August 26, 2015

Speaker to share ‘A Journey Back from Sexual Assault’

by Christi Mathis

Sheri PoeCARBONDALE, Ill. -- Sheri Poe is a nationally recognized entrepreneur, an acclaimed speaker, a women’s advocate and the mother of four. She is also the victim of a sexual assault that she suffered as an idealistic 19-year-old college freshman, and she will share the story of her journey from survivor to “thriver” during a September visit to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

Poe will present “A Journey Back from Sexual Assault” at 7 p.m. on Sept. 9 in the Student Center Ballrooms.  Her presentation is free and open to the public. She also will participate in a question and answer session after her lecture, taking questions from anyone in the audience via text message or note cards. 

Named “One of the Top Ten Entrepreneurs of the Decade” by Business Week magazine, Poe is the founder of Ryka, the first and only athletic footwear company for women, and most recently, founder and chief creative officer of Purity of Elements, a skin care product line. Along with each company she has created not-for-profit organizations to help women: the Ryka R.O.S.E (Regaining One’s Self Esteem) Foundation and Purity of Elements’ P.O.E. IMPACT. 

The new P.O.E. IMPACT philanthropic organization seeks to eradicate violence against women through advocacy, education and donations. Poe said she and her team specifically chose to work with SIU due to the university’s strong commitment to providing a safe environment for all students. 

SIU has a number of initiatives in place to keep students safe, including offering night safety transit, a “Brightway” lighted walking path, emergency call boxes, free women’s self-defense classes and Saluki Cares, a university-wide program of care and support for students in distress for any reason. The university sponsors “Salukis Step Up!,” which incorporates bystander intervention strategies, and all incoming students are required to participate in online “Consent and Respect” training, which provides valuable knowledge and tools about gender-based violence. In addition, all employees receive training regarding reporting all forms of gender-based violence. 

“We appreciate this opportunity to increase awareness about SIU’s ongoing campus safety initiatives. Sheri Poe’s visit provides another campus community effort to reinforce our priority of eradicating sexual assault and it also reminds us that everyone has a role to play,” Linda McCabe Smith, associate chancellor for institutional diversity, said. 

Poe’s return visit to SIU is something she never thought would happen. In the “hippie days” of the early 1970s and with a brother in Vietnam, Poe, then of Joliet, sought a college where freedom of expression was valued and she found it at SIU. Indeed, she said 1972 was shaping up as the best year of her life. 

A straight-A student and presidential scholar, she had a jewelry apprenticeship, plenty of friends and life was good. That is, until she and a friend were off-campus and hitched a ride with a stranger. Hitchhiking was quite common in those days, but Poe and her pal almost instantly knew they had made a mistake, taking a ride from a frightening, drunken man. Shortly after getting in the car, they told him they were at their destination and as he slowed a bit, the friend jumped out. As Poe tried to jump from the still-moving car, the man grabbed her hair and sped away, driving some distance before raping her at gunpoint. Although she survived her “psychotic and scary” ordeal, her life would never be the same. 

Hearing law enforcement and medical professionals at the time blame her for the assault, she internalized her trauma, not even telling her parents for years. She dropped out of college and suffered from bulimia (resulting in four miscarriages), PTSD and depression. She lived on welfare. She sought help in group therapy where again, she was told it was her fault. Eventually, through fitness, meditation and telling her story, she began to heal. 

“As I began to speak out, I regained control of my life,” Poe said. “As I talk, I have people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even older come up to me and say they were assaulted years ago and have never told one single person. My message of speaking up is very important, not just for me but for hundreds and hundreds of women.” 

She said victims of sexual assault frequently internalize the damage, making poor choices with respect to partners and other life decisions, experiencing eating disorders, engaging in random sex, using drugs and other problems. 

“When we don’t speak up, we allow someone else, our attacker, to continue to control our lives,” she said. “My message is that it is never, under any circumstance, your fault.” 

Poe sold Ryka, which it continues as a successful business. Ryka R.O.S.E., now the R.O.S.E. Fund, moves on with its mission. Poe founded Purity of Elements and in conjunction with the mission of P.O.E. IMPACT, the company began looking for a university to work with. Poe’s team researched and soon suggested SIU to her. 

“My initial reaction was to become that young traumatized girl again, but then I went online and saw all of the incredible things SIU is doing in terms of education, prevention, resources and support, I was filled with such joy. They have embraced the issue and taken a very proactive stance,” she said. 

“I never dreamed I would go back to SIU. This is very profound for me,” Poe added, noting that her two grown daughters, Danielle and Taylor, will accompany her. 

Students who sign a pledge at Poe’s presentation to “Speak Up” and join the movement to eliminate violence and sexual assault will get a “Salukis Speak Up” T-shirt. 

As a successful entrepreneur Poe has been able to draw attention to her mission through appearances on “The Today Show,” the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” in People Magazine, USA Today and in many other print and televised media. She advises those who hope to achieve success in business to follow their passion but also be very educated and aware of all of the intricacies involved in creating a business and making it succeed, from securing financing to working very long hours and building a good business team. 

“Make sure you are aware of what it takes to make your vision a reality. It does take a village,” she said. “And, every single super successful person I know has had a least one, if not many, failures because often the only way you learn is by failing.” 

Poe said she too has had failures in business but is proud of her successes and thrilled that they have enabled her to create the philanthropic organizations that now provide education, advocacy and financial support to help victims. For instance, 1 percent of Purity of Elements’ net sales in 2015 will go to the Victim Rights Law Center, an organization serving the legal needs of sexual assault victims. 

Sponsors for Poe’s visit to SIU include the Department of Public Safety, the Office of the Associate Chancellor for Institutional Diversity, Student Affairs, the Student Center and Counseling and Psychological Services.