From the classic quilted stitching, to the plethora of prints, it’s easy to spot a Vera Bradley bag. They’re seen all over the world, but the brand started in a Fort Wayne basement with two women who saw a need and started sewing.
February 1982. Friends and neighbors Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia Miller were sitting in an airport, coming home to Fort Wayne from a trip to Florida, when the idea was planted.
“No one had decent, feminine luggage. It was all black bags. So, that was the seed of an idea. Not that we said, ‘Let’s go home and start a company,’ but that was the first seed of an idea when we said the world needs this and women to need this,” Barb said.
They went to JOANN Fabrics, and on the ping pong table in Barb’s basement, they started cutting and sewing bags.
“And we sent them to my daughters in college and they’d call back saying everyone loves them! So, you can either say it all started in the airport or in the Michigan State Kappa house. They say now that college girls love Vera Bradley, but it was college girls who started it,” Barb said.
The budding business started blooming and the over-night business women placed ads in the paper to hire sewers. Everything was still based out of Barb’s house.
Barbara Bradley Baekgaard (left) and Patricia Miller are the co-founders of Vera Bradley. (Photo provided by Vera Bradley)
“I was putting laundry on and cooking dinner and women were coming in with their bags. We’re cutting and handing them zippers and thread and all that and they’re sewing it at [their] home and bringing it back and we’re inspecting it,” she said.
With a sewing force in place, Barb and Pat ventured out to market their products.
“Everyone loved them, they really did. If I was visiting someone and there was a store in that town, I’d go into the store,” Barb explained. “My father used to say you sell yourself first, your business second and your product third. We made friends. We weren’t salesmen. We were ambassadors. We didn’t know we were working, we were having so much fun.”
And they never looked back.
“I don’t think we stopped long enough to doubt ourselves, it grew so quickly. I equate it to being a parent. Where do you learn to be a mother? You get the baby and you’re a mother. [The business] grows day by day. It’s not like you wake up one day and it’s a multi-million dollar company. Everyday orders come in and you manage it and it’s a very simple story. And here we are $500 million-a-year later and a public company,” Barb said.
The name for the business, Vera Bradley, was Barb’s mother’s name.
Vera Bradley is Barbara Bradley Baekgaard’s mother and for whom the company is named.
“We were playing around with ‘Bag Ladies’ and we didn’t want to combine our names because then it’s a non-name. Any good taste I have I owe to growing up with my mother, so we landed on her name. She became a little celebrity in her own right. People would come up and ask for her autograph,” Barb said with a smile.
Vera died in 1992, ten years after the company started.
Barb and Pat’s brainchild quickly became a booming business.
“We were good partners. I was more creative and she was more of the business side,” Barb said.
The women were recognized as National Entrepreneurs of the Year in 1987 and Vera Bradley won Supplier of the Century at the Retailer Excellence Awards in 2017.
“We were up against Hallmark Cards, lava lamps, Beanie Babies, all the big names in the gift industry. I couldn’t believe it,” Barb said.
Starting a company is never easy, but Barb said she didn’t get a lot of resistance because it was two women in charge.
“Men were always trying to tell you how to do it better, but I took that as an advantage. I’d listen and decide if it was good advice or not. But, I think I was blind to that,” Barb said.
She also credits her confidence as a woman to her mother.
“I had a strong mother who felt good about herself. I had four sisters. I went to an all-women college, so you could be class president and didn’t think that a man would. I feel equal. I always have. No one had to tell me I was,” Barb said.
That’s her message to young girls today.
“Follow your strengths. If you love makeup go into makeup. If you love teaching, be a teacher. I’ve never thought of the money as being the goal because that doesn’t make you happy. Doing what you love makes you happy,” she said.
As she celebrates her 80th birthday, Barb is still taking her own advice.
“I call myself the world’s oldest entrepreneur,” she said with a smile.
Right now she’s working on expanding the Baekgaard men’s line and spreading her philanthropy beyond the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer, which has raised millions of dollars, to Alzheimer’s research.
Her latest passion project has her the most excited. She’s working with the Fashion Institute in New York and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s Design for Disabilities.
“Designing for people who can’t open a zipper or reach a backpack so that has me very excited. My brother had Cerebral Palsy, so this is something dear to my heart,” she said.
Barb said the secret to her success is really found in others.
“Surround yourself with the right people. Know what you don’t know. Find people who can do it better than you and let them do it,” she said. “I had a 28-year marriage and four kids and a 20-year marriage the second time. I have 12 grandkids, age nine up to 27. I don’t tend to look back at the things that went wrong, but where you are now. I’m lucky. I’m a very lucky person.”
Patricia Miller has retired from Vera Bradley, but still serves on the board. She was unable to be interviewed for this story because of an unexpected personal emergency.