The Herald-Times

Vera Bradley co-founder: Never underestimate what you can do

By Bob Zaltsberg331-4364 |
October 4, 2012

On a February day in 1982, Patricia Miller and her friend, Barbara Baekgaard, were walking through the Atlanta airport to catch their connecting flight back to Fort Wayne after a trip to Florida.

“We noticed all these guys with their carry-on luggage,” she said Wednesday. Then they noticed many women, too, had carry-ons that looked exactly like those carried by the men. Miller, the keynote speaker at the third annual Cook Institute for Entrepreneurship, said at that point the friends’ entrepreneurial instincts kicked in.

“We decided women needed pretty carry-on luggage,” Miller said.

The next Monday they pooled $250 each, bought some colorful fabric and went to work cutting the fabric on a basement ping pong table in order to make some small bags they thought would be popular with women.

That was the beginning of their second business. Their first was a wallpapering company named Up Your Wall. This one was named for Baekgaard’s mother: Vera Bradley.

Now, Vera Bradley, the Fort Wayne-based company, designs an internationally recognized brand of colorful handbags, duffel bags and other accessories for women. The company operates 70 stores in the United States and just opened three in Japan as a trial. It also sells the brand through 3,300 business partners, and operates the Vera Bradley Foundation which has pledged $20 million to fight breast cancer in honor of the company’s first sales rep and Baekgaard’s college roommate, Mary Sloan.

On Wednesday, Miller mainly told the story of her company, while sprinkling in advice for the entrepreneurs and others in attendance.

She said a lot of people will say “entrepreneurs are born,” but she believes you can learn about entrepreneurship and ways to spot an idea, take a risk and attract people to believe in you. She said “it’s the people you meet along the way who will make a big difference.”

One of those people was the second banker she and Baekgaard asked to help them. They had met the first one about five minutes earlier when he agreed to loan them $2,000 to help them with their new business.

“I remember my hand shaking when I signed that note,” Miller said. She also recalls after leaving the bank thinking that the banker had been uninterested and unengaged in making the loan.

“We went back to the same bank and asked for a different banker,” she said. This one was interested, enthusiastic and helpful. Thus started a long business relationship between an individual Fort Wayne banker and a company that now does more than $400 million a year in sales.

She said people should never underestimate how far they might go — in business or otherwise.

“The question I’m asked the most,” she said, “is ‘Did you ever think you would start a public company with over $400 million in annual sales?’”

Her answer is no, with a “but.”

“I say no, but none of us ever put a ceiling on anything,” she said. “It’s like bringing a baby home from the hospital. When he’s 16 years old and 6-foot-5, did you ever think that would happen?”

She encouraged entrepreneurs to take things “one step at a time, and try to learn something new every single day.”

Many “did-you-ever-think?” moments are now part of her personal and and professional story.

She never thought she’d be Indiana’s first Secretary of Commerce, which she was under Gov. Mitch Daniels.

She never thought her company would have a float in the Rose Bowl Parade, which it did in 2009. She never thought her company would go public, which it did in 2010.

The company employs 2,200, and about 1,000 workers are in Indiana, most of them in five buildings in Fort Wayne. But some manufacturing has moved to China.

She still believes Vera Bradley holds to the personal culture that she and her partner launched when they chose Baekgaard’s mother’s name for their company 30 years ago.

“My mother’s name was Wilma Polita. That wasn’t a hard decision,” she said.

About the institute

The third annual Cook Institute for Entrepreneurship is an outgrowth of the Gayle & Bill Cook Center for Entrepreneurship, which was established in 2012. The center’s mission is to develop and institute practical tools for students, individuals and the community to foster entrepreneurship at Ivy Tech Community College-Bloomington and in the broader economic development region the college serves.

Patricia Miller

Copyright: 2012


About Ivy Tech Community College

Ivy Tech Community College is Indiana's largest public postsecondary institution and the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college system, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Ivy Tech has campuses throughout Indiana and also serves thousands of students annually online. It serves as the state's engine of workforce development, offering associate degrees, long- and short-term certificate programs, industry certifications, and training that aligns with the needs of the community. The College provides a seamless transfer to other colleges and universities in Indiana, as well as out of state, for a more affordable route to a bachelor's degree.