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From left to right, Karinne Houser, Fiona Kelly, Morgan, Ian Brown, Michaela Stiles. Courtesy | South­western Advantage

If any­thing is enig­matic to late-stage cap­i­talism, it’s probably a door-to-door sales company that sells books in the age of the internet. College-age interns who work there typ­i­cally gross $10,000 a summer.

This is South­western Advantage, “America’s oldest entre­pre­neurial program for uni­versity stu­dents.” Estab­lished in 1855, South­western markets itself as a company that gives stu­dents the ability to afford their college degrees and earn trans­ferrable skills for life after grad­u­ation.

“South­western Advantage is the original company of what is now South­western Family of Com­panies — 29 brands that serve a range of indus­tries around the world,” Sales and Mar­keting Asso­ciate Morgan Mil­likin wrote in an email. “Interns are trained in per­forming con­sul­tative sales, mar­keting edu­ca­tional products to fam­ilies in com­mu­nities throughout the country.”

Essen­tially, interns sell edu­ca­tional mate­rials — think Princeton Review and National Geo­graphic — door-to-door in neigh­bor­hoods across the United States. Four Hillsdale stu­dents, among them junior Karinne Houser and senior Ian Brown, interned with South­western and plan to return this summer.

Houser heard about South­western when she filled out a summer work interest survey in her senior year of high school. From there, she attended an infor­ma­tional meeting, earned an interview, and was selected as an intern.

“It sounded like the hardest thing that I could do with my summer,” Houser said. “If I did the work, the company was old enough where I could trust that I would make the amount of money the average first year makes. And if I didn’t, that would be on me, and that scared me.” 

Houser said she also interned to build her resume.

“On my resume I could be relo­cated, was able to learn how to prospect, approach, and have a sales con­ver­sation with over 3,000 fam­ilies of all dif­ferent socioe­co­nomic back­grounds, and then did my own facil­i­tating of all the product, close the sale, and deliver to this amount of cus­tomers,” Houser said. “So, it was a lot of growth con­densed into three months.” 

Houser made $6,500 dollars in profit her first summer. Since then, she profited $13,000 and $25,000 dollars from her second and third summers, respec­tively. She plans on com­pleting a fourth internship with South­western after this semester. 

Brown heard about South­western through his cousin, who had made $13,000. Brown’s parents told him he was on his own for college, so he saw the internship as a way to help pay for tuition.

“Hon­estly, it was because of the money aspect,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to graduate with a ton of student debt. I wanted to be able to buy a car, so when I under­stood that I could actually make a lot of money, it was kind of just like the imme­diate need of school. So that was really the reason why I got into it. Then I was like, okay, these people seem cool.” 

Brown made $9,000, $21,000, and $24,000 his first, second, and third summers, respec­tively. He now recruits and trains stu­dents as a South­western student manager himself. 

“In the spring training, we meet with interns once a week and we cover all kinds of stuff — basi­cally the A‑Z of selling,” Brown said. “So we walk through, like, ‘What’s the cycle of a sale?’ And, ‘What are the objec­tions, blah, blah, blah.’ Then we also do sales talk practice. We practice going through our sales talks, because the more you have that mem­o­rized, the more you can jump in and out of it. It’s improv, essen­tially. For example, a mom is talking to you and they ask you a question. And you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what’s next in my sales talk.’ You can’t be a robot, you have to under­stand how to come in and out. The sales talk is so that you don’t have to be thinking about what you’re saying. It just comes out like second nature.” 

Brown said that being able to come in and out of the sales script is essential to con­necting with a potential cus­tomer, as the con­ver­sation should be as genuine as pos­sible. 

“If a family doesn’t trust you, they’re not going to buy what you have no matter what it is, even if it’s the best deal ever. And so the first goal is always to get them to trust you by being human, because people trust people who are being real and being them­selves,” Brown said. “That’s also why the first three weeks you don’t focus on how much you sell. You focus on how many people you’re talking to and how much practice you’re getting, because if you do the reps, you’re going to get better at it.” 

Cred­i­bility is a vital com­ponent for every South­western intern. As Houser said, each intern is assigned to a school dis­trict. They make a Facebook business page, obtain a permit, and check in with the police. 

“Most people in that com­munity know who we are and what we’re doing from the Facebook page, but if they don’t, you just have to say you’re the book girl or guy for that area,” Houser said. “So you build your business for that summer in the one area, so it’s not like a group thing. Other interns don’t come into your area. They have their own.” 

Although a seem­ingly solo effort and enter­prise — interns make 40% com­mission on every­thing they sell — com­munity still defines the expe­rience. 

Interns live with each other and stay with host fam­ilies — usually South­western alumni. Every Sunday, the entire South­western con­tingent for their area meets up, and everyone checks in with each other and par­tic­i­pates in bonding activ­ities.

“So you’re able to get your ques­tions answered and first years who are going through it for the first time get to talk about whatever emo­tions they expe­ri­enced through the week to a manager,” Houser said.

After com­pleting their first summer intern­ships with South­western, both Houser and Brown knew they were going to return. But this time, it wasn’t for the money. 

“It’s after you get past the money aspect, that’s the next reason why people like it. It comes from the idea of, ‘How far can I actually push myself?’” Brown said. “Doing door to door sales is really hard. My family never opened the door. For example, my parents were like, ‘Why are you doing that? We never open the door when somebody knocks.’” 

Houser said if money was the moti­vating goal, most people would quit South­western after their first internship.

“It’s the mission of our company to help young people develop the skills and char­acter they need to achieve their goals in life. And it gets super touchy-feely, but it’s lit­erally my job as a manager now,” Houser said. “I come back and talk with people about what their goals are. If South­western lines up with that, and they are willing to trust me, and I can trust them to be honest, my job is lit­erally to help these people realize their potential. So I would say that’s the biggest moti­vator.”

Brown also stressed the mission of the company. 

“It’s really, really cen­tered on helping us,” he said. “It’s not nec­es­sarily about sales skills, what we really emphasize is you’re learning how to com­mu­nicate with people, you’re learning how to sell an idea, which are really important skills to have. But there’s also the char­acter of how you run a business over the summer. In general, how you run a business says a lot about you, what your core values are, and what your prin­ciples are. Even if you run it poorly or uneth­i­cally, that’s on you. South­western empowers college stu­dents to run their own business.” 

Through their intern­ships, both Brown and Houser received skills they will use for the rest of their lives. But they are not done. They plan to spend a fourth summer selling books door-to-door. 

Perhaps late-stage cap­i­talism doesn’t account for per­sonal growth and achievement.