Patricia Miller Oral History Interviews


Part one

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SCARPINO: It should be on. And as I said before I turned the tape recorder on, and the recorder is on now, I am going to ask for the record for permission to record the interview and transcribe the interview and to place the interview and transcription in the IUPUI Special Collections Archives for the use of that institution’s patrons.

MILLER: I agree to that.

SCARPINO: Thank you very much. And I am going to spend part of the time we have together asking you questions that led up to your development of Vera Bradley, and so on, and then I will leave time to work in all the standard leadership questions.

MILLER: All right.

SCARPINO: I want to start long ago and far away, and ask you a few questions about your high school and college years and just begin with the question, who were your parents?

MILLER: My parents were Eugene and Wilma Polito—P O L I T O.

SCARPINO: A good Italian name.

MILLER: A good Italian name.

SCARPINO: And you lived in Illinois?

MILLER: I lived in Farmington, Illinois. I was born in Dixon, Illinois, a birth place of one of our presidents, Ronald Reagan. Shortly after I was born my parents moved to Farmington, which is the town that they both went to school. That was their home town too.

SCARPINO: And I understand that your grandfather lived there and he had a grocery store?

MILLER: Yes, my grandfather Santo, Sam, and his wife Antonina were there. They were from Sicily originally and immigrated to this country landing in Boston and then went to Farmington because of the strip mining, the coal mining. My grandfather started a small grocery store, and for all practical purposes everyone in that little town of two thousand was Italian. I thought that was America. [laughing] I thought all American names ended with vowels.

SCARPINO: Did you learn to speak Italian as a child?

MILLER: You know I didn’t because if you’ll remember, and you might be too young to remember, but during World War II the Italians were not our allies and so my grandparents chose—which is to this day I am miserable thinking that I cannot speak Italian—not to teach me Italian. I mean I have listened to it enough; I think, and this is maybe one of my dreams, would be to live in Italy for at least a year and pick up the language and learn more about the culture.

SCARPINO: Did you work in your grandfather’s store?

MILLER: I did. I worked there from before the time I could even see over the counter. And I think that is the basis of my life-long love of business because I did everything in that little store that I do here or have done in business.

SCARPINO: How did the customers feel about coming into a store and seeing a little girl looking over the top of the counter?

MILLER: Well, I think they liked it; I think they liked it. My father is one of eight children. He was the second youngest. He worked—I think everyone probably worked there for a time before they went on. I think I learned everything about business there, from customer service, inventory control; I remember talking to the salesmen that came in to take orders, and this was a little grocery store. I learned about display—and if you see the markets, the little markets in New York City now where they have the produce beautifully displayed in the pyramids and the beautiful flowers. We sold a lot of tobacco and a lot of candy and a lot of produce. Not a lot of canned goods, that sort of thing. It was a busy, busy place because we didn’t have a supermarket then. That came and …

SCARPINO: …did it put your grandfather’s store out of business?

MILLER: It didn’t go out of business, but it was certainly the beginning of the end.

SCARPINO: Did you have any brothers or sisters?

MILLER: I have a brother who is three years younger than me.

SCARPINO: And his name is?

MILLER: His name is Lewis.

SCARPINO: Was there anyone in your family your mother, your father, your grandfather, your grandmother who had a particularly important influence on the businessperson or the leader that you later became?

MILLER: I think both my grandparents—my other, my maternal grandparents lived on a farm and it was a farm-farm. They had crops, and they had animals and chickens and my grandmother, I remembered her cooking on a cook stove, and she used corncobs for fuel in that cook stove and she prepared fabulous food for thrashers. You know your hear, well it’s like you’re cooking for thrashers, well she did. Sitting in the front yard and making ice cream at night. Going to…

SCARPINO: …hand-cranked freezer?

MILLER: Yes. That is; it’s saying I am old because I can remember all that. But, that was such a—I had a fabulous childhood.

SCARPINO: Where was their farm?

MILLER: Their farm was just outside Farmington. Canton, Illinois.

SCARPINO: You went to high school in Farmington. What was the name of your high school?

MILLER: Farmington High School. [laughing]

SCARPINO: That would work. [laughing] Was there anyone during your high school years that inspired or influenced your development as a businessperson?

MILLER: I don‘t know about business, but I had such good teachers. My first grade teacher also taught my parents in first grade, Miss Pettyjohn. You know you can always remember these names. And then in junior high school I had Miss Wilson, and she was a poet; she was a published poet. And I think of all the classes I had either in grade school or high school, hers was my favorite because we memorized poems like Evangeline and the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. She mesmerized me with the reading of poetry and good literature. And this was in a little town of two thousand, and we had these wonderful teachers. Chemistry teacher, Mr. Bankston, I was afraid of him because I would [both laugh]—But he was good, he was very demanding. Algebra took me for a ride, but I had a wonderful, wonderful teachers. I liked school.

SCARPINO: Do you think that schooling prepared you to step out into the public arena at some point in the future?

MILLER: I don’t know. I don’t know. The thing I think of is so many of my class mates still live there and chose to live there. I always knew that I wanted to go away to college and away then meant I didn’t want to go in state for some reason. My poor parents. I had to go out of state, which meant the tuition was more.

