This January, when we heard the news of the massive earthquake that had hit Haiti, we immediately thought about Margaret Trost, network marketing leader and founder of the What If? Foundation, featured in our Heart of Business story in December 2002. It had been exactly ten years ago, in January of 2000, that Margaret visited the tiny island country for the first time on a mission to see if, through the effort of helping others, she could heal her own heartache. What happened there would change many lives, starting with Margaret’s.
The story actually begins yet another decade earlier, in May of 1990, when Margaret signed a distributor application with a venerable network marketing company.
“I knew absolutely nothing about network marketing,” Margaret declares.
Sandy-haired, with an easy smile and sparkling eyes, Margaret radiates the quiet conviction of one who has seen both tragedies and miracles, and her sentences tumble out in the comfortable cadence of one who has told her story over countless kitchens tables and telephone lines.
“… but I loved the products,” she is saying, “and I really liked my sponsor. This woman had a big vision of making a difference in the lives of others, both in their physical health and financial health. I liked that.”
From a long line of ministers and teachers, Margaret says she had zero business blood or entrepreneurial DNA.
“I had absolutely no background in sales—but I was really inspired by that vision.”
She and her husband wanted to start a family, and she was keenly interested in the flexibility and freedom her sponsor had said would come with a network marketing business.
“And I knew we would be representing products I genuinely believed in,” she adds, “so I decided to do it.”
Margaret signed the form and began her business—and for the first three-plus years, it was “a disaster.” With a huge fear of rejection, she had no confidence in herself as a business builder.
“Which was odd,” she adds, “because I’d worked as a television producer, and had plenty of confidence in myself doing that. But for some reason, that didn’t translate over into my new business. I was shy about it. I was afraid of imposing. I didn’t really understand the sales plan, and I couldn’t talk about it.”
She pauses just long enough to laugh at herself.
“Basically, I was waiting for people to come to me, hoping for the doorbell to ring. Which, of course, didn’t happen.
“I didn’t feel good about the idea of making money off of anybody, so I would give products away for what I bought them for. It’s funny to think about, because today I actually run a nonprofit, I mean, a real one. But back then, I was running my business as a nonprofit without realizing it!”
About two and a half years after signing that distributor application, Margaret and her husband Rich had a baby boy, Luke. Suddenly her motivation for having her business be successful jumped to a new level: she really wanted to stay home with her newborn baby.
So Margaret decided it was time to take a good, hard look at the business and figure out why it wasn’t working. She knew her products were great, the company was great, network marketing was great. Other people were building businesses. What was missing?
“Soon I realized the answer wasn’t outside of me,” she says, “it was a shift that needed to happen within me. If I wanted to be able to talk effectively to other people, first I needed to work on myself. Nothing would change until I did.”
Margaret realized that, while it was great being inspired by someone else’s vision, it didn’t last. She needed her own vision to follow.
“I asked myself, ‘Why is it important that I do this business? What can I contribute to it? What kind of business do I want to create?’ I had to make it personal.”
It occurred to Margaret there were a lot of other moms who, like her, worked outside the home, but would rather be at home with their babies.
“If I could find them and lead them,” she says, “maybe we could learn how to do this together. I created this vision of a network of moms, and started sharing that vision with other mothers who had babies the same age as mine.”
Margaret also changed her tactics, in one specific way.
“Before, my approach had always been to focus on the products, because I loved them so much, and hoped that I would eventually be able to weave in the business. Once I realized that it was the business that would allow me to be at home with my baby, I shifted my focus.
“Like a lot of people, I had been shy to talk about the business. Now it became my burning passion.”
She made a list of everyone she could think of whom she wanted to share this vision with, and met with every single person on that list. It took time, but some of those people joined her.
“We were living in Wisconsin at the time, living very simply, with a tiny mortgage. I knew that if I could grow my business to $1,000 a month, that would enable me to stay at home with my baby. Once I changed my thinking and activity, it took about six months.”
When Luke was 18 months old, Margaret quit her job outside the home. She has been at home with him ever since.
Then, shortly after Luke turned five, tragedy struck with terrible swiftness.
“I was 34 and Rich was 36. We had just reached a point where the income from my business was paying our mortgage, Luke’s kindergarten Montessori school, the Visa bill, the heat and the phone.
“One day we were sitting talking about how, with the business covering our basics, we could afford to spend a little more time together—and out of nowhere, Rich had a severe asthma attack. In the space of five minutes, he went from being fine to being dead.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Margaret was devastated.
