In the mid-1990s, Janet Gurwitch leapt from an earned degree of corporate comfort on the strength of an idea, bent on making her own statement in a mature market she correctly saw as roomy enough for new names.

Ten years later, the CEO of Gurwitch Products and Laura Mercier Cosmetics stood before roomfuls of Mays marketing and MBA students beside blown-up images of Mariah Carey and Julia Roberts on the covers ofAllure, W and In Style. The actresses’ flawless faces, the result of makeup artist Laura Mercier’s technique and products she designed with Gurwitch, were the most obvious signs of Gurwitch’s positive assessment of the risk that took her from EVP of Neiman Marcus in 1994 to CEO and fund-raiser for her own infant cosmetics company.

“I always thought that to start my own company I had to be Bill Gates, I had to have that stellar idea that would revolutionize everything,” Gurwitch told Mays’ masters of marketing and MBA students. “But if you have a better way, a new way, even in mature markets there’s freshness. We are all exposed to things and we don’t do anything about it. I was 40 years old before I decided to take the risk.”

In 1996, Gurwitch’s cosmetic line was launched in 50 stores, including Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel, Macy’s and Burdines. Today, the up-scale brand is sold in more than 390 stores in 17 countries, including Harrods in London, and brings in $75 million for Gurwitch Products.

As a senior at the University of Alabama, Gurwitch set out to land a position at Foley’s when she received a curt rejection letter in response to her inquiries. “We interview at eight select colleges,” the Foley’s recruiter had written her on May 8, 1974, in a letter she keeps to this day framed in her office. “And the University of Alabama is not one of them.” But the determined Gurwitch flew to Houston despite the rejection and interviewed with Foley’s in person, launching an 18-year career with Foley’s that took her to general merchandising manager before she headed to the runways of Paris as Neiman Marcus EVP in 1992.

Gurwitch told students she learned early on in her career in retail to look for change and seize chances to introduce new products. When Paul Marciano, creative director for Guess Jeans, first sent Gurwitch ads of a young Brooke Shields wearing his jeans, she thought Foley’s was stocked with enough good jeans.

But when Guess started flying off the shelves, she realized how narrow her focus was. And that, she said, is a lesson she took to heart — a lesson that put her in charge of her own multi-million company.

“Always be a student of retail,” she explained. “Never think you know it all, because it keeps changing.”