Karen Neuburger
By Andrew Tilin

(Business 2.0) – In 1991, Karen Neuburger was a stay-at-home mom in San Rafael, Calif., when her husband broke the news: They needed a second income. A former fashion industry executive, she wanted to avoid the world of corporate suits. She was, in fact, comfy in the oversize pajamas that she'd designed for herself to wear around the house. And then it hit her: Maybe a lot of other people would enjoy some PJs like hers.

Now Neuburger is CEO of privately held Karen Neuburger, a maker of pajamas, pillows, socks, and other comfort products that generates $100 million in annual sales. The company has alliances with power players from Procter & Gamble to Oprah Winfrey. "There's usually a theme that runs through your life—a recurring passion," says Neuburger, 58, who sometimes wears her PJs around the clock. "If you work hard enough at that passion, you can turn it into a business."

She had gotten her start in the fashion biz years earlier by talking her way into a buyer's job at Maurice's, a small women's clothing store in Duluth, Minn., and became a merchandise manager by the time the company grew into a 700-store chain. Marriage took her to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was a VP at an apparel company until she quit at 40 to have a child. The pajama business started after she designed a pair for herself. Soon friends were demanding their own. When she pitched the product to buyers at Macy's and Nordstrom, they loved the stretchiness—and the story. Her biggest break came after she sent a pair to Winfrey, who has since featured the company's goods dozens of times.

Neuburger thinks success is the result of a continued zest for the product and the game of selling it. "There's no way you can fake the necessary enthusiasm," she says. "You're always going to have to believe in your idea, so make sure it appeals to your toughest customer: you." — A.T.