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Nothing to Sneeze At: Victoria Knight-McDowell, Airborne, Inc.

Victoria Knight-McDowell was a second-grade teacher who kept catching colds from her students. So she came up with her own preventive remedy (which includes vitamins A, C, and E, seven herbal extracts, antioxidants, electrolytes, and amino acids) and called it Airborne—which now brings in $100 to $150 million annually. She stopped teaching to run the company with her husband, Rider, and care for their son, Errol.

The fizz effect: "The formula I developed was working for my husband and me, and for teacher friends. Rider and I were talking over dinner one night, and it just sort of flowed until we said, 'Let's put it on the market and see what happens.' Probably the most important thing we did was research a way to get it to effervesce in less than two minutes, since Americans like things that happen quickly. Then we cashed in our IRAs and savings to jump-start the business. Our first run was something like 12,000 tubes. We put the labels on by hand, and I made sales calls at all the local drugstores after school."

On-the-job education: "Ordinary women, people like me who don't have Harvard MBAs, are not encouraged to start businesses. But one thing I did from the very beginning was ask a lot of questions. I didn't know the difference between a P&L and a balance sheet, so I asked the woman who was helping me at the bank. I'm still asking questions—now it's about distribution channels and streamlining."

Tuning out naysayers: "When we were starting out, Rider had just sold a screenplay [for the made-for-TV movie The Angel of Pennsylvania Avenue], and our friends and family thought we should invest in a house instead of Airborne. People will say, 'Oh, what a crazy idea!' or 'You can't do that.' You have to ignore them."


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