Sheri Poe brings message of hope to victims of sexual assault


By Anna Spoerre, @ASpoerre_DE

For the first time since 1972, Sheri Poe, accompanied by her two daughters, has returned to Carbondale.

Sheri Poe, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, was a freshman at SIUC in 1972 and was raped. She intends to speak about her experience to raise awareness on campus.

As a student, Poe received an apprenticeship with a local jeweler, and hitchhiked to and from her job, a common method of transportation at the time, she said.


When returning from her apprenticeship one day, she and a friend got into the car of a man they soon realized was drunk. Her friend was able to escape, but Poe was shoved to the floorboard by the man who held her at gunpoint. He proceeded to rape her before dropping her off in front of her dorm.

“[My] fear wasn’t from being raped [in the moment]. The main thought was, ‘I don’t want to die right now,’” Poe said. 

After informing her resident assistant of the sexual assault, Poe was taken to the campus health center and the police station, where she received little help; She was told because she got into the man’s car, the assault was her fault. 

“I became ashamed and embarrassed and I blamed myself,” Poe said.

She dropped out of school before the end of the year, struggled with bulimia and post-traumatic stress disorder and spent time living on welfare.

For the next 21 years, she decided not to talk about her assault to anyone besides a small group closest to her. 

In 1987 she founded Ryka, the first athletic footwear company exclusively for women. 


At 40, Poe became the first female CEO to publicly come forward as a victim of sexual assault and started the Ryka R.O.S.E. (Regaining One’s Self Esteem) foundation.

Her skin-care company Purity of Elements launched this year. The company donates a portion of sales to P.O.E Impact, a philanthropic organization to promote advocacy, education and awareness for sexual assault and domestic violence against women.

“I am not an expert; I am a survivor who lived through hell for decades. The mission for me became to get out there and start talking again,” she said.

She started speaking to groups about her experience, finding it helped her heal. She said women would wait in line just to open up to her about their own experiences. 

“It was the most mind-blowing, humbling heart-opening experience,” Poe said. 

She hopes more women will do the same.

“Most women don’t report it, let alone say anything because of the stigma that’s attached,” she said. “That hasn’t changed for 43 years. And the self-blame and the self-shame and everything that goes along with being a silent sufferer.”

In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was passed by Congress in response to domestic crimes against women and SIU responded with changes.

“SIU implemented a lot of different initiatives from training of incoming students to employee training, and we changed our reporting process,” Sgt. Chad Beights, of the univeristy’s Department of Public Safety, said. 

Today, SIUC has a series of procedures to combat sexual assault and the trauma that Poe and many other women have faced without additional support.

Lois Parr, a senior from Chicago studying physiology, said she felt safe when she lived on campus, especially with the use of the Brightway Path — a well-lit pedestrian path on campus to provide safety after dark. Now that she lives off campus, she uses Night Safety Transit, a free night transportation service for students. 

Ashley Wooten, a freshman from Chicago studying dental hygiene, said she still does not walk around campus at night for “safety purposes.”

When considering the safety of the school today to the school she ran away from in the ’70s, Poe said SIUC does more than most schools, but still has a long way to go.

“The police really do care,” she said. “Let them be your friend, not your enemy.”

Poe will give her lecture “A Journey Back from Sexual Assault” at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Student Center ballrooms. The event is free and open to the public. 

Poe said she has a story to tell that every person on this campus needs to listen to, because, whether they know it or not, every person knows someone who has been sexually assaulted.

“Sexual assault and domestic violence both are part of our everyday life and it is a national emergency,” Poe said. “Yeah it’s a dramatic story, but it’s also a community service to come listen to this story.  If you care about where you live and the people in your life, come and help them.”

Anna Spoerre can be reached at or on Twitter @ASpoerre_DE