“Currency Investor. DM to know more,” read her bio a few years ago. Below: her linktree. One-click gave you access to even more links, one to subscribe to her YouTube channel, another to purchase the “best clear gloss” (at the time of writing this, they’re out of stock). Surely, a testament to Mpiana’s marketing savvy; she has quite the influence.
And she’s not alone: in November of 2019, Mpiana invited me along to “Road to 6 Figures,” a recruitment event organized on the University of Ottawa campus by the then-collective forex traders called Free Minds. What they dangled before us felt simultaneously at arm’s length yet curiously out of reach. I, Mpiana and the 20-30 or so other broke and racialized university students in attendance would learn how to gain “financial freedom” thanks to Free Minds’ “easy blueprint” that would help us “join them at the top.” There was a hefty monthly fee of $274.95 to access the strategy and platform which would teach us how to trade on the foreign exchange market. Once enrolled, we could gradually reduce the subscription cost by recruiting others into our “downline.”
Profit margins would be twofold—one hand grasping the payoffs of a well-placed gamble, inextricably linked to the plummeting value of some distant nation’s currency. The other ropes in the next impressionable youth, woefully enamoured by the possibility of wealth, unfamiliar with the mechanics of what sustains a tetrahedron. Ah yes, such wideness at the base; oh so daintily narrow at its peak.
Today, Mpiana is no longer a forex trader. Like many other remarkably desperate—though equally aspirational—Black youth targeted by forex Multi-level Marketing networks (MLMs) in Canada and the United States, she learned not all that glitters is gold.
In 2018, Mpiana was an aspiring YouTuber. She eventually came across another creator based in Montreal. “From the content that I was making and the direction I was trying to go for my YouTube, she was the only Black Canadian that I saw doing the same thing. So I reached out to her. From there, I added her on Snapchat,” she says.
Mpiana’s new friend, Edieuna, was an active forex trader. “I asked her about it when I saw her going to a conference. I was like, ‘girl, what are you flying out to?’ And she introduced me to it. I didn’t have the money at the time. But I thought to myself, you know what, I do want to break these generational curses.”
In 2020, Mpiana joined Free Minds under Edieuna’s team. Initially, she was attracted to the prospects of building generational wealth by learning to trade on the foreign exchange market, but it was the collective’s marketing skills which later became her main incentive to stick around. “When I realized that I [did] want to pursue a career in communications, I thought it could help me, if I learn to market with these people, because they got me [and] they got [others]—so they must be doing something right, you know?”
By January 2021, Mpiana and a few colleagues decided to leave the group. “Free Minds was [founded] by two friends. And then they had a fallout about something and then it kind of trickled down. You know how it is with businesses. And it got to the point where we were like, ‘okay, well, we're more focused on the trading part. So we're just gonna do trading.’ ”
They joined a new collective, I am Free. However, with time, she grew uncomfortable with their strategy. “At a certain point, it felt like it was more marketing than it was trading. Referrals are great and everything, but I didn't believe [in telling people] that if you didn't join, you weren't going to make it. It's a tactic to get people involved, but it's not sustainable. Because if you're telling me I can become rich, where's your proof? The only person I saw that forex and trading and marketing made a big difference to was the leader of the pack.” Mpiana stayed for a year, then in 2022, gradually stepped away to finish her degree in social work at the University of Ottawa.
At her peak, Mpiana had 12 people in her “downline.” In forex trading lingo, she recalls reaching P150, which reduced her monthly subscription cost to $124.95; all she had to do was pay the difference. Thanks to COVID, she was able to dedicate a substantial part of her time to forex. “I would try to give myself 40 hours, depending on school and everything. I was able to get my hair done or get my nails done—small bills. So it did help. I'm not going to say ‘oh no, it was a scam.’ ” In addition, she credits I am Free with providing a sense of community in a time of unprecedented global catastrophe. “There were all those benefits we weren't getting because we couldn't go outside. I was making money. I was interacting with people. I was learning about a career path that I wanted to take at the time. We had a group chat where we would send each other trades, and we would usually make bank. So for me it was beneficial in the end.”
According to the Federal Trade Commission, 99% of MLM participants end up losing money. Despite this harrowing statistic, Mpiana wouldn’t fully discourage others from going the forex MLM route. “The team that I was with, I trust them with my life. We prayed together, we went on trips together, it was a solid bunch.” She credits one of her seniors, Rudy Isidore, with being a positive role model. “I still consider him a big brother. He's a very good people's person, and he's also a very good salesman, which I think also helped.”
