When Rita Davenport became involved with the world of network marketing about a quarter-century ago, she already had a very successful career going. Several, in fact. She had her own television talk show of fifteen years running (one of the most popular talk shows in Phoenix). She had authored several books, including two cookbooks that had sold more than one-and-a-half million copies and a best-selling book on creating success, Making Time, Making Money. She had several highly successful infomercials selling her audio programs, It's Time for You and Laugh Your Way to Success. And she was an enormously busy public speaker. Oh, and wife to her high school sweetheart David and mother to two young boys, Michael and Scott.

But she decided to take the plunge, and became a rep for a small personal care company. In less than a year she was #1 in Parade of Champions, winning the prestigious President's Award and promoted to the top of the company's pay plan—and not long after that, became the company's corporate president, a role she held for over two decades until leaving that post in 2011. In the process she also has become one of the best-known and most-beloved figures in network marketing. — J.D.M.

What prompted you at the height of your illustrious career to dive into this completely new professional world? Had you lost your mind?

That's what a lot of folks thought at the time! I had the dream home, I had all the recognition you could ask for with the broadcasting and speaking and all of that.

But I had what you might call survivor's guilt. I had family and friends whom I adored and who did not have the advantages that I had. They didn't have the exposure to the people that I had been blessed to interview and get to know.

For years I had looked for something that would help create more opportunity for some of these people, sort of the way Dolly Parton built Dollywood in part to create something that would give her family and other people in that area an opportunity.

I had really searched this out. Coincidentally, my brother had been encouraging me to get into network marketing. But my ego clouded my judgment. Hey, I was a television personality, a best-selling author, and a sought-out speaker. I thought, "That could be good for people who don't have all this success I have here, but is it really for me?"

The problem was, none of those other things empowered my family and friends to have a way of making a living. So I thought if I could find the right company and leadership opportunity, I could teach this to my family and friends. And that's exactly what happened.

First, I got my sister to join the company I'd found; since I hadn't gotten involved yet, she was sponsored by Donna Johnson. Then my sister started saying, "If this is such a good idea for me, why aren't you getting into it, too?" So I did. My sister sponsored me into the business, and then I started reaching out to a lot of my friends.

How did you approach them? What did you say?

I'd say, "You know, you only have so many springtimes. This could be an opportunity for you, without having to quit your other job, to build an empire and have something to look forward to."

These were people who had PhDs and MBAs, very educated, talented people. But in many cases, especially with teachers and people in social work, which was an area I'd worked in and still had friends in, there is no golden parachute, no real retirement program. This is even more true today, of course.

I also pointed out to each of these folks that right in their own profession, they had an incredible network of people they could introduce a product to.

I've always taught that your net worth is connected to your network. When talking about joining network marketing I would say, "Don't quit your day job until you're making more at this than you're making in that day job. Don't change your lifestyle until you really see where this is going."

Speaking at a national convention in Las Vegas in 2010.

With husband David Davenport in Florence, Italy.

With leaders in Las Vegas teaching how to be more, do more, have more.

With sister Euphiazene Linder on a cruise in 2006.

So you got into it in effect to help other people you knew.

That's my nature. When I became a social worker after college, I told a friend from first grade what I was doing and he said, "That's nothing new, Rita, you've been a social worker all your life."

I see network marketing as a way to empower and impact the world like no other. I don't know of any other way for you to use your sweat equity to mobilize and help other people. I don't know any other place where your income is based completely on the number of people you help.

My personal philosophy is that success is about who you can take with you. Well, if you're a speaker or a writer or a broadcaster, who can you take with you? It's an individual encounter for you. It doesn't include other people, where you can say, "Come on, here's what you do to connect the dots," and have that turn into success for them as well as for you.

I had a sister with an eighth-grade education who got married at fourteen and started her own family at eighteen. I had a brother who was a police officer. And I had friends I just wanted to shake and say, "Look at this, because where you are right now is not going to take care of you forever. You don't know what's going to happen. You're at the mercy of a boss, and that's not very secure."

So I looked at this business as a way to save the world. I always saw it as a way to help other people.

How did your friends and colleagues react?

