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With Their Best Feet Forward : They Are 3 Shoemakers Interested in Making a Better Shoe--and Passionate About Building a Better World : Sheri Poe, Ryka

July 07, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Los Angeles Times

BOSTON — Their common professional calling consists of cushioning the human foot's contact with the ground. They are cobblers, shoe magnates who might well be content to lace up their hefty profits and let others fret about mankind's moral bunions.

But Paul Fireman, Bruce Katz and Sheri Poe are three shoemakers with soul. Beyond their chosen line of endeavor they share little but the geography of New England. Yet in each of these footwear manufacturers, entrepreneurial acumen has fueled an equal appetite for social activism.

Their causes are varied. Fireman, chief executive officer of Reebok International Ltd., has taken on human rights as his personal and corporate mission. Katz, co-founder of Rockport Shoes, sold out of the shoe biz and used the money to leap into the arena of community change via on-line communication. Poe, founder of Ryka Inc., is a rape survivor and has dedicated herself to the goal of ending violence against women.

Fireman--only partially in jest--offered regional similarities as a possible explanation for their high level of social consciousness. "Maybe it's something in the water," he said. "And if it is, we should spread it around."

Here are these shoemakers' stories.

Days after the death of Nicole Brown Simpson, Sheri Poe was galled that even for a moment, Simpson's abuse by her husband might have been seen as a private issue.

"That's the crux," Poe said, fuming behind a desk in Norwood, Mass., that is adorned with equal numbers of family pictures and athletic shoes. "Society has bought into this ridiculous idea that domestic abuse is a private issue. And it's not. It's a public concern."

You'll pardon Poe if, looking disarmingly slender for a woman who gave birth to her fourth child five months ago, she leaps onto her soapbox from time to time. As the CEO of Ryka Inc., which Poe describes as "the only athletic shoe company exclusively devoted to the women's market," she has been known to remind unsuspecting rival executives, mostly male, that this country boasts about three times as many animal shelters as women's shelters.

She spews out facts and figures confidently--and accurately: Every 15 seconds in this country, a woman is beaten; domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between 15 and 44, and so on.

She comes by her knowledge and passion honestly--if also unfortunately. Hitchhiking to work 22 years ago, a naive 19-year-old freshman at Southern Illinois University, Poe was raped at gunpoint. She tried to press charges but was made to think that it was her fault because she had been hitchhiking. Besides, she said, her attacker had friends in the police department. There was no chance, they told her, of a conviction.

Poe "coped" with her shame and anger by becoming bulimic. She said exercise finally helped her regain her self-esteem. Plagued by an aching back and perpetually sore knees, Poe blamed the shoes she wore during a decade or more of heavy-impact aerobic exercise.

If the right product didn't exist, Poe reasoned, she would just have to invent it--and in 1987 she and her first husband, a marketing executive, started Ryka, named for her then-mother-in-law. A female investment banker, who conveniently happened to also be an exercise fanatic, raised money through public stock offerings.

*

From the start, the Ryka pitch was unusual--because to Poe, tending to "total well-being" for women meant accompanying each pair of shoes with an 800 telephone number offering 24-hour support and information for female victims of violence. She also urges retailers to pass out safety booklets published by her Ryka ROSE (for Regain One's Self-Esteem) Foundation, which funds treatment, education and prevention programs to help end violence against women.

When Poe's marriage broke up, she kept the company--as well as the ROSE Foundation, to which she has pledged 7% of her annual pretax profits. To date, Ryka's shaky performance has meant that the promise has not put huge dents in Poe's pockets. Since going public in 1988, Ryka has yet to record a full year of profitability. But Poe, a former "pink bag lady" for Mary Kay cosmetics, calls herself a "gut-sense entrepreneur" who projects brighter days for her company as well as her foundation.

Still, critics accuse Poe of talking a good game when it comes to crimes against women. Some have sniped that Poe has stooped to the cellar of "cause marketing," turning into a professional rape victim who exploits her own experience in hopes of bigger sales.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she scoffed. "I've heard that, and I say, obviously you've never been close to anyone who is a survivor. Because if you think it's a picnic to discuss this, you're wrong. I'd have to be a real masochist to relive that kind of pain, just to benefit this company."

Poe met her second husband, a biochemist who is the father of her two youngest children, while scuba diving. With so many kids, her home exudes a kind of pleasant chaos, she said. Often she welcomes the escape to the relative tranquillity of an office, where most of her employees are female, and where many come to work attired in workout clothes.

Poe said she will not give up the cause she has pegged as her own. "I have a commitment to bring forward the issue of violence against women, and I'm going to do that till the day I die."

She smiled, perhaps ruefully. "Which is good, because it's probably going to take that long."

(Reebok shoe courtesy of Marathom's Running Shop, San Pedro; Rockport shoe courtesy of Al Murray's Shoes, San Pedro)

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