My conversation with Mpiana left me at an unexpected crossroads. Had I unfairly dismissed forex collectives as predatory cash grabs orchestrated by ill-intentioned opportunists? Or, was I right to suspect no amount of camaraderie could justify the bleak financial outcomes documented in retrospect by MLM graduates? I hoped speaking with Isidore would help resolve my indecision.
He was difficult to reach—mainly due to the April 5 ice storm which devastated parts of Ontario and Quebec. Isidore, who resides in Montreal, was one of the lucky ones. A power outage afflicted his neighbourhood through the Friday following the storm, though we managed to chat virtually on Google Meet. “I'm on a generator. Every eight hours I have to put gas in it. It's crazy.”
He has the demeanour of a motivational speaker, a candour none would expect from an assumed pyramid schemer. “Four years ago, I invested more than $15,000 into forex and I got scammed. I wanted to give up. But what happened is [my girlfriend] told me, ‘you need to change your Instagram. I'm gonna send you some names.’ And there was a gentleman … saying, ‘I took this amount of trade and I made this amount of money.’ I was like, damn! I was making $6,000 a month selling cell phones and everything. But if I could do the same thing without working 90 hours a week, I would. So I met that person and the rest was history.”
Since finding success through forex, Isidore no longer works a traditional job. “I travel all around the world. I have a big community where I trade and invest and help people make money. I just talked to one of my students that just made 100k today. So it's really an amazing journey.”
Isidore met Mpiana in 2019 in the midst of the “Road to 6 Figures” campaign. “I was building a community of 500 people in 12 different countries. I told myself, ‘what can I do to build a community in Ottawa?’ ” He reached out to a friend who was a club promoter in the city. “That's when we were selling out rooms of almost a hundred people. We decided we were going to go to every university because that’s where the go-getters are.”
He laughs when I mention I happened to be at one of his events, but failed to follow through as I didn’t have the money to start trading. “Broke is a mindset. It's subjective. You can have $0 but be rich in your mindset, and eventually get the money.”
Once we bonded over our mutual fondness for Mpiana (who happens to be my godsister), I posed the contentious question—why have forex MLMs gotten such a bad rep?
“So the way that you need to see it is that in every single thing, you're always going to get failures. I decided to be part of the one percent. A lot of people do not have the mindset to keep on going. When I started, I lost more than $15,000 listening to the wrong people. I'm still here after four years. So I just think that people who are more negative towards [forex] didn't really put the time into it, to study and to learn about everything.”
Since graduating from the University of Ottawa in June 2022, Mpiana now works for 3M, a multi-industry American company. Also, she hopes to create social media campaigns for small local businesses. She plans to go back to school in the fall, either to obtain a master’s degree in communication or a bachelor’s degree in information technology. In hindsight, she acknowledges her involvement with Free Minds and I am Free were mostly circumstantial. “It was COVID honestly. If I had responsibilities, and other things to do, I probably wouldn't have stayed with the team for so long. I probably would have done what most people do. They go in, pay the enrollment fee, stay for maybe three months maximum, get all the knowledge that they can get, and then dip and do it by themselves. It’s a good strategy, depending on the team, if you don’t want to be pestered to enroll other people, if you want to be focused just on trading and do it solo.”
It should come as no surprise that when the going gets tough, young Black Canadians are relying on innovation to make ends meet, albeit through methods which look faintly like coercion, and if you squint, duress. Most people who choose to join a forex MLM won’t luck out like Isidore, and his dismissal of the genuine critiques raised by skeptics and veterans alike should not go unscrutinized. For those like Mpiana, who chose to walk away before suffering major losses, the entire ordeal serves as a cautionary tale. Granted, she is well-placed to chuckle at TikToks poking fun at the influx of forex traders from the early pandemic days, and their sudden disappearance.
As for the rest of us young millennials and older gen-zs, alarmed by the growing necessity of side-hustle culture and the oversaturation of wannabe social media (micro)influencers, all we can do is charge it to the game. “Can you pay my bills, can you pay my telephone bills, do you pay my automo’ bills?” goes the 1999 Destiny’s Child hit song. If rent is due on the first, plus the phone bill added to the internet won’t come down to free-ninety-nine… What's a girl to do? “On that demon time she might start an OnlyFans,” or whatever Beyoncé said, some twenty-something years later. There is no harm in minding the business that pays.