Why two BYU grads created an alternative to MLMs for female entrepreneurs

The founders of West Tenth are asking people to purchase holiday gifts from women-owned businesses.

(West Tenth) Lyn Johnson, left, and Sara Sparhawk founded West Tenth in 2019 to help women-owned, home-based businesses in Utah and other places.

Growing up in Orem, Lyn Johnson was “super aware” of multilevel marketing companies. They marked one of the only big industries tapping into the many women who had left the workforce, she realized.

But to work for these companies, women often have to pay money upfront, she said, and rely on selling to friends and families. Sometimes, MLMs can become “predatory,” Johnson said, pointing to recent attention to LuLaRoe, a California clothing company that’s been accused of operating as a pyramid scheme.

“We just felt like there needs to be a better, more positive alternative to that,” one that doesn’t require women to use their own capital to sell someone else’s product, Johnson said.

So she teamed up with Sara Sparhawk, her business partner and fellow Brigham Young University graduate, to create an alternative: West Tenth.

Launched in 2019, West Tenth provides an app where people can sell and shop from small women-owned, home-based businesses, including professional gift-givers, bakers, jewelry designers, baby sleep consultants and personal assistants, among others.

As of late November, the company had almost a thousand sellers on the app, primarily based in southern California and the Salt Lake Valley, with plans to expand to Phoenix and Austin. The app is free for customers and businesses to sign up and use. There is no upfront capital or listing fees, Johnson said. And MLMs are not allowed.

“We only make money [9.5%] when we have guaranteed a woman a sale,” Johnson said.

[Read: Want to support women-owned businesses? There’s a directory Utahns can use.]

Sparhawk and Johnson, both 41, could not have predicted the role their company would play during the coronavirus pandemic, as women disproportionately left the workforce because of “added responsibilities at home,” Johnson said.

That’s why West Tenth created the #TisHerSeason pledge, asking consumers and businesses to do 50% of their holiday shopping at women-owned businesses. While about 40% of businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, only about 4% of revenue has gone to them in recent years, Sparhawk said.

“We set it up as a way to say ‘thank you’ to these women, who have been carrying this burden, this economic burden, caring for their families,” she said. “They really took the brunt of the pandemic.”

The pledge is centered around the Christmas season, but Sparhawk and Johnson hope their company will help shoppers connect with women-owned businesses beyond December.

‘We’ve needed this for a long time’

West Tenth is currently a team of five, with Johnson working virtually out of California, and Sparhawk from New York. But they regularly come to Utah. And the Beehive State felt like a natural place to launch West Tenth, they said.

“You have a lot of women who’ve left the workforce and may feel, quite frankly, shut out of traditional employment,” Johnson said. “But they know they have a skill set, and they’re really eager to use [it].”

At the same time, Johnson said, “you have a lot of women who are overwhelmed by all the responsibilities that fall on their shoulders,” and West Tenth makes it easy for them connect with other women in their community.

Stephanie McKinley-Thompson, 30, started making charcuterie boards in 2018 for friends. When Christmas came around, she started getting more requests. She decided she needed to figure out a way to do this while also making money.

McKinley-Thompson was one of first businesses to join West Tenth, running “kinly creations” while working from home in Salt Lake City. It’s allowed her to have a creative side-project that helps bring in extra money. In addition to the boards, she also makes and sells sourdough bread — a skill she picked up during the pandemic.

Food is a way to show people you love them, a notion McKinley-Thompson said she was raised to think. So it’s been fun to contribute to people’s birthdays and weddings, she said.

(Stephanie McKinley-Thompson) Stephanie McKinley-Thompson, owner and founder of kinly creations in Salt Lake City, started making charcuterie boards for friends and family. Now, she sells them on West Tenth.

A couple of years ago, Britney Wood, who lives in Provo, started a home decor and gift-giving business with a friend. But it quickly grew, sucking up important time they wanted with their families.

“Your website runs your life,” said Wood, 48, who has six children. So, they shut it down.

With West Tenth, she didn’t have to pay for a website, and she could close her shop when she wanted to go on vacation or be with family. The flexibility inspired her to start a new business on the platform: Copper Gate Gifting, where she works as a personal gift-giver.

