Barbara Bradley Baekgaard wore nothing colorful. She called her outfit her “prison garb:” black and white from head to toe. She donned a black and white horizontally striped pullover and knee-high black boots. Even her Vera Bradley backpack was white. It’s a stark contrast from the same Vera Bradley that splashes its shelves with vibrant quilted patterns. But, Baekgaard speaks and sees in color. Although she holds the title of company Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, that hasn’t stopped her from seeking the fun in the corporate routine.
One of the leading designers in colorful handbags, travel items and other lifestyle accessories, Vera Bradley promotes a company engagement model where Baekgaard nurtures a strong family company culture. Employees remain engaged and genuine bonds overpower gilded business cards. And that’s exactly how Baekgaard runs her business.
She bypassed the handshake and went straight for the hug. During an interview in a sterile empty conference room, Baekgaard’s laughter filled the space. She planted her hand on the table and leaned in as if she were going to tell an exclusive. She drew from a wealth of personal experiences that spurred an anecdote with every phrase.
Baekgaard spoke about Vera Bradley’s early stages, when she and her co-founder, Patricia Miller, turned down a $10,000 loan. Right after the meeting, Baekgaard remembered the exchange being strictly business, lacking a vital sense of connection.
But on a separate occasion, one casual dinner with Baekgaard and Miller was enough for their host to pull out his checkbook. The women did not call for neither a business agenda nor a pitch, but their host saw their potential.
“(He said), ‘I’m giving you a check. If you’re a failure, it’s a gift; if you succeed, it’s a loan,’” Bradley said. “It was the biggest vote of confidence for me because there was no risk involved; he didn’t ask for a piece of the action.”
Success born from sincere connections such as this have helped Vera Bradley form a foundation for a people-driven company.
“People can say they’re (decisions for the company) not very business-like decisions, but they’re personal decisions,” Baekgaard said.
In 1982, Vera Bradley had humble beginnings, starting in Baekgaard’s basement when she and Miller had only $500 between them. Their idea for the company was born in an airport when they noticed a lack of color in a pitch-black sea of luggage.
In Baekgaard’s recollections, she painted a context set 35 years ago, when there were no smartphones, no kick-starters and no social media. The first Vera Bradley bag was made from patterns from Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft store, sewn on a Ping-Pong table and sent to Baekgaard’s daughters in college.
However, the two women saw a space in the market, and Baekgaard’s entrepreneurial sense and spunk allowed her to carve out her own niche. During trade shows, their colorful luggage, which would normally be categorized as “travel,” was categorized as “gift” because of Baekgaard.
Then there are times when Baekgaard lets her filter slip, which may explain why she claims to be a human resources nightmare. But, her candid commentary makes her a relatable figure and the spontaneity works for her.
“I have a chapter in my book (“A Colorful Way of Living”) called ‘Ready, Fire, Aim,’ and that is exactly how I practically do anything — just go ahead and do it,” Baekgaard said.
That kind of initiative goes a long way, especially for a woman in the ‘80s. Back then, it was normal for women to inherit a business. To start a business from scratch, however, was unheard of. Baekgaard said that her self-empowerment was innate, and being a female entrepreneur made no difference to her.
“As far as being a woman, I never saw that as a disadvantage for two reasons: Number one, no one told me I couldn’t do anything,” Baekgaard said. “Second, the men are always wanting to help you.”
Vera Bradley’s brand extolls the aspects of what it means to be a girl. Baekgaard clearly embraces that in her professional circles, despite the assumption that women are cutthroat and competitive. Growing up as one of six kids, Baekgaard learned to share early on.
“It’s a big world out there — there’s enough for more than one person doing one thing,” Baekgaard said. “Take Tory Burch (a fashion designer and fellow businesswoman); the fact that she loves what I love should give us a connection because out of this whole world, (Burch) chose the same path, so I see that as a unifying thing rather than something wary.”
Explaining that women are collaborative by nature, Baekgaard takes advantage of Vera Bradley’s predominantly female office. Coworkers build on each other’s success and open communication flows, starting from Baekgaard’s open door.
“We wouldn’t want anyone to give up a segment of their life for the business,” Baekgaard said. “You wouldn’t want a ‘Devil Wears Prada’ kind of existence.”
Baekgaard is resourceful in that she’s blind to hierarchies and titles, so ideas can come from the unlikeliest of sources. Todd, the IT guy, happened to be in the right place at the right time when Baekgaard asked him what they should call one of the unnamed handbags. “Frankly, it’s Scarlet to me,” he told her. The name for the retired but signature pattern stuck. At the end of the day, it was the best idea.
For employees like Holly Wagner, they are comfortable bringing ideas to the table even at the risk of failure. Wagner, a former receptionist for the company and now the public relations manager, said Baekgaard leads by example. She remains accessible and visible to every employee.
“You want to have this positive family culture, (and) she’s living that every single day,” Wagner said. “Barb loves change; the worst thing you hate is when things kind of stagnate.”
Present for every rung of the ladder, Baekgaard has worn multiple hats during the company’s growth. She’s participated in everything from the company’s finances to its marketing. This has garnered a greater sense of appreciation for every employee whose dedication and diligence has helped the company succeed.
“If you think you’re just going to be an entrepreneur, come in and start a company and that’s it, you have to really want to work at it because it doesn’t come overnight,” Baekgaard said. “I’ve been there every single day, so I haven’t seen the big growth spurts that would have frightened me.”
There was a point when Baekgaard knew every employee’s name, their dog and probably their significant other. When Vera Bradley went public in 2010, Baekgaard was afraid that the sense of personal connection would be lost in the shuffle of a giant company. Instead, Vera Bradley stuck to its true colors, and the company and its employees continue to thrive.
“I think it’s who you are; I don’t think you can fake it,” Baekgaard said. “When you say lead by example, I think it’s who we are.”
While being a female may have been seen as a weakness by some, Baekgaard has seen it as her strength. With the proper support, the gumption and compassion, Baekgaard has blazed a path for women pursuing their ambitions.
So, don’t be fooled by her appearance. Like her handbags, Baekgaard is bold, vibrant and stands out among the rest.
“As far as being a woman, I never saw that as a disadvantage for two reasons: Number one, no one told me I couldn’t do anything. Second, the men are always wanting to help you.” — Barbara Bradley Baekgaard
Barbara Bradley Baekgaard (right) poses with public relations manger, Holly Wagner (left).
About the Writer:
Alyssa Ramos is a second year Journalism major at the University of Florida with a minor in French. She is an aspiring magazine journalist, a fashion enthusiast, and a Netflix binger with hopes of telling people’s stories through all forms of media. For now, she is still honing her writing skills, but she’s always in search of a good book and a strong cup of coffee.
Photography by Steffanie Crockett