Well, one of my mentors and dearest friends, Joe Larson, called my husband David on the phone. Joe is the former president of National Speakers Association and has been an absolute rock of support in my life. He and David golf together.

Joe said, "David, is Rita going through some kind of midlife crisis? This is all she talks about. I've never seen anything like it. She's got all these other successes she could be discussing with us—but she just keeps talking on and on about these products and the people and this opportunity."

Other friends made fun of me. They thought, "Maybe her ratings have dropped." Well, my show was one of the highest-rated local television shows at the time. "Maybe she's not getting many speeches. Maybe the books aren't selling."

Of course, none of this was true. I was on top of my game. The year I got into network marketing I did 118 speeches around the country. But these people figured I must be having some kind of financial crisis to do this crazy thing I kept talking about.

I bet at least a few regretted it later.

Some of those same people who laughed at me—and this is sad—aren't doing that well today. They have come back to me and said, "We thought it was beneath us—but you were so smart to do this."

I know so many people who were once in very prominent positions and doing very well economically, who are trying to live today on social security and have had to sell their possessions. It just breaks your heart.

And I just want to cry when I hear these stories, because I tried my best to warn them. But all they would do is just push me back and say, "You've got to be kidding! I'm an important person. I'm not going to do network marketing."

I just wish I could have been more compelling, and I wish they hadn't let their ego cloud their judgment. Because they don't have a lot to look forward to right now.

That is so poignant. And as you said before, you only get so many springtimes.

My grandmother was a sharecropper, and I know the importance of planting your crops so that you'll have a harvest to feed you later on. You'd better plant your crop while you're physically and mentally capable of putting out the energy it takes.

Sometimes people would tell me they couldn't do network marketing because they were so busy. But that's your best time to flourish in this business—when you're busy! The busier you are, the easier it is to be successful here, because the busier you are, the more opportunities you have to interact and network.

And how long does it really take to open up the idea of this business to somebody, whether they're a complete stranger or someone you've known for years?

When you started in this business, you were on the busy side, yes?

Oh, Lord. I was doing a daily television show, promoting my books, and as I said, I did 118 speeches that year. I was extremely busy.

I just looked at network marketing the way children look at what they do. You know, children work really hard when they play, but they don't see it as work. Nothing is work unless you'd rather be doing something else.

I look at this opportunity as a game. One day, I sponsored thirty-two people into my business. It wasn't unusual for me to sponsor forty, fifty, sixty a month, because I had an incredible arena to choose from and talk with. And I was so excited.

The business is so based on your passion and excitement. Because very few people have that about where they are today. They don't have that about their job—if they have a job anymore. And when they see somebody talking about something they're that excited about, it's captivating. They think, "I want a little of that."

In today's world, I still don't know anything better I could have done for people.

Our business has the best opportunity it's ever had to flourish today, because it can solve everything that's so negative in the world today.

I know you rapidly won the company's top awards and became one of their top earners. But then you did something which is not your typical success story: you went from being a field leader to being company president. How did that happen? And why?

It wasn't really something I decided to do, so much as I was asked by key field leaders in that company if I would consider a management position, because they felt there was a need for it.

The company's founder, Petter Morck, and I started talking about this, and in 1990 he made the announcement to the field that I would be the company's new president.

So those key field leaders felt they needed somebody at the corporate office who understood the business form the rep's point of view?

Exactly. So while I was the corporate president, I also served in a sense as spokesperson for the field. I had friends in the business I wanted to protect.

When I first got involved in the company, I not only helped my own downline, but I would also go other places and help other people's organizations as a trainer, because I understand that there is a ripple effect. The more I could bolster another person's organization, the more mine will also grow by viewing the success of others. Success builds success.

I couldn't agree more. We have exactly the same philosophy.

There's no competition. Unless you actually take something from me, the fact that you're succeeding only helps me and my people succeed more. I get to bask in the success that you have, and you set an example for my team.

I was so grateful to become a corporate person, because there were networks in the business that were not part of my organization—and now I could truly serve as a leader to everyone in the company.

And now I've actually been given the opportunity to take that one giant step further.

