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Ryka is a shoe company for women, by women. And its soul is Sheri Poe.

On paper, Ryka almost disappears with a mere $15 million in sales last year, and a nearly non-existent ad budget. Next to Nike and Reebok International, Ryka seems insignificant.

But the word is getting out about the company and its president-CEO, Ms. Poe.

Ryka's sales have doubled every year since its launch in 1987. Those who have copied Ryka's lightweight and shock-absorbent aerobics shoes haven't been able to duplicate the loyal, even intimate relationship Ryka enjoys with its consumers.

The reason for this success is Ms. Poe and her story, one that she tells with unflinching bluntness. She was raped in 1972 while a college student, and suffered silently through the bulimia and emotional problems that followed.

She recovered self-esteem through building her company and, later, a non-profit foundation called Ryka Rose (Regaining's One's Self-Esteem) that helps support victims of violent crime.

It's a story Ms. Poe has only recently felt comfortable telling, not only to the public and press, but to her parents, finally opening up to them in 1992, the same year Ryka Rose was founded.

"It's never going to be easy. It brings the pain back everytime," says the 41-year-old Ms. Poe. "But at the same time, it brings healing. ... And it's worth it to be able to help someone from my tragedy."

Ms. Poe turned to exercise to help with her recovery, and it was around 1982 that she became fed up enough with the inadequacies of women's athletic shoes to do something about it.

"The shoe companies were basically taking a men's footform and sizing it down to fit women," she says.

So she developed her own shoe, designed especially for the higher arch of a woman's foot.

Ryka allocates 20% of its budget to marketing, most it to support an extensive grass-roots program that includes outfitting 30,000 aerobics instructors nationwide.

The company did run an internally handled print ad in women's magazines last year, a spread showing a woman exercising on one page and looking sad and depressed on the other.

The tagline, appropriate to the company: "Sometimes the only way to work it out is to work it out."

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