KAREN TRILEVSKY, 53
At 17, Karen Trilevsky fled a troubled childhood in Southern California, hopped a bus to Denver and made ends meet by working in restaurant kitchens. In her 30s, living in San Francisco, she saw trendy coffee shops springing up but noticed few carried fresh baked goods: A business idea was born. Pouring her life savings of $5,000 into baking supplies, she perfected her scone and cookie recipes at night in the kitchen of a local restaurant, sleeping on flour sacks in the storage room for a year after funds ran out. "I almost didn't make it," she says. "But I worked hard, and things turned."
And how. Today, after 21 years, Karen's bakery business, FullBloom Baking Co., boasts 340 employees, $47 million in annual sales and distribution in more than 8,500 locations. Saddened by the lack of educational opportunities many of her employees faced, in 2002 Karen tapped $2 million of her own funds and created a scholarship, Smart Cookie (FullBloom.com), for California students. So far, she's put 67 young people through college. "This scholarship," says Thomas Mohr, president of Cañada College in Redwood City, "is the most meaningful financial assistance I've ever seen."
No one agrees more than students like Jose Garcia, 22, who considered dropping out of school to help support his ailing mother but, with Karen's help, is graduating with a degree in business administration from California Polytechnic State University. "Karen," says Jose, "is saying, 'I believe in you.' I couldn't make it without her."
KNOW A HERO? SEND SUGGESTIONS TO HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM