February 25, 2024

As the country’s war with Russia rages on, thousands of Ukrainian women have turned to the multi-level marketing company’s pink-packaged offerings to support their families.

By Lauren Debter, Forbes Staff

In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Marichka Lukyanova was inundated with messages from family and friends checking in to make sure she and her two children were safe from the air strikes in Lviv, where she lives. They were safe, luckily, but Lukyanova feared that her business selling Mary Kay cosmetics would be one of the casualties of war.

“I said to myself, Marichika, who will need your cosmetics if there is a war in your country?” recalled Lukyanova.

But one message surprised Lukyanova: Even in those early weeks of the war, one of her clients wanted to buy more Mary Kay facial cream before she ran out. “She did not want to age, even if rockets were flying overhead.”

American multi-level marketing company Mary Kay has shown surprising staying power during the war, with a growing Ukrainian salesforce of an estimated 70,000 women hawking its makeup, even if it means navigating frequent air siren alarms, shelling and blackouts. According to interviews with 16 people selling Mary Kay products on the ground, the cosmetics have become a lifeline for some looking to support their families or make extra money as Ukraine’s economy has suffered from the war.

“For many, it is the only source of income. Many now have husbands, brothers or children fighting,” said Elena Krivchenkova, 58, who has been selling Mary Kay products since the 90s when the company first launched in Ukraine. “It is a way to distract themselves from the horror of what is happening.”

But it’s been tough going, and the salespeople have been faced with a war-torn economy and double-digit inflation — skincare and cosmetics sales in Ukraine fell 13% to $189 million last year, according to GlobalData — along with the challenges inherent in Mary Kay’s business model.

Like other multi-level marketing companies, Mary Kay relies on individual people not just to sell its products to their relatives, friends or others in their social circle, but to recruit them to sell the products, too. There is often an intense pressure to recruit because of the pay model: Consultants, as Mary Kay calls them, make more money when they recruit new people, and their recruits recruit new people. Most people make little or no money working for a multi-level marketing company, warns the Federal Trade Commission.

“They are not helping,” said Robert FitzPatrick, a critic of multi-level marketing companies who has researched the industry for more than two decades. He noted that these types of companies can prey on people who are desperate, “selling themselves as the last best hope” but not delivering, he added.

Mary Kay itself has suffered from skepticism about its business model: Sales worldwide fell to $2.5 billion in 2022, down from $3.6 billion five years earlier, according to Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies.

“We converted the shelter into a beauty salon.”

Tatiana Korniychuk

“Like the rest of the world, we continue to actively monitor the situation in Ukraine,” said Mary Kay spokesperson Crayton Webb. “Our leadership in Ukraine is actively engaging with employees and the independent sales force, doing everything they can to ensure their safety and supporting the viability of the business.”

Dallas-based Mary Kay, famous for giving out pink Cadillacs to its top salespeople, arrived in Ukraine three decades ago, where it found a burgeoning workforce of women eager for income. While it has a strong presence there, Russia remains an even bigger market — its fifth largest — with 180,000 consultants. But unlike major brands like Starbucks and McDonald’s and other prominent multi-level marketing companies like Herbalife and Amway that closed up shop in the country after the invasion, Mary Kay still operates there. It has had to traverse a tangle of sanctions by staying.

“We have many Independent Beauty Consultants in Russia who also rely on Mary Kay, in many cases, for their livelihood. Again, we remain committed to our mission,” Webb said, adding the company ensures “complete adherence to all laws and sanctions.”

Most of the Ukrainian consultants that Forbes spoke to say they oppose Mary Kay’s decision to remain in Russia, but seem resigned to it. “I try not to dwell on it because I cannot influence it,” said Krivchenkova. “In Russia, there are many women who have survived only thanks to their Mary Kay business. They did not want this war.”

The company’s operations ground to a halt in Ukraine after the war started because of the intense bombing in Kyiv, where Mary Kay’s main warehouse is located. In those first few months of war, consultants resorted to selling whatever products they had on hand to support themselves and their families. Some consultants have hosted charity beauty marathons where a portion of sales are donated to the war effort.

Tatiana Korniychuk, 50, began hauling her Mary Kay products into the bomb shelter during air alerts, letting women try new cosmetics while they waited for the time to pass. “We converted the shelter into a beauty salon,” said Korniychuk, who lives in Zhytomyr.

Maryna Chaikivska, 29, sold tubes of eye cream, cleanser and charcoal face masks she had stocked in her office after the war broke out. She said that netted her about $1,000 a month, paying the bills for six months. Her husband had lost his job at a pharmaceutical company after bombing in Kharkiv severely curtailed production capacity and was heading to the frontlines to put his medical degree to use treating injured soldiers.

“Mary Kay brought colors to a difficult period of life.”

Olga Boysyan

“There was no other way out,” said Chaikivska, who continued to pitch Springtime skincare regimens and bottled-up concoctions that could help combat stress-induced breakouts and wrinkles to her 1,500 Instagram followers.

Chaikivska, who lives in Lviv, used to keep some $15,000 worth of inventory on hand, but now she worries about something happening to it. She heard about another consultant who lost all her inventory after her house was hit by explosions and went up in flames. Now she keeps a third of that amount of inventory on hand.

Three months into the war, Mary Kay began delivering the cosmetics it had in its partially destroyed Kyiv warehouse. By late 2022, it was slowly beginning to ship new products as its consultants rebuilt their customer bases after millions fled the nation in search of safety. More than six million Ukrainians remain outside the country’s borders. (Mary Kay’s Webb says the company shipped products “as soon as possible.”)

That’s had a dramatic impact on businesses built on top of the multi-level marketing company. Because so many customers and consultants have left Ukraine, Elena Krivchenkova said that the incomes on her 2,000-person team have fallen by an average of 30% during the war.

Consultants have also been impacted by rolling blackouts, which make it difficult to get online to pitch products. Six months into the war, Natalia Sokratova, a 35-year-old former teacher, bought a generator so she could continue posting to Instagram, hosting online tutorials and checking in with her team. Others have bought SIM cards from different wireless providers, so that if one provider struggles to provide Wi-Fi they can try another provider.

Some have struggled to make much money from selling Mary Kay cosmetics. Natalia Marynets, a trained lawyer who began selling in 2023, spends two or three hours a day on Mary Kay and has recruited 16 consultants, but still only makes about $200 a month.

Mary Kay did not respond to questions about how much the average consultant makes in Ukraine. It does not release earnings figures except in Canada, where it says the average consultant makes $200 a year.

For many of the other women Forbes spoke to, the additional income, however incremental, wasn’t the only benefit of working as a Mary Kay consultant during the war.

“Mary Kay brought colors to a difficult period of life,” said Olga Boysyan, a former pharmacist who joined the company last year. She told Forbes selling cosmetics is a welcome distraction when she’s waiting to hear from her husband and son, who are serving in the army.

“I have an opportunity to distract our women from negativity and at the same time give them a good mood,” Marynets said. “Even during the Second World War, red lipstick was like an antidepressant for women.”


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