world from what I thought it would be like.
One especially bitter experience really put a period at the end of this whole sentence. While I was away on a trip, the company was sold right out from under me. When I returned we had new owners, and I was swept out with the old management, just like that. It made me realize how little control over my life I really had, and I didn’t much like that feeling.
I worked as a consultant for a number of years, and at one point was hired by a network marketing company here in Malaysia to set up their corporate and IT division in the Philippines, which was just opening up to network marketing.
And it all kind of came back to you?
Exactly—it all came rushing back.
Network marketing had been everywhere in Malaysia—but in the Philippines it was a different story. Back in 1983, Marcos had banned network marketing in the Philippines. Now, fifteen years later, the ban was lifted, and people there were fascinated by it. Opening a network marketing company in the Philippines in 1997 was so new and refreshing, it was like bathing in a mountain stream.
I put my wife in the network and kept my day job. In a matter of three months, she was earning double my salary, and by the fourth month she was earning five timesmy salary. My resistance broke.
We had about 30,000 people by the time I quit my consulting job and joined her in the business, and by the end of that year it was over 100,000. We had to set up an office just to handle application forms.
But again, similar issues cropped up as had happened with my previous company. I wouldn’t go so far as to say things were unethical, but it wasn’t an even playing field, and that I couldn’t tolerate.
We were hitting a darn good commission check at the time, but we decided that we had done enough and needed to walk away from the company.
Soon I got a call from another MLM company, asking me if I would assist them in opening up the Philippines. I had fun doing this, and for a while that’s what I continued doing: I helped companies set up network marketing in new territories. In the process, I became quite conversant in all the variations of compensation plans, the internal mechanisms of corporate structure, and so on.
By this time I had put a team together, about a half dozen of us from different network marketing backgrounds. We called ourselves “The V Team.” Eventually we grew to a dozen.
Our V Team was recruited by yet another company to help them launch the Philippines, which we did—but before long we discovered that one of this company’s partners was quite corrupt. We could see the beginning of the end. By this point, the network we’d built in the Philippines was larger than the company’s network in their home country, and we felt morally obligated to let this network in on what was really happening.
We called a massive meeting in Manila and put the cards on the table. “Guys,” we said, “this is it. We’re being bilked. We are heading for a dead end.”
The people absorbed this news and then said, “Well, why don’t we do this ourselves?” At first we thought it sounded a wee bit crazy. But then, I’ve alwaysliked a wee bit crazy.
We sat down and brainstormed for a month, and in the end, we decided to create our own company. This was August of 1998, and on September 8 we launched our company.
Just as the Internet was starting to become a serious force in business.
Yes, and we completely embraced the Internet from the start. We went online almost immediately and our company was essentially borderless, designed on the concept of a global village, as it were.
I am an economist by training. Milton Friedman is my all-time hero, and I’m a strong proponent of the free market. To me, globalization is the natural process of evolution, economically and otherwise.
It is not the planet nor nature that defines the lines we draw, and they are rarely defined by topography. They are more defined by man’s inclination to draw a line in the sand.
Do you find that network marketing is an inherently strong force in breaching those lines?
You hit the nail on the head: absolutely. And I think we’ve done more to establish this than just about any other player in the direct selling marketplace
Have there been some countries where it’s been more difficult to go in because of restrictions and regulations?
Absolutely. It’s always a challenge. In the more open countries, fortunately, we are able to continue to take a global perspective on things. Strangely enough, the United States is not one of them.
That’s ironic. We’re supposedly the melting pot of the world, yet sometimes the U.S. feels like the smallest town in the world.
It’s got more walls around it than most of the other countries I work with. Someone once referred to it as “fortress America.” It is ironic, because it purports to be the aegis of the free world.
What can we in the U.S. learn from your network marketing experiences in the rest of the world? How can we grow?
It’s all about getting to know the people. And this is just as true within the U.S. as it is in the rest of the world. A New Yorker will find Arkansas to be virtually a whole new planet. You’re speaking the same language, supposedly under the same flag, but between Detroit and Memphis you have as much difference as you would find between Calcutta and Colombia.
What is it like going into a country with absolutely no history of network marketing? How do people take to the idea when it’s brand new?
People take to it brilliantly, like ducks to water. Governments are another matter. Dealing with government executives is like being nibbled to death by ducks. It’s really no different from what you see in the States: a small-town sheriff is sometimes the hardest person to rationalize with.
I think Einstein said that common sense is a collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18. These people have often had their mindsets already carved into granite in a different era, and adjusting is really not an option.
To what extent have you seen the incursion of network marketing have an impact on the culture or economic structure of such of a country?
Massively—it is truly a paradigm shift. It is about taking them onto a whole new vista, as different as black from white. Most people are totally fascinated by it.
In the decades ahead, what kind of economic and social impact do you see network marketing having in the world?
Network marketing per se has grown to become something so different from what it was when it began. You can trace its roots all the way back to direct selling, going back 100 years and more, all the way back to Encyclopedia Britannica, Tupperware and Avon. It evolved from there into what Amway took it to, and then to where we are today. This has been a phenomenal evolution, and it has grown as we have grown.
Its impact today globally cannot be pinpointed or packed into a neat formula, because it is much larger than that.
It is, in essence, replacing the world as we know it. I’m not trying to be grandiose here. Can I speak as an economist for a moment?
With six billion people on this planet, taking even one third of that number as being of the employable age, there’s absolutely no way that any industry out there—mining, manufacturing, what have you—can fulfill two billion jobs.
As we get more technologically advanced, we’re also moving away from a labor economy. The era of manufacturing began at the turn of the twentieth century and prevailed for over 100 years. But today there are massive companies like Microsoft and Apple that are not driven by labor.
There is no way traditional businesses can breach this gap. As more and more people become educated and employable, there are fewer and fewer jobs. In another ten years, we’re going to have at least four billion people looking for employment. And there is absolutely nothing out there that can fill the gap—except network marketing.
We are the only logical solution: allowing people to work out of their homes, and be mothers and fathers and whatever they need to be—and at the same time create a profession out of delivering goods and services across the planet.
In the developed nations, you have this growing part of the population who really do not want to “work.” They want to be fascinated and turned on by what they do. And in order for that to happen, the job has to be flexible enough. Nothing else fits the bill as we do.
In the developing nations, you have graduates coming out of college with no jobs. You have people who think that the only solution lies in getting onto a boat and floating across the Mediterranean to Europe or getting across the fence into the United States.
Again, we are the solution. The great economies of China and India are turning fast. Farmers do not have children who want to be farmers anymore.
Network marketing is the most logical bridge across this abyss we are facing right now.
As you say, it’s about raising mankind.
It truly is. Network marketing embodies that entrepreneurial spirit. And it not only takes entrepreneurship to a practical level of existence, it also develops leadership. You cannot succeed in this business without learning to be a leader.
That’s what I believe. That’s why I have chosen to dedicate my life to this. I am doing this because I cannot think of doing anything else. This is about as close as I can get to doing His work, which I hope I say without sounding too evangelical.