Today's Chicago Woman: A Conversation with Vera Bradley Co-Founder Patricia Miller

Today's Chicago Woman
by Christine Garcia of Play Dates and Power Lunches

Published on on Christine Garcia's blog, Playdates and Power Lunches, on Today's Chicago Woman ( on 

"It's all about education."

Patricia Miller, co-founder of the Vera Bradley empire, came to Chicago to speak to young girls about Friendship, Fashion & Philanthropy-The Vera Bradley Story at the Metro Advancement Council's annual luncheon. The 15th annual luncheon benefits Chicago's Metro Achievement Center for Girls.

Ms. Miller is very driven and intelligent, but also warm and caring. I'm a huge fan of her work. In fact, upon meeting her, the first thing I mentioned is her quilted cotton diaper bag is the best one I've ever owned. Having four small children, I've had a lot of diaper bags in my life. And as a working mom, the best part is I now use her bag for travel since I no longer need it for diapers and wet wipes. "We have over 90% women in our company, who helped us design the perfect diaper bag," said Ms. Miller. The loyal fan base is just part of the Vera Bradley story; the company prides itself on its designs and dependable customer service.

It definitely didn't take long for Patricia's charm to shine while she talked about her life now in the corporate world. As of October 2010, The Vera Bradley Company became a publicly traded company with its spot on the NASDAQ.

"We had a very meager beginning. Barbara Baekgaard, my co-founder and I chipped in $250 each and started Vera Bradley, 30 years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The company was named after Baekgaard's mother, who was a model, and worked for the company for a short time from her home in Miami, Florida."

Ms. Miller says they took steps toward growth every year, adding that things are "better than ever right now, both in my personal and my business life."

I was intrigued by how such a successful business woman was able to grow her company while raising three boys and maintaining her household. Her husband, with whom she shares the credit, plays a big role. "I'm sure many moments were not balanced, but you try to do your best," she says. She credits an opera singer who she overheard say "You can do it all, just not at once."

Ms. Miller spoke to the young women from the Metro Achievement Center for Girls about following dreams, stressing the importance of taking chances. "I believe in the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated," said Ms. Miller. "If you are not stretching yourself you won't grow, you shouldn't be afraid." Ms. Miller also says that women especially need to pay attention to intuition. "Let your gut speak to you once in a while, young women in particular. Everyone needs a dream or a vision."

Which is what drew her to Metro Achievement Center for Girls: to explain how she and Ms. Baekgaard, two business-minded women took a chance and have hand crafted a company creating and marketing handbags bags and luggage items in boutiques and gift shops recognized nationally and internationally. "Everyone needs to surround themselves with people who compliment your skills, work with people who bring skills to the table," she says.

Ms. Miller says she did step away from Vera Bradley to take a job working with Indiana's governor, Mitch Daniels, an opportunity that helped her step back and see her company from a different perspective. "It was a valuable experience. It made me a better manager," said Ms. Miller, who returned to Vera Bradley with a newfound love for her company. "I learned that your work environment needs to have open communication. If you do, then everything will work. When something goes wrong, usually it's because of a lack of communication."

Vera Bradley celebrates employee's contributions with its Bright Ideas program. "Anyone is eligible to submit an idea and they are taken very seriously," she says. "We look at them and use some of them. We then reward the employees either monetarily, with a trip or something significant." They also host baby showers for the newest members of the Vera Bradley family, not necessarily with gifts, but allowing the family the use of the photography studio, encouraging families to bring in siblings, and emphasizing family togetherness both inside and outside the work environment.

Now that Ms. Miller's sons are grown, two of them with families of their own, she says she hopes her enthusiasm and determination hit home for the students at Chicago's Metro Achievement Center for Girls. Education, she points out, is the key to success, though not all of it comes in the classroom.