(West Tenth) Britney Wood, owner and founder of Copper Gate Gifting in Provo, is a professional gift giver. She runs her business through West Tenth.

Wood has always loved finding gifts, she said. Her friends compare her to Leslie Knope, a character on the TV show “Parks and Recreation” known for giving thoughtful presents.

She has created customized gift baskets for companies and realtors. She’s also been part of intimate moments in people’s lives — selecting a gift for someone who lost a loved one to suicide or a miscarriage, or finding the perfect way to celebrate someone who landed a new job or bought a home.

“I shop for a living to make other people happy,” Wood said. “It just does not get any better.”

Still shopping for gifts this holiday season?

Britney Wood, founder and owner of Copper Gate Gifting in Provo, offers tips on her Instagram (coppergategifting). Here are some of her suggestions.

Don’t overthink it. A gift is a gesture that tells someone you are grateful for them, she said. Think about that person and what they would appreciate.

Generally, Wood said people tell her it’s tough to shop for men, in-laws and people who already have everything. She recommends buying something that is consumable, such as food or treats. Dish towels are another option.

Wood said she likes that West Tenth feels like she’s sharing her business with neighbors. While platforms such as Etsy have become global, West Tenth is focused on local goods and services, according to Johnson.

“Our focus and our demographic is primarily women,” Johnson said, because “we feel like that’s where the opportunity is” But West Tenth welcomes anyone who has a product or service that fits the platform’s mission, she said.

Whenever Johnson and Sparhawk explain West Tenth to consumers and potential business owners in Utah, “we just get this, ‘Oh my gosh, yeah, we’ve needed this for a long time. ... Why hasn’t this been built before?’”

“And our answer is, ‘Well, there’s not enough female entrepreneurs getting funded,’” Johnson said.

Supporting entrepreneurs

As a child, Sparhawk watched her stay-at-home mom run a business from their home in Rexburg, Idaho.

“She was a party-planner, and she did really well,” Sparhawk said. “But it was really hard for her to market herself,” and she eventually had to close.

With West Tenth, Sparhawk thought, “This is an amazing way to give back and fight for the women like my mom who have incredible skill sets, other than just taking care of our family,” and “help these women succeed and grow their businesses.”

To do that, West Tenth created the The Foundry, a “business school for home-based businesses.”

“Many of the women on our platform have never run a business before and don’t know how to do,” Sparhawk said. “And so we’re really here to ... provide a support system, to help them get sales and be seen.”

Sellers can network with each other and hear from experts in the community about how to get their business going, obtain a business license and market their products, among other topics. Classes are recorded so people can watch when it’s convenient for them.

“It’s really focused on this solo entrepreneur, what they can handle ... the tools that they really need,” Sparhawk said.

Christina Nielson, 55, said the classes have helped with her interior design business based out of Lehi. She has talked with other owners about how they find clients, she said, and learned tips for making photos look more professional on a website.

Nielson has mostly run HIVE Restyle & Design through word-of-mouth, and she worried that the business would stall during the pandemic. But “it was absolutely the opposite,” she said, as people stayed home and stared at their walls, scrolling through Pinterest and Instagram.

“I was bombarded, absolutely bombarded with people wanting to update their homes,” Nielson said. She’s since taken on clients from across the country, consulting virtually.

(West Tenth) Christina Nielson, owner and founder of HIVE Restyle and Design Lehi, said her business took off during the pandemic, as people wanted to remodel their homes.

Nielson said she’s enjoyed the flexibility of being her own boss, so she can be available when her two children come and go. During COVID-19, she could work and take care of them if they got sick.

Nielson appreciates that West Tenth makes her and other women feel valued as stay-at-home moms and entrepreneurs.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, that’s cute. You’re making jewelry from your house,’” she said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you are doing such beautiful jewelry. Let’s get the word out there for you.’ There is value, and people are interested and do want to pay us.”

Sparhawk said women need to be given multiple avenues to create income for their home and family. That may be a traditional workplace, or starting a business from home. But it’s important to let women know that “any of those are OK,” she said.

“We really want to relieve the burdens of women, but then put money into the pockets of other women,” Johnson said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.