Susan Walvius, co-founder and CEO, and Michelle Marciniak, co-founder and President, Sheex
These two basketball coaches came up with the idea to apply performance-fabric technology--the technology that wicks moisture in Nike athletic apparel--to bedsheets. Crazy? Not so. Susan Walvius, who last year quit her longtime job as head women's basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, and Michelle Marciniak, her former assistant coach, raised $1 million for their "performance bedding" start-up, lined up manufacturing in California, and launched Sheex.com last April. They just cut a deal to sell in the NBA's flagship store in Manhattan. Their marketing strategy is grassroots and viral, with Twitter and Facebook promos by pro athletes like the New York Giants' Steve Smith and the LPGA's Christina Kim. Being hard-charging athletes themselves, Walvius and Marciniak are naturally inclined to race for a win. But the best advice they got? "Crawl, walk and then run," says Walvius. In business, as in coaching, she adds, "You're either getting better or you're getting worse with each day. There's no such thing as staying the same."
Lauren Bush, co-founder and CEO, and Ellen Gustafson co-founder and EVP, FEED Projects
They started with a simple concept: Sell a burlap tote bag to help eliminate world hunger. The product is clever: Every bag is marked with a FEED stamp and a number that signifies how many children your purchase will feed. "We're really communicating through our customers," says Bush, 25, the former President's niece who hatched the idea in her Princeton dorm room. Gustafson, 29, who joined Bush from the United Nations, are making their start-up social in multiple ways. FEED is active on Facebook and Twitter. The bags are eco-friendly and reusable--socially responsible. And the co-founders collaborate with partners--like Whole Foods (WFMI), Barnes & Nobile (BKS) and Kenneth Cole (KCP)--for social good. By giving most of their profits away, Bush and Gustafson have raised more than $5 million for the UN World Food Programme. "Hunger kills more people than malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS combined," says Bush. So there is plenty to do the world over. But next? They want to address the growing hunger crisis in the U.S.
Billie Dragoo, founder, President and CEO, RepuCare and RepuStaff
Billie Dragoo got into business out of necessity. She was a divorced mother, raising two children with no support, financial or otherwise. Researching top-paying jobs for women, she discovered that recruiting was one of them--and charted her course. Dragoo took business classes at a nearby community college. She joined Century Personnel and became one of the top performers there. But she wanted to be on her own. Focusing on medical staffing, she started RepuCare in 1995 with a partner. Operating out of Dragoo's home in Indianapolis, RepuCare provided therapists to hospitals and clinics on a temp basis. As it turned out, success was temporary too. Four years later, regulatory reform swiped 90% of RepuCare's business. "I took out a loan and bought out my partner rather than fold up the tent," Dragoo recalls. A few years later, she lost her 40-year-old COO to a heart attack just as a $12 million contract from Wellpoint (WLP) came in. Dragoo recovered each time and now employs about 100 people. She likes to quote General George Patton, who said: "Success is how high you bounce after you hit bottom."
Elizabeth Bennett, co-founder and co-owner, Africa Direct
Great businesses are often born out of personal passion. Africa Direct certainly was. In 1994, Elizabeth Bennett and her life partner, Sara Luther--both lovers of African art and mothers of adopted African-American kids--took their three youngest children out of school and moved to southern Africa for eight months. By camper van, they traveled 15,000 miles through South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland...and collected so much stuff that they didn't have room to keep it. Back home in Denver, they started selling their African art and wares. And before they knew it, they had a $50,000-a-year business. EBay (EBAY) transformed Africa Direct. "It let us sell all over the world," Bennett says. Today, she and Luther are top EBay sellers who support hundreds of African artists and craftspeople. They still operate out of their home, where the garage is the "office" and the basement holds a vast inventory of art, artifacts, jewelry, baskets, masks, carvings, and textiles. Says Bennett: "When you go downstairs, it smells like Africa."
Lani Hay, founder, President and CEO, Lanmark Technology
Born in Virginia to parents who fled Vietnam days before the fall of Saigon, Lani Hay grew up determined to make a better life for herself. With little money to pay for college, she got into the U.S. Naval Academy, served in the Navy for nine years, earned an MBA, and then decided that she wanted to start a business that would be not as risky as most start-ups are. Federal contracting isn't the highest-margin business for her start-up, Lanmark Technology, to pursue. But revenues are reliable because she knew that the federal government "is a client that would always be around and inevitably gets bigger," she says. The recession has been good to Lanmark, which recently won a contract that should multiply the firm's revenues. Hay is building cautiously, however. After all, she says she learned in the Navy: "Run a tight ship. Be conservative with infrastructure and overhead costs." Her personal goals are more ambitious: She wants to build a $1 billion company, move into politics, become governor of Virginia...and let's just say, her ambition doesn't stop there.