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Five Questions for Mona Ameli

Mona Ameli is president of the Take Shape For Life unit of Medifast.
Mona Ameli is president of the Take Shape For Life unit of Medifast. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, The Baltimore Sun)

Mona Ameli has spent nearly two decades in the world of direct sales, working for companies in California that market products through networks of independent contractors. She's had management roles in some of the largest companies in the health, wellness and beauty industries: Herbalife International, Shaklee and, most recently, Belcorp USA, where she served as general manager.

Last November, Ameli became president of the Take Shape For Life business unit of Owings Mills-based Medifast. She relocated from San Francisco to the Baltimore area in January.

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The unit she heads represents the biggest piece of the weight-loss company's business, accounting for 70 percent of sales. The Medifast program is marketed through a network of independent health coaches who work as paid independent contractors, selling products to clients. The company has more than 10,500 active health coaches.

It is Ameli's job to boost that number and take the program international, as she did for her past employers.

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"Most of my background has been opening new markets and expanding companies through the rest of the world," Ameli said. "I see an opportunity to really establish the brand and network in the U.S., but also to take it outside the borders."

Ameli also happens to be the most senior-positioned Iranian-American woman in the $178 billion global direct selling industry.

Direct Selling News ranked Ameli among the top 20 most influential women in the direct sales industry in 2012-2013. In April 2013, the National Diversity Council recognized her as one of the most powerful and influential women in California, a recognition based on the professional success of multicultural minorities in the U.S and their abilities to rise above challenges.

She has worked toward helping other women succeed as well. From 2007 to 2011 she ran Women Without Borders, a nonprofit group she founded to help victims of domestic violence.

Ameli recently spoke with The Baltimore Sun about some of her goals.

What attracted you to move from San Francisco to head this division of Medifast?

Obviously, the move was prompted by this great opportunity with Medifast to lead its largest and highest-potential division. … But at Medifast, I also found an incredible culture and set of values that I believe represent some of the great characteristics of Baltimore: family, integrity, giving back, and pride of belonging to a very dynamic and growing community.

In addition to that, I have some very close and dear family members who have lived in the Baltimore County area for more than 35 to 40 years. As I am still trying to get myself adjusted here, I am actually staying with my cousins in Timonium and looking to settle in the harbor area of downtown Baltimore soon. Leaving California behind after almost 19 years was hard, but I am eager to start this new life in Baltimore, hoping to take an active part in contributing to the economic and community growth of this area through the expansion of Take Shape For Life and my closer involvement in the city and communities.

After a year in which profits have been down at Medifast and competition in the weight-loss industry is increasing, the Take Shape for Life weight-loss coaching program is seen as a key growth driver for the company. How do you plan to boost sales, especially on an international scale?

While Take Shape For Life offers scientifically formulated and clinically proven weight loss programs, it is much more than a weight loss company. Take Shape For Life is a lifestyle brand that provides healthy living, lifestyle and behavioral education and support to its clients through a well-established network of independent health coaches.

Even though we have a national presence throughout the U.S., there are still a lot of growth opportunities in expanding our network to have more "ambassadors" to share this amazing opportunity all around the country, as well as looking at establishing international presence, once we have a solid U.S. penetration. So one of our main strategic growth focuses is our health coach expansion both domestically and then internationally, starting first with our immediate neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico. In preparation to our international expansion, we will also work to expand our presence in the U.S.-Latino market to help bridge our expansion plans into Mexico.

How have consumers' attitudes toward health and healthy living changed over the years?

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The weight management marketplace is constantly evolving with new competition, bringing a multitude of choices for consumers. New trackers, apps and accessories are entering the market, and consumers are approaching weight loss and healthy living from a lifestyle perspective. Our customers are looking for sustainable ways to improve their health, with healthy weight being one of those ways.

Consumers are more educated than they've ever been and more interested in broader health considerations. And, with easy access to technology and information, consumers are faced with lots of choices. Our research shows that people want holistic and longer-term solutions and are more interested in convenience and personalization. We also know that a healthy weight is a critical starting point to an overall healthy lifestyle, but it's certainly not the only factor. In Take Shape For Life, we talk about healthy body, healthy mind, and healthy finances as the areas that, together, help build this personalized healthy living approach.

You have worked for more than two decades for companies that sell products through a network of independent contractors, as in the Take Shape For Life program. How does that model work at Medifast, and how will you help the program differentiate itself?

Take Shape For Life is an optimal-living brand that helps people have a healthier lifestyle and not only reach their ideal weight, but live a sustainable, healthy life and share it with their loved ones and communities through the health coaching opportunity, further expanding this mission.

What differentiates Take Shape For Life from other companies in the healthy-living or direct-selling spaces is that our offering is not just based on buying products or getting on a program which we know can only have short-lived results. We offer a comprehensive approach to healthy living that is based on three key components.

[Those include] healthy programs, as part of clinically proven, scientifically formulated products for both healthy weight loss and sustainable maintenance, free health coaching through a network of certified and highly compassionate health coaches … [and] behavioral and lifestyle information, training, and tools through the Habits of Health program [by Dr. Wayne Andersen] so that they can learn and establish fundamental healthy decisions in their lives for long-term sustainable health.

You have been an advocate for women's issues, such as pay equity, diversity and domestic-abuse awareness. Why are these issues important to you? As a woman in a senior corporate position, what impact do you hope to have?

I am a two-time immigrant: I was born in Iran and was raised and educated in France. When I arrived in the U.S., I was in my mid-20s and my English was limited, I did not know how to drive and started my life and my career from the bottom of the corporate ladder. I quickly realized that as a woman and a minority, career growth would be challenging. So I used all my differences as my assets and was fortunate to grow in my career and achieve success to the level I am today.

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My hope is to be able to prove to other women and minorities that professional success is possible and attainable, as well as inspire younger generations who might struggle with dealing with challenges of being or perceived as "different" to believe in themselves and never give up on their dreams. I strongly believe that women are a vital component in the economic growth of our country, and while we have made some improvements in the U.S. to have them in more leadership roles and on boards, we still have a long way to go compared to all of the other developed countries in the world.

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As women in leadership positions, we are able to help mentor, inspire, sponsor, and pave the way for more women to lead. Some of the key underlying consequences of women trapped in domestic-violence situations are the lack of self-confidence/self-worth, as well as lack of financial independence, especially among minorities. By providing hope, possibility, a path, and opportunities for them to grow, we could help more women transition out of these difficult — and sometimes fatal — circumstances. It is important to feel that each of us can play an impactful role in this.

Mona Ameli

Age: 44

Title: President, Medifast Take Shape For Life program

Previous job: General manager, Belcorp USA

Education: B.A. in economics, Master's of Business Management, University of Paris-Dauphine; post-Master's in Marketing, University of Paris-Creteil

Residence: Timonium

Birthplace: Tehran, Iran

Family: Single

Hobbies/interests: Traveling, cooking, reading, dance

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