FOR SHERI POE, THE HORROR OF that day will never go away. Even now, 23 years later, she can still smell the alcohol on the man's breath. Just 19 in 1971, Poe was hitchhiking from a part-time job back to Southern Illinois University, where she was a straight-A student. She realized she was in the wrong car within minutes of accepting the ride. "My inner alarm went off," she says, "and I knew I had to get out."

That's what she tried to do as the car neared the university's rural Carbon-dale campus. But the man stepped on the gas, then reached over, grabbed her neck and forced her to the floor. Then he produced a gun. "In the middle of nowhere," says Poe, "I was dealing with a psychotic, drunk 330-lb. man. Even before he physically touched me, I was forever changed."

Raped at gunpoint, Poe suffered severe bulimia for more than a decade, uncontrollable bingeing and purging that took her to the brink of death. (A suspect was apprehended but was released without being charged.) And yet, looking back, Poe is able to say, "Yes, the rape was a tragedy. But in the grand scheme of things, perhaps it needed to happen to make me who I am today"

Today, Poe, 42, is the CEO of Ryka Inc., an upstart fitness-shoe company based in Norwood, Mass. Titans Nike and Reebok have nothing to worry about yet, but Ryka is gaining on them. Sales of Rykas—worn by such diverse fans as Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey—have grown from $4.7 million in 1990 to $14.4 million last year. The company expects to see its first profit this year. For Poe, however, Ryka is more than a business. It has provided her with a platform to take strong public stands on violence against women and to bankroll such efforts through the Ryka ROSE (Regaining One's Self Esteem) Foundation. Based at Ryka's offices, the foundation was launched in 1992 when Poe gave it a $250,000 portion of her own Ryka stock. So far the group has received $10,000 a quarter from Ryka; when the company goes into the black, ROSE will receive 7 percent of its profits. "We're changing people's lives every single day," she says. "It's quite an extraordinary feeling."

It was in an aerobics class—during her recovery from bulimia in 1986—that Poe came up with the idea for Ryka. She and several classmates were complaining that they had been suffering from back pain because their sneakers fit so poorly. So Poe decided to design an athletic shoe specifically for women. "All the shoes for women were ugly as sin, and they didn't fit," says Poe. "Here's this $5 billion industry, and nobody is paying attention to the women's market." Adds Dr. Carol Frey, an orthopedic surgeon at University of Southern California: "The majority of women's athletic shoes are built on a form that is a scaled-down version of a man's foot. As a result, most women are wearing shoes that are too small for them, which can lead to back pain. Ryka is moving in the right direction."

The youngest of three children of Milton Poe, a retail-store troubleshooter, and his wife, Muriel, Poe was born in Neptune, N.J. "My father was really absent," says Poe. "And my mom suffered emotionally as a result." When her brother David, 9½ years older, went to Vietnam in 1962, Poe was devastated. "He was like a surrogate parent for me," says Poe, who was thrust into the role of caring for her mother. School offered no relief. An average student at Joliet (Ill.) West High School, she says she "felt unimportant—ugly and gawky."

Then in 1971 she entered Southern Illinois and began to blossom. "I was a real flower child, involved in both the feminist and antiwar movements," says Poe, "and I was feeling really good about myself." Then she was raped.

Afterward she couldn't escape feelings of guilt, which were compounded by the police and by assorted doctors and counselors. She says they all conveyed a similar message: "You asked for it. You were hitchhiking." Poe calls the 10 years following the rape "the worst of my life."

After she moved to Florida in 1973 to live with her brothers, Poe became bulimic, and her immune system was so weakened she contracted chronic hepatitis. "By this time I couldn't work at all," says Poe, who no longer felt comfortable asking for help from her family and had gone on welfare. "The day my dad picked me up from my third hospitalization, the doctor got down on one knee in front of my wheelchair and said, 'Sheri, if you get this again, you could die.' " For Poe it was a pivotal moment; she remembers telling herself, "I want to live."

It would take Poe almost 10 years to free herself completely from the habits of bulimia. What helped her, she says, was "getting in touch with my body." By late 1974 she had moved to Berkeley, Calif., where she met her first husband, Martin Birrittella, in a meditation class. They worked for a now-defunct giftware company and in 1977 moved to Boston. In 1988 they started Ryka.

When the couple, who have two children together—Sasha, 14, and Daniela, 12—separated later that year, Poe became head of the company. In 1991 she sent Winfrey a pair of Rykas and soon found herself on an Oprah show about woman entrepreneurs. Early this year, in a stroke, of inspiration, Poe decided to get Princess Diana, a renowned fitness buff herself, to walk a few miles in her shoes. In addition to sending several kinds of Rykas to Kensington Palace, Poe wrote Diana a note, greeting her as a "fellow survivor" of bulimia. "I told her a bit of my story, wished her luck, and said, 'I hope you enjoy our shoes.' The next thing I know I'm opening a magazine and there she is in our shoes! I flipped out."

These days Poe has more to celebrate than Ryka's success. She is a wife and a mother again; three years ago she married biochemist Steve Brieske, now 33, with whom she has a son, Trevin, 2, and a daughter, Taylor David, 11 months. (She and her ex-husband share custody of her older daughters.)

As for business, Poe is nothing if not optimistic. "A lot of people thought we'd be belly up by now," she says, "but I never had any doubt we'd make it." Still, wasn't she worried during Ryka's fallow years? "It was nothing," says Poe, "compared to what I went through before. When you go through the kind of fear I went through when I was raped and the fear you go through when a doctor says you could die in a few years—well, after all that, this was easy."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
SUE AVERY BROWN in Boston

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Avery Brown.