For the next few months, she put everything else aside and struggled to manage her own grief and take care of Luke. Meanwhile, her customers kept ordering and her business partners kept building their businesses.
“The checks kept coming in,” she says, “and my business continued to grow. This was when I began to grasp the power of a network marketing business. I had read about it, understood it in theory, even been living it—but it was only now that I realized the power of what I had created over the past four years.
“I didn’t need to sell my home and move in with my parents, or put Luke in daycare and go back to work, like other people have to do when something like this happens.”
At the same time, Margaret was struggling to know how to move forward.
“Suddenly, there I was, 34 years old with a 5-year-old son, stunned and lost, trying to figure out my life without my partner. When Rich died, it was like a light went out, and I was trying to find a way to rekindle that somehow. I didn’t know how that would happen, but I was open to something coming into my life that would be new, a new experience or insight, something to help me move through the grief that I was still stuck in.”
A New Vision
One day in 1999, a family friend Margaret hadn’t seen in years invited her to travel with a group to go volunteer at an orphanage in Haiti.
“Haiti?!” says Margaret. “That was out of the blue. I’d never even thought about Haiti before.”
She took it as a sign, however, and said yes right away.
“My heart said yes before my head could think of all of the reasons to say no. I thought that maybe, by reaching out to others, this might help my heart heal.”
Nine months later she was on a plane to Haiti.
While she was there she connected with a community that had a vision for a food program for the hungry children. After returning to the States, she couldn’t shake the impression the visit had made.
“I had no other connections to Haiti; I didn’t speak Creole, I hardly remembered any French from high school. But I was so profoundly disturbed by what I had seen in Haiti, by this massive scale of poverty existing so close to US shores, that I had to respond in some way.”
She asked herself, What if I could help them?—and that was the beginning of what in time would become the What If? Foundation. In February 2000, about $5,000 in seed money miraculously showed up, which Margaret immediately sent to Haiti, and three weeks later, that money had taken root and blossomed into a fledgling food program.
Margaret returned that summer to see the program first-hand.
It wasn’t long before she visited again, and again. She ended up traveling to Haiti three times that year, and became strongly connected with the community there.
“The people were just amazing,” she says. “It was very exciting to be able to collect and send the money that helped make these things happen—but they were the ones who did the work, who shopped at the farmer’s market, made the meals and served the children.
By July, the project was already serving a meal to 500 children once a week, on Sundays. “It wasn’t much,” says Margaret, “but it was a beginning.”
Little by Little…
Knowing her seed money would soon run out, Margaret told family and friends about what was happening, and people started sending her checks. Soon Margaret had formalized her work by creating her nonprofit, the What If? Foundation.
She remembers questioning herself early on. “In a nation where millions go hungry, what’s one meal? Five hundred kids getting one meal on Sundays—does that really make any difference? Is this really helping?”
The answer, her new Haitian friends told her, was a resounding Yes.
“They said this one meal a week made all the difference. For these 500 children, they said, Sundays were now the best day of the week. And to their parents, who for at least one day each week no longer had to worry about how they were going to feed their kids, that meal made a world of difference.”
Margaret began to appreciate the power of small and seemingly insignificant things, the things we might normally think don’t really matter—a gesture, a word, a meal.
“There is this phrase in Haiti, Piti, piti, na rive, which is Creole for, Little by little, we will arrive. It’s really a lot like network marketing. We take these tiny little steps that don’t seem they could possibly add up to much—raising money a few dollars at a time, feeding one meal a week to kids who are hungry 365 days a year. But in time, it adds up. You have to have the faith that it does—because if you stay with it, it will.”
Margaret kept sharing the story; she began speaking in public about the project, sharing her passion for what was happening and how much more could happen. Little by little, the word spread.
“I applied a lot of the same principles I used in building my business: follow up to help people feel connected, share the story passionately, from my heart, trusting that every little bit adds up and that eventually the word will spread, if you are consistent. People tell people, who tell other people, who tell other people—and over time, it will add up to something powerful and significant.”
Two years after Margaret’s program began, Networking Times was launched, and in our December 2002 issue (our fourth issue ever), we featured our first story on Margaret and the What If? Foundation. In that article we mentioned Margaret’s goal of feeding several thousand children. Reaching that goal would not take long.
