A Present from a President

Rita Davenport: Saving Women's Lives Every Day

By Marian Head

Connie Philips, Executive Director of Sojourner Center, and Rita Davenport, with a portrait of the famous 19th-century anti-slavery and women's rights activest Sojourner Truth.

Three years ago, Rita Davenport, president of a major network marketing company, walked into Sojourner Center, a battered women's shelter in Phoenix, Arizona, and pledged $100,000. When asked why, she honestly admits that even today, she's really not entirely sure,

"It was the craziest thing. I didn't know anything about it. I didn't even know how to spell the name of the center! And I have never been abused in any way." She thinks for a moment, then deadpans with her trademark Nashville drawl, "Actually, I don't think domestic violence happens quite as much in the South where I was raised--daddies there taught their little girls how to reload."

That's Rita: confident, honest, caring, compassionate, and sporting a well-worn funny bone.

It's actually not surprising that Rita can't put her finger on a specific cause for her jumping into her hands-on involvement in the women's shelter: there are so many to pick from. Rita is a died-in-the-wool giver. Having experienced what it was like to live in poverty as a child (no plumbing until she was 16!), as soon as she started having financial success, she shared it with her family by buying them their first homes.

"I didn't have much money, then," explains Rita, "but I knew the law: 'give to the source of inspiration and it will come back to you tenfold.' Unless you give to get, that is. I had read Seed Money in Action, by Dr. Jon Speller, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, read and listened to Earl Nightingale and Norman Vincent Peale. They all taught me to give from the level of appreciation for what you receive."

Touched By a Tragedy

Like many networkers, Rita's passion for giving and for helping others stemmed from her experience of being touched by others' stories.

"I had read in the paper that a woman had been turned away from three shelters, including Sojourner Center, because of lack of space. After each of the shelters had turned her away, she went home and there, right in front of her six children, her husband stabbed her repeatedly with a scissors, then shut her into a closet. The children could see the blood seeping out from under the door. The oldest, 12, tried to call 911, but the father forbid him. The woman died, helpless."

The tragic story moved Rita to tears, but not to action...at least, not quite yet.

"A lot of terrible things happen in our world that don't touch us directly. We may be saddened by them, but what can we do?"

About that time, Rita learned that one of her speaking clients' pet projects was Sojourner Center (www.SojournerCenter.org), which is the largest shelter in Arizona and one of the largest in the US. Each year the company would have a get-together instead of a fancy holiday party and bring gifts to take to the women and children of Sojourner Center.

"That must have planted the seed, because one day I got an inspiration--not a voice, not a burning bush, bright light or trumpet blowing, but just something inside that spoke to me and said, 'You need to raise $100,000 for the Sojourner Center.' "

At first, she brushed the thought off. Her hectic and multi-faceted life--which included her responsibilities as President of a growing network marketing company, as well as her triple roles as award-winning professional speaker, and mother and wife--put heavy demands on her time and attention. But she couldn't shake it off completely.

Not long after learning about Sojourner Center she visited the place; when she saw the center's desperate needs--with no kitchen or laundry facilities and 20 to 30 families living almost on top of each other, trying to survive--she got committed.

"I was astounded at the epidemic of violence in our nation," says Rita. "Do you know that one out of every four women is a victim of domestic violence?" In her training sessions, she has people count off: one, two, three, four. She then asks all of the fours to stand, illustrating that this is the percentage of people in our society subjected to domestic violence.

"The women who live at these shelters cover the breadth of humanity," she explains. "From the poor, sick and illiterate to the wealthy and highly educated, women everywhere and from all walks of life need the safety of shelters like Sojourner Center when faced with violent partners."

She describes the plight of one woman, a University professor, whose violent husband threw her out of a moving car on the freeway. When he realized she was still alive, he turned the car around, went back and picked her up--and threw her out onto the freeway a second time! The professor walked out of her 8000-square-foot house and into Sojourner Center, saying, "I'll never have a house like that again, but I'll be safe."

Network Philanthropy

Rita's networking experience has taught her to bestow gifts in an empowering, duplicable way. Although her $100,000 pledge to the Phoenix Sojourner Center meant that she was responsible for coming up with the cash, she had planned from the outset to find 100 people to each pledge $1000--or 1000 people to each give $100. (After all, if there's one practical methodology network marketing teaches, it's the power of a lot of people each doing a little.) She exceeded her goal.

"When I get committed, watch out!" she grins, and those who know her know she's not kidding. She didn't rise to the position of #1 distributor in her first and only networking company (and within just six months of enrolling) by accident.

Rita put the word out far and wide. One who responded was a man she had helped years earlier when he appeared on her local television talk show (on which she enjoyed chatting with such celebrity guests as Bill Cosby, Robert Redford and John Wayne). At the time, the man had just opened a paint store and in his first week, had sold nothing but a single paint brush.

"After he appeared on my show," Rita recalls, "people were lined up around the block to get into his shop!" He sent Rita $10,000 for Sojourner Center with a note: "You may not remember me, but I still have the letter that you sent me, thanking me for being on your show."

Rita's passion reached into her company as well. The corporation donates products at fundraising events and has been the sponsor of yearly galas since Rita's commitment to Sojourner Center three years ago. They raise about $120,000 each year from that one event.

Especially heartwarming for Rita is the way her company's field representatives step up to the plate to help those in need. Some donate money from their training programs; others give their time by volunteering at the center. The most creative fundraising came as a gift to Rita for her 60th birthday. One of her field leaders sent a message to everyone saying "What can you give Rita on her 60th birthday? How about a $60 check made out to Sojourner Center?" They raised $40,000.

"It was the best birthday gift I ever got."

As a professional speaker and author of four bestselling books, Rita has an opportunity to earn--and give--proceeds of her speeches and book sales to the cause that she has embraced with love. "From time to time, I'll say at events, 'When you buy my books and tapes, just make your check out to Sojourner Center.' " Recently she had a fundraising luncheon, seminar and silent auction that raised about $70,000.

As president of her network marketing company, Rita has a trademark gift: When one of her field reps promotes, she receives a personal phone call from Rita. One of these calls revealed that the new manager was living in a shelter for domestic violence in Florida. While living there, she used her cell phone (the only phone she had) to build her business towards her dream of being free.

"That's the kind of hero we're dealing with in the network marketing industry," says Rita proudly.

What Makes Us Rich

Many years ago, Rita Davenport worked as a social worker, then as a teacher. Now she puts the qualities of those professions into raising an entire organization of givers. In the course of training her network, she likes to tell her people:

"You're at the right place at the right time, with the right product and the right opportunity in order to have more, be more and do more... and then you get to share more. You can't share if you're in need yourself.

"The biggest benefit of the network marketing profession is that it gives you the ability to help people. You can use only so much money yourself. I don't care who you are, I don't care how extravagant your lifestyle is, there's a limit to what you need and can use in this world; what you take with you is what you've done for other people."

She recalls that her father died with about $200 in a medicine bottle in the drawer. She considers him one of the richest men she ever knew because he helped people out without any expectation of return.

"He never had a lot of money, but he had a lot of friends. I believe your true wealth in life is determined by the harmony you have in your relationships with your family and friends."

Rita believes that what it means to be rich is to enrich the lives of others, and she exemplifies this belief in her own life, both professionally and personally.

"Our company has grown over 100 percent each year for the past three years--a period of time that exactly parallels our focused gift-giving to the Sojourner Center. I don't think that's any coincidence, do you?"

With Rita's passionate and committed example before us, we have to admit: no, we don't think so either.