For morning commuters on busy Division Street, it might sound like a tribal dance with bouncing, booing and yelling and rhythmic applause. Three handsome young men dance in a circle in the Perkins parking lot to loud music from a car – they play the “crazy chicken” with their arms flapping and scratching their feet, and the “Arnold Schwarzenegger”, flexing their biceps and shouting, “Hasta the sight, baby!” They “ballerina” jumping high in the air, toes pointed, arms outstretched, while laughing and clapping.
Just before entering the dance, they stood listening intently to a chapter read aloud from Og Mandino’s book, “The World’s Biggest Seller”.
What kind of crazy preachers are these young men? They door-to-door for Southwestern Co., an educational book distributor based in Nashville, Tenn., And they work in Spokane, Cheney, and Coeur d’Alene all summer.
Yet they’re not from Tennessee: Ulari Teder, 25, Eerik Sare, 21, and Siim Pari, 22, all live in Tartu, Estonia. It was on the University of Tartu campus that they heard about Southwestern Company, and an opportunity to come to the United States and work for the summer.
All they needed was a letter signed by their parents and a visa sponsored by Global Educational Concepts, a subsidiary of Southwestern Company, and money for airfare and other expenses totaling nearly $ 3,000. . And now they have the rest of the summer to sell enough books to cover their investment.
“Southwestern Company is very well known on campus,” Teder said, in nearly perfect English.
Pari quickly adds that this is one of the largest employers on campus.
“My mom was a little skeptical the first summer I went there,” said Teder, who toured Indiana bookstores last year. “But then she saw that I was okay and made some money. Now I don’t have to ask him for money anymore.
The trio laughed.
Pari is also on his second tour, but Sare is on his first.
He said he started training in Estonia last fall, and so far he’s been doing well.
“We are very determined to work,” Sare said.
After the three of them disembarked in Nashville, they attended a weeklong sales training seminar hosted by Southwestern Company.
“We provide them with training and a range of products, but that’s the student’s business,” said Trey Campbell, communications director for Southwestern. “It’s a direct selling business just like Avon or Mary Kay. They are independent contractors. Campbell said that this summer nearly 350 Estonians were working in the Southwestern program.
Their training completed, these three Estonians flew to Spokane, where they landed a few weeks ago, with a street map in hand and no accommodation. Since students are considered independent contractors, they are responsible for their accommodation, food, transportation, and any other expenses during the 10-12 weeks they sell books.
Immediately, Teder, Sare, and Pari started going door to door selling books and simultaneously asking for a place to stay for the summer. But not just any place would do.
“We have very high standards for our host family,” Teder said. “It shouldn’t be too loud. It must be central. We want a nice host family. They knocked on a few doors and checked out a few places that didn’t quite meet their standards, but the fourth door was opened by Mania Izakson, the wife of Rabbi Jack Izakson.
“I had bought the books for my own daughter seven years ago, so I knew the books,” said Izakson. “But I was surprised by the demand for housing.
It didn’t take long for him to make up his mind to welcome traveling Estonians, and so Izakson’s house in South Hill became the home of booksellers for the summer.
“I’m a mother – I couldn’t imagine what it was like for their mothers this far away,” said Izakson, “I welcomed them. And no, I didn’t care much.” The Estonians stay until September, but they are unlikely to bother the Izaksons so much.
Why? Because they go door to door, every day from 6 a.m. until nightfall, except Sunday, where they have meetings in the morning and a few hours of rest in the afternoon. They need to make 30 contacts a day, and they continue until they’ve filled at least eight book orders. By most American standards, it’s not a work schedule, it’s debt bondage.
“Door-to-door selling is very difficult and difficult, but for the students it is a means to an end,” said Campbell of Southwestern. “Students have a vision of how the skills they learn through our program can help them. For foreign students, it often comes down to traveling and improving their English.
And it is to earn money.
Teder, Sare and Pari will not talk about money.
Southwestern won’t talk about money.
Teder, who is by far the most talkative of the three Estonians, will only say that books are affordable.
“Everyone in my area buys them,” he said with a smile, adding that he sells in the Mead area.
Campbell said the books ranged from $ 40 for young children’s books to $ 1,200 for the set.
The books are for reference and homework help, and they cover topics like math, English, and social studies from lower grades through high school. Southwestern also publishes CDs and DVDs and hosts an online reference service based on the content of the books.
Customers pay half directly to the student and receive the books in September.
The student deposits the money in a bank account and immediately sends some of it to Southwestern to start paying for the books the student will need to fill their orders by September.
When all orders have been delivered locally, the student returns to Nashville “to settle his account,” Campbell said. All that is left after paying Southwestern for the books and covering all other expenses is the student’s profit for the summer.
There are countless happy testimonials posted by alumni on the YouTube video sharing website and on the Southwestern website, featuring young people who say they made between $ 6,000 and over $ 20,000 in one. summer.
There are also at least two websites and YouTube videos that label Southwestern as a scam and pyramid scheme. Student entrepreneurs report to a student manager while they are in the field. The student manager receives a share of the sales made by the students he supervises.
But Teder, Sare and Pari are adamant that no one is their boss.
“We work together – we are nobody’s boss,” Teder said.
Campbell said harsh criticism is inevitable when running a large company.
“We have had over 100,000 alumni in our program since the 1970s – not everyone has a good experience, just as not everyone likes Wal-Mart,” Campbell said, adding that it It’s all up to the students how hard they work. “There are no corporate quotas to respect. The training is based on what the top performing students in the program do, and here is the schedule they stick to.
Southwestern is accredited by the Better Business Bureau in Texas, with the highest rating, and holds a Master Business License with Washington State covering students who door-to-door here.
Between 10 and 20 percent of the students who work for Southwestern come from abroad; the others are American.
Izakson has nothing but good things to say about his visitors.
“They are so polite and respectful, and they work so hard,” she said. “They don’t watch TV and cook their own breakfasts and their own food.”
Izakson worries about the long hours the trio spend on the road and all the strangers they meet every day.
“They’re about 9,000 miles from home and they go out every day and do that,” she said, shaking her head.
Teder and Pari have cars – one rented and one bought very cheaply – and Sare rides an old Raleigh road bike.
During their morning meeting in Perkins, they copy street maps and plan the day’s routes, while Teder spends a lot of time on the phone with other Estonians working in the northwest interior.
The staff at Perkins love young men and bring them their favorite breakfast as soon as they arrive at 6.30am.
At 7.15 am they are ready to go.
“Yes, we are working hard. Remember, we are not professional salespeople, ”said Pari. “We are just students trying to make money.”
And after a few flashes and chest thrusts, they’re heading for the morning sunrise.