Why the Small-Business Speaker at the RNC Is Raising Eyebrows

July 18, 2016, 7:57 PM UTC
Chip Somodevilla — Getty Images

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate and real estate billionaire Donald Trump has been promising for days that the Republican National Convention, kicking off Monday in Cleveland, will be an impressive, star-studded affair, filled with people who are “winners.”

Yet many prominent Republican politicians, including the entire Bush clan, are skipping the event. And its celebrity “A-list” includes an actor from the soap opera General Hospital, and one whose heyday was in the 1980s on the sitcom Happy Days.

The campaign also appears to be falling short with its choice of entrepreneurs. Certainly, there is venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who will be speaking on Thursday. The billionaire co-founder of Paypal was also an early investor in Facebook. Businessman, casino owner, and real estate owner Phil Ruffin will also make an appearance with other industry magnates.

But some smallbusiness owners and political analysts are also questioning the choice of Michelle Van Etten, who will speak at the event on Wednesday, as an entrepreneur. The Republican party bills her as someone who employs “over 100,000 people”, who has been featured in books about millionaire networkers, and who is, of course, a strong supporter of Donald Trump.

Yet by the Small Business Administration’s standards, a small business typically employs fewer than 500 workers. Most small businesses in the U.S. employ less than 100. And Van Etten’s other small business credentials are also somewhat questionable, according to observers.

“She is to a successful small business owner what Scott Baio is to an A-list celebrity,” Stan Veuger, a resident scholar and economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said in an email, referring to the Happy Days actor’s speaking slot on Monday. “I am genuinely amazed by how weak the prime-time speakers are.”

In fact, Van Etten is a 1099 worker for Youngevity, a network marketing company that sells 2,500 products including nutritional items, essential oils, and organic makeups, according to David Briskie, Youngevity’s president and chief financial officer. (One item is a vitamin supplement dubbed the Alex Pack, named for the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who reportedly loves how the pills make him feel more “crazed.”)

Although Van Etten, who is paid a commission on sales, bills herself as “senior vice chairman marketing director,” she is not an officer with Youngevity, Briskie says. She may, however, choose to identify herself that way in her own distribution network, Briskie says.


Based in Chula Vista, California, Youngevity allows workers like Van Etten to build networks of other sellers for various products, using the company’s ecommerce platform. That strategy is sometimes referred to as a multi-level marketing scheme, where people are compensated via commission on sales, as well as by bringing on other sellers to the network.

“I can see why a [political] party would want to be affiliated with her,” Briskie says. “She is aggressive in a good way, and she beats the work-from-home drum, and she is all about making money and having time and freedom. She is extremely entrepreneurial.”

Briskie adds, however, that he finds it difficult to believe the RNC’s claim that Van Etten employs more than 100,000 workers. Youngevity itself has 300 full-time workers, Briskie says.

Youngevity went public in 2011. It currently trades as an over the counter stock, and serves about 500,000 customers who place about 100,000 orders a month through the website, Briskie says. Youngevity reported a loss of $1.7 million on revenue of $156 million in 2015, according to its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The choice of Van Etten to represent entrepreneurs has some business owners, such as Mike Brey, president and founder, of Hobby Works, of Laurel, Maryland, somewhat riled. Hobby Works has four locations, 50 employees and annual revenue of $6 million.

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“It seems like the [Trump campaign] has not spent much time thinking about what a small business really is,” Brey says, adding that entrepreneurs build businesses that hire employees, meet payroll, sign leases, and attempt to provide health insurance and other benefits to workers, among other things.

“I’m sure Van Etten is a terrific salesperson and networker,” Brey says. “But I’m sure the vast majority of the people working under her are part-time and not dependent on this for an income.”

The National Small Business Association and Small Business Majority did not have comments about the choice of Van Etten. The National Federation of Independent Business did not return a request for comment. Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not return an email requesting comment.

Attempts to reach Van Etten through Youngevity were unsuccessful.