For the past twenty years, I've wished that I could serve as a communicator for the entire network marketing and direct sales world—not just for one company but for all the wonderful companies that are out there. I wasn't able to do that then. And now I'm excited that I can.

But I never saw anything but positive from helping other people, no matter where they were in the organization. My downline, sideline, upline, backline didn't make any difference to me. They were human beings, and I knew that if I could help them, then that would, of course, help my organization because of the example.

Because it does come back to you.

That's right. And that's how you can be the strongest example to your team—to have a servant's heart, take the napkin off and put the apron on. That is so powerful for them to see.

In my early days, people from other organizations helped me. People who were not in my upline came to Phoenix and taught me about the product and the demonstration. I videotaped them.

That's what we all need to be doing: look at what's going on in your whole company and the whole profession.

People in this business, especially, have to be very mindful to be respectful and supportive of other companies in our space. The more they succeed, the more you succeed. There are nearly 300 million people still in this country who are not in our business, so it doesn't take away from you when another company succeeds. We need to cheer for the success of every company in network marketing, because the more they succeed, the more we all benefit.

I can't think of a more important point of view to circulate than that one, and a lot of folks who read this magazine will agree with you on that.

Seeing it any other way just comes from insecurity and having a consciousness of lack, instead of a consciousness of abundance. We all know you can't receive with a closed fist. You have to open that hand and give, if you want to receive what's coming your way.

This business is not about what you get, it's about what you give to other people, and what they're able to do with what you've given them to help more and more people. It's a wonderful concept, and I'm so grateful I learned about it.

From time to time, we ought to thank Rich DeVos and the folks at Amway. If they hadn't lobbied Congress and fought for us to have this business in the seventies, what a loss that would've been to the world!

Lou Holtz used to say, "Everybody needs something you have a passion for, someone to love, and something to hope for, something you're really striving to accomplish." I don't know a better way to have that kind of life than network marketing. I've been in education, I've been in business, I've been in social work, broadcasting, speaking ... but I don't know of a better way to create a genuine sense of deep personal fulfillment.

Today the world is hurting economically, and our business has a role to play. From your perspective, how are we doing?

I'm going to be really candid with you. I think it's pathetic. We've come a long way, but there's so much we could do.

I think we're not growing nearly as much as we could and should. If everyone reading this article right now would bring in one more person in the next week into this business, the ripple effect would be worldwide.

There's such a need for light in people's lives. For me to see companies that are not growing or that have become stagnant, that aren't going worldwide, it breaks my heart.

So no, I'm not proud of where we are. And I don't mean to be negative, because I'm not a negative person. I just feel we're missing the boat on how many people could be effective in this business but are not being encouraged to join us.

There are seven billion people worldwide. When you look at how many we have in this business so far, we're missing the boat.

When I was building my business, every night before going to sleep I would say, "Who have I not talked to today? Who do I need to talk to tomorrow? Who am I not reaching out to? Who can I help? Who needs me?"

There are so many people who have so little, and this gives them a chance to create abundance, have prosperity and give meaning to their lives. The meaning of your life is in direct proportion to the people you help.

You have not because you want not, and chances are good you want not because you've been programmed not to expect much. "Don't get your hopes up." Well, what good are low hopes? They never did much for me! You have not because you ask not—and maybe it's time to get your ask in gear!

Keep your expectations high. What you expect, believe, and picture is what you get; no more, no less. High expectations put you in a place where you're going to get illuminations, which are the "Aha! That's who I need to call. That's what I need to say to that person."

You can't judge a book by its cover. You don't know what another person can and will do, once you have shined that light on them and made them aware of their own greatness and highest possibility.

I just got my granddaughter Reese a toy light saber, like from Star Wars. I actually bought it for her to carry with her trick-or-treating.

When I gave it to her she said, "Nana, let's go in a dark room, so we can show our light."

That's exactly how this business is. This business gives you a chance to put light in a place that's dark, and help a person with the light you're sharing with them. And when you share your light, it doesn't take anything away from you or your light.

Well, we are in a dark room right now. The opportunity today is bigger than ever. I think we still have a vast wasteland that needs to be tapped, that we haven't yet tapped. And we absolutely can. And we should. And we must.

How dare we not share this amazing opportunity with others?