1. Taryn Rose
38, CEO and designer
Taryn Rose International, Los Angeles, California
When most orthopedic surgery residents finish a 36-hour shift, there's nothing they want more than a good night's sleep. Not Taryn Rose. "I was known to leave the hospital, go straight to Neiman Marcus, and speed shop the last 15 minutes they were open," says the surgeon turned shoe designer, now CEO of her own $20 million company. Rose loved wearing heels to the hospital but searched fruitlessly for stylish shoes that wouldn't destroy her feet.
Toward the end of her residency, Rose began to see her fashion quandary as a market opportunity. At first, she fretted about what her peers and family would think. She hailed not only from a conservative field but from a conservative family, which expected her to follow in the footsteps of her physician father. But Rose felt she was onto something. "I feared regret more than I feared failure," she recalls.
Rose turned first to a favorite salesclerk at Barneys who had friends in the shoe industry in Italy. She then applied for, and got, a $200,000 Small Business Administration loan in 1998. Rose used the loan and the industry connection to produce her first line of foot-friendly, high-fashion shoes.
During the first year, Rose wore out a lot of her own shoe leather. She personally called on high-end independent shoe stores as well as a buyer at a Nordstrom store in Costa Mesa, California, to sell her wares. "Nordstrom was not as centralized as they are now, so the local buyer could say, 'Sure, I'll try it,' " Rose says. In 2001, she says, Neiman Marcus agreed to carry her shoes in five of its stores, requesting she meet certain sell-through rates and margins. Rose's shoes (typical price: $400 per pair) blew through those targets, and she's now in 36 Neiman Marcus locations.
To drive sales, Rose pumped up her publicity efforts, landing her shoes in the 2004 Oscar presenters' swag bags and scoring the ultimate media coup: an interview on Oprah. This year, Rose, who has added a men's line, persuaded Oscar winner Jamie Foxx to wear her shoes to the Academy Awards. Though she has a unique story--how many ex-surgeon fashionistas are there?--Rose puts a lot of faith in persistence, too. "It took us three years of campaigning during Oscar week to place shoes with some A-list stars," she says. That persistence is paying off: Taryn Rose International's revenue has more than doubled in the last two years, from $8 million in 2002 to $20 million in 2004. Not much cause for regret there.
2. Jill Blashack
46, founder and CEO
Tastefully Simple, Alexandria, Minnesota
For Tastefully Simple founder Jill Blashack, co-opting the Tupperware sales party was a stroke of 3 a.m. inspiration. After selling food at craft shows, she recalls, "I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, 'Talking and eating. I can do that.' " That was 10 years ago, just before Blashack sank $36,000 of personal savings, a friend's investment, and an SBA loan into the idea of selling gourmet food items at house parties, with a ramshackle distribution center run out of her backyard shed. Today, Tastefully Simple is a $119 million company with a 20,000-strong army of chip-and-dip-wielding "party consultants," and is growing at about 10% each year. -- Ryan Underwood
3. P.K. Scheerle
45, president and CEO
American Nursing Services, Metairie, Louisiana
Underpaid nurses began fleeing the bedside in the 1970s and 1980s, producing a serious shortage by the turn of the century. Long before the problem made headlines, however, registered nurse P.K. Scheerle diagnosed it -- and prescribed a solution. In 1982, she founded American Nursing Services Inc., a staffing agency that provides hospitals with trained nurses. Since its founding, American Nursing has acquired four other companies, and revenue doubled to $32 million in 2003, from just over $16 million in 2001. Scheerle plans to take her company public in 2007. -- Anjani Sarma
4. Mary-Ellen Hardin
56, chairman and CEO
SmileCare, Santa Ana, California
Mary-Ellen Hardin knows people dread visiting the dentist. So in 1977, she left her law career to launch SmileCare in downtown Los Angeles (with her dentist husband Dennis). "We felt we had a unique delivery system that offered a very caring alternative," she says. SmileCare offers one-stop dental shopping for the entire family, including orthodontics and oral surgery. As SmileCare grew, it added more services, such as extended hours and on-site child care. Hardin has reason to smile: SmileCare now has 65 sites in California and Texas, and affiliates in Nevada, and grossed more than $100 million in 2004. -- Jennifer Vilaga
5. Gay Warren Gaddis
49, president and CEOT3 (The Think Tank), Austin, Texas
Gay Gaddis used her $16,000 IRA to found T3 (The Think Tank), aiming to create more than just another ad agency. T3 helps companies integrate marketing into their broader strategies -- as when it helped Dell develop a marketing course with the University of Texas at Austin to cement the company's presence in its community. And Gaddis restructured her agency to keep supporting Dell when it went to an Internet-heavy strategy eight years ago. Her motto: "It all goes back to client needs" -- a reason, perhaps, T3's revenue has been growing at almost 22% a year. -- Michael Prospero