Earlier this month, the women of MakerSights journeyed to New York City to kick off a women’s initiative within our organization. As a diverse group of women, from differing disciplines and with varying backgrounds, the goal of our trip was to discuss our experiences as women in the workforce and identify the values we hold dear as a community at MakerSights. As part of our trip east, we met with several fierce female leaders to learn more about their experiences and perspectives as we explore what this initiative embodies for not just the women at our company but inclusive of the crazy cool, super supportive men at MakerSights.
One of the inspiring leaders we met and whom I have the pleasure of reflecting on our time with is the incredible Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, Co-Founder of Vera Bradley. As a big fan of the brand, having purchased many a bag and accessory over the years, I was overjoyed by the prospect of spending an evening with Barb at her home in the city. I suppose it should have been no surprise that her home was an elegant, joyful reflection of her vibrant approach to life and luggage. With an impeccable mix of printed furniture, printed rugs, printed curtains and printed wallpaper, Barb’s talent and taste were on full display. Our team was welcomed with open arms as we cozied up in the living room for a “fireside chat” about her experience founding Vera Bradley on a mere $500 loan from her husband, growing it to a half a billion dollar brand, and the tales of friendship and fun along the way.
The night before our fireside chat, Barb received the Gift for Life’s Chuck Yancy Lifetime Achievement Award. Several of Barb’s closest colleagues, Kim Colby, Anne Frantz, and our very own Joan Maxwell, were in town to support this achievement and we were fortunate enough to have them join in for the fun. These women have worked together for years, some for roughly 15 years, others for 30+ years. They were so much more than just colleagues, they were like family. To hear these women reflect on their experiences together, the highs and the lows, with such gratitude and respect for one another was a true treat. As each of the women shared their story of meeting Barb, it was hard to ignore the sheer serendipity of it all. It was a chance encounter here, a random run-in there, but in each instance, it was Barb who saw the talent, encouraged the energy, and welcomed these women into the Vera Bradley family. As women in the workforce, if we can embody even an ounce of the genuine support and respect these ladies have for one another, we’re all in for an incredibly rewarding ride.
As a young, growing company, we think a lot about our culture and this remained front and center throughout our trip. We want to be thoughtful and deliberate about the culture we create and the talent we hire to our team. When our conversation turned to this topic, a huge grin appeared on the face of each of the women. Culture is incredibly important to Barb and her cardinal rule when it comes to the culture of Vera Bradley and the people they hire is simple – kindness. Yes, experience is great, but beyond that and arguably more important than that, Barb’s mission has always been to foster a culture of kindness and empathy. An example of pure, unwavering kindness is the card each employee receives on his or her birthday, every year, signed by the team and with a $50 bill inside to treat oneself. A decades old tradition that means so much more than the gift itself, it’s the recognition of an individual’s special day and a reminder, better yet, an invitation to be kind to yourself.
Another example of VB’s kind culture goes well outside the walls of their HQ, it’s how they interact with and treat their customers too. On many occasions, as the team traveled for store openings or market appointments, if someone complimented Barb’s bag or anyone on the team’s Vera Bradley bag, Barb would insist personal belongings be removed and the bag be gifted to the compliment dealer. Employees quickly learned to travel with backup bags given the inevitable airport compliment exchange. It’s these acts of kindness that are so deeply rooted in the Vera Bradley culture that any company, established or startup, should be inspired to not just scribble down values for your employee handbook but to live those values day in, day out, and remain resolute as you grow your team for when it comes to the values of a company – it’s all about the people.
As I think about my greatest takeaway from the evening, I keep returning to this force we all felt in the room with Barb, Joan, Anne, and Kim. They have a bond few people will ever experience with their work colleagues. Some of it is a product of years spent together but I think a key piece of the equation is Barb, a leader who puts her people first, who gives her team the autonomy to learn and grow, and is adamant we never forget the beauty of human kindness. For all “The Office” fans out there, I left Barb’s home that evening reminded of a quote Andy Bernard delivers in the Series Finale, in which he says “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” These women have experienced some great days together and as I looked around the room at the amazing MakerSights women surrounding me, I know we’re already in the good old days and I know we have many more to come.