Housewives Borrowed Rs 16,000 To Start-Up, Now Doing Over $550 Mn Sales Annually

“If you have an idea, run with it. Don’t think twice, just go with it like I did,” says a very successful woman to all those who are looking to start their own business. Meet Barbara Bradley and Patricia R. Miller, founders of Vera Bradley, a popular American luggage and handbag design company. 

Barbara and Patricia are one of America’s most successful self-made women, according to Forbes. Their success story of superhit brand Vera Bradley comes with interesting back stories and the most unexpected beginning.

In 1982, Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and her close friend and neighbour Patricia Miller were catching a flight from Atlanta. At the airport, they noticed how uninteresting women’s travel bags looked. Both were disappointed at the lack of feminine-looking luggage at airports and that’s where they decided to create their own range.

Stay-at-home mothers Barbara and Patricia did not have money to fund their company so they borrowed $250 (Rs 16,000 now) each from their husbands and bought some floral, quilted cotton fabric to make the colourful bags. The duo started working at Barbara’s basement. After a few days, they had put an ad in the newspaper for people who wanted to take up sewing work from their homes. They would cut fabric out on a Ping-Pong table, put it with a zipper and other elements in a bag, and pass it on to the women who would take them home to sew.

Barbara’s mother, who was a former model, was a major source of inspiration for these ladies so, they decided to name the company Vera Bradley after her.

There was a time when the duo needed funds to take their work forward. A friend who believed in the idea gave them a check for $2,500 (Rs 1.6 lakh). He said if they were successful, it was a loan. If they weren’t, it was a gift. That check was a huge help for them. In the first year, they sold products for $10,000 (Rs 6.44 lakh), and by the end of third year, they did $1 million-revenue.

In 1984, they rented a space for their sewing work so they could concentrate on marketing and sales. Initially, they didn’t know how to price things or do cost analysis. So the duo got in touch with SCORE (Service Corp of Retired Executives), a non-profit that provides free business mentoring to entrepreneurs, and a volunteer was assigned to help them. They started calling up stores, showing their bags, causing their sales to skyrocket.

Barbara and Patricia opened their first retail store in 2007. Their customers range from 8 years to 80 years of age. They launched a huge range of baby bags, student backpacks, and accessories. Inspired by English and French designs, according to the designers, the designs were created keeping in mind the American taste.

The business grew with the help of their friends and family. Barbara still remembers what her father said to her that, “In business, you sell yourself first, your company second, and the product third. Business is all about forming relationships and having a company that reflects your values.”

In the early 1990s, the duo lost a dear friend to breast cancer. Barbara and co-founder Patricia then established the Vera Bradley Foundation For Breast Cancer, which has donated more than $10 million to the Indiana University Cancer Centre.

From stay-at-home mothers to founders of a brand that does annual sales over $550 million, Barbara Bradley and Patricia Miller have become one of the notable people in the American fashion industry. Their friendship has always been the cornerstone of the success of Vera Bradley. Today, the label is known for colourful prints and high-quilted cotton bags. The brand has become one of the favourites among various other American brands. Recently the brand had expanded their product offerings from just handbags to clothing, fragrance, jewellery, eyewear.

Started with a ping pong table as a work space and a bright idea in 1982 is now a global success. The journey of Barbara and Patricia is truly inspirational.

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