By 2004, the program had doubled to two weekly meals, then soon to three meals a week, and then four. By 2006 the program was serving five meals a week, Monday through Friday, to 1,000 children—and then, after the devastating hurricane season of 2008, to 1,500. By the end of 2009 the program had swelled in capacity from serving 500 meals to 7,500 meals each week, a fifteen-fold increase.
And food was only the beginning. In addition to the ever-growing meal program, the What If? Foundation had also expanded over the years to provide scholarships, starting with ten students in 2002, to paying tuition and incidental expenses for nearly 200 students, from kindergarten through primary and secondary school, as well as about twenty students who are now in college getting technical degrees. The foundation also funded an after-school program, a summer camp that serves 500 kids, and a community garden.
From its tiny, tentative beginnings, piti, piti, the program had indeed arrived, and was making a huge difference in thousands of people’s lives.
Then came the earthquake.
At just before 5:00 in the afternoon, local time, on January 12, 2010—exactly ten years after Margaret’s first visit to Haiti—the island was rocked by a magnitude 7.0 MW earthquake.
“Our cooks had just finished serving their 1,500 meals, were just cleaning the pots and pans and putting them away to ready themselves for the next day’s meal,” says Margaret, “when the earthquake struck.”
What happened next was something Margaret can only describe as “miraculous.” Located a few miles north of downtown Port-au-Prince, not far from the airport, the location where the Foundation’s meals are prepared and served remained relatively unaffected.
“I don’t know why it is,” says Margaret, “if that area is just built on more solid rock, or what the difference is. But the homes in this spot didn’t collapse in the same way as they did just a few miles away, in downtown Port-au-Prince. They didn’t experience the level of injuries nor the death toll as in other areas nearby.”
As catastrophic as the earthquake was, the kitchens Margaret’s friends had built for the food program did not collapse. When the first trucks began coming in with supplies from the Dominican Republic the following Sunday, the program’s thirty cooks and handful of education coordinators began serving food and water to people who’d received nothing in the days since the disaster struck.
A little over a week later, once the aftershocks had stopped and now two weeks since the quake had struck, the official food program resumed and the program’s thirty cooks went back to cooking rice, beans and vegetables. By the time we spoke with Margaret in mid-February, they were up to between 3,000 and 4,000 meals per day, Monday through Friday, along with passing out canned goods and water on the weekends.
“We’re so grateful that we have been able to be one of the few oases in Port-au-Prince,” she says, “serving meals safely to thousands of people.”
Another nonprofit set up operations on the same spot, because they could see that it was safe and that it was run by Haitians, and soon a medical clinic was set up there as well. Now Margaret is focusing not only on immediate relief efforts but also on plans to help rebuild in a sustainable way.
We’ve been talking for nearly an hour, but Margaret’s energy seems as boundless as when we started, and when we ask about her vision for the future, her voice becomes even more animated.
“From the beginning, I’ve had a vision of a school for elementary and secondary students, maybe many schools, with a garden growing the food for the food program.
“I see that school being available after-hours, with literacy classes for adults, and serving as a technical school on weekends, helping people learn the skills that will enable them to earn an income. I see it becoming a community center for human development, from serving meals to helping people move forward and follow their dreams.
“I have a vision for micro-loans and other opportunities for this very entrepreneurial country. I see us working with these incredibly innovative, creative and intelligent people in such a way that they break the cycle of poverty.
“I see all that, in my head—but this is a partnership. I can’t just tell them what I think they need. I need to listen to them and find out where they want to go. What is their vision for the future? What do they want? Because it’s they who are leading me.”
Meanwhile, there is much rebuilding to do.
The Next Steps
With the Haitian earthquake dominating the news this January, Margaret and her work were suddenly thrust into the spotlight. “We got a lot of exposure,” she says, “and because of that coverage, we’ve had a lot of new donors in the last six weeks.”
Grateful as she is for the increasing support, she is also realistic about the fickleness of the news cycle.
“By the time your readers are reading this article, Haiti will probably be mostly out of the news, and only mentioned in occasional articles here and there. But the needs will most likely be even more urgent.
“The people who have died, sadly, have already died,” she says. “But those people who are living there? There are 1.5 million of them homeless right now, and tents for only a small percentage of them. And by May the rainy season will be here. Hopefully, the people who have access to large international resources will be working with Haitians to help rebuild and make effective plans for the future.
“Right now, I can only focus on this one community and work very closely with them on how to move forward, one small step at a time.
“That’s how this works: step by step. Little by little.”