SCARPINO: I understand. I have two boys. [laughing]

MILLER: So, anyway, I had a neighbor, her name was Marilyn Crane and she went to IU and she was a music major. And even then IU had a great music school. When she would come home for vacations I would listen to her sing and play piano. She let me sit on the bench. She would tell me stories about IU and show me pictures of the campus and so when we did visit, when I was a junior, I fell in love with it. I think the esthetics have always been so important to me, how something looks. It looked like I thought a campus should look.

SCARPINO: Beautiful campus.

MILLER: It’s a beautiful campus, and I still feel that way.

SCARPINO: My son just graduated from Bloomington.

MILLER: It’s a great school.

SCARPINO: As you look back on your high school years were there any events that happened while you were in high school that had an influence on either the business person or the leader you became later on?

MILLER: Well I think that, when you are—Yes. I think when you’re in a small school like that if you don’t participate in most activities you don’t have them. And, so, I was on the school newspaper. I was in the chorus. I was in a vocal ensemble, and I don’t know how I did that because I have a terrible singing voice. I was probably an officer. You just had to participate or you didn’t have enough people to do it. It’s probably good and bad because I to this day seem to be a dabbler. And a master of none.

SCARPINO: It seems hard to believe, but that’s. . .

MILLER: . . . And I always think that if I just concentrated a little more. The other thing I regretted was that at that time girls were not allowed to participate in sports. I was always a tree climber. I loved sports, and I grew up playing baseball and softball in vacant pastures you know. Girls weren’t allowed to do that. We were able to play basketball, and that was half court unless you were a roving guard, which I always liked to be at the noon hour. That was such an injustice, and I felt that then. So, I think that having sports as a back ground, even though we weren’t able to do it in school, I loved the team concept. I liked what sports taught you about winning and about losing. I think the ah—both are lessons that are good for your decisions throughout life.

SCARPINO: I was going to ask you how you ended up with IU but you told me that already. What did you major in at Indiana University?

MILLER: My freshman year, and I was also—I used to love art, and I shouldn’t say used to, I still do. But, I used to paint and draw, which I don’t do anymore. Some day I will do that. So I started to major, I think I majored in art and minored in Phys Ed or vice versa I can’t remember. I wanted, I loved the Phys Ed and I enjoyed art. It meant that I was in class three hours for every hour of credit so I left the dorm in the dark and I got back in the dark. At Christmas when we went home for a holiday break my uncle said what are you doing? And I realized that I was not that talented in art. So he said, why don’t you just major in business? By that time I had enough for almost a minor in art or Phys Ed. I must have majored in Phys Ed, I did, and then minored in art. So I changed my major to business and had a minor in Phys Ed and it was Business Education. Because, again, I didn’t think outside the box enough. I am sure I could have gotten a business degree. I am sure there are plenty of women that did. But everyone told me, well, you have to be a teacher. So, I was a teacher.

SCARPINO: So you moved in that direction?


SCARPINO: You must have found some time to do something besides go to class because I read in some material that you met your husband at a football game. [laughing]

MILLER: Yes. See, there the sports theme continues. But I did our senior year. We met at a football game. I was a Kappa Delta at IU, and he was a Sigma Nu and the houses were next to each other so we met at a football game.

SCARPINO: Were you an officer of Kappa Delta?

MILLER: I was not. I remember doing calligraphy of the sorority prayer. We were new on campus; after we were on campus at one time, and then during the depression went off campus. So I was in a class, I think the second class, of a new, fairly new sorority. A new, old sorority. So, I was the artist of sort and did the sorority prayer. We very soon had a visit of one of the national officers. One of the questions was where is your prayer? It is supposed to be hanging on the wall. Well the answer was that it was in my closet. I hadn’t finished it. But I was not an officer. No, I was working. I had to work because of going out of state and the tuition. My freshman year I worked in the dorm in the cafeteria and did not like that job. It’s always good to have a job; you know you don‘t want to do that.

SCARPINO: It helps you make some important choices in life.

MILLER: It does; it does. And then I was able to get a job in the scholarship office. I had that for the remaining three years.

SCARPINO: Several years later when you were getting down to the business starting Vera Bradley did you draw on your design experience and your art classes, your interest and passion for art, did those eventually connect up in some way?

MILLER: Yes, I believe so because when we decided to start this business of women’s bags, we knew that we wanted to design cotton fabric. The design element was part of that. Even though we worked and collaborated with the textile designers it was our eye and our meaning. My business partner, Barbara Baekgaard; we knew what we liked. I think that probably had something to do with that.

SCARPINO: You helped me out. I was going to stumble over the pronunciation of Baekgaard.


SCARPINO: During your years at Indiana University was there any individual or individuals who inspired or influenced you as your career developed later on?

MILLER: Well, I will say, my parents did not go to school, college, and so it was a very new—we didn’t talk about it because they didn’t have that experience. Joining a sorority, and then we thought IU was big. I can’t even remember the student body population at that time, but it wasn’t like it is now. When you have a smaller community within a large community like that it helps. That helped me quite a bit. It also gave me some mentors, some women that were in the sorority. Not only Kappa Delta but other sororities. It helped with social graces. I mean we had exchanges, we were taught table manners, etiquette, not that you didn’t have it growing up but it was a more formalized education. I think that was very helpful because I had never been, other than one trip, I think to Canada to visit some relatives, we didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t take long vacations like our children have taken. When I look back to think that I did decide to go to Indiana I didn’t know a person there when I went. I think you know that was maybe somewhat brave of me to do that then. So it was a good learning experience and probably gave me some self confidence every time you walked through a door that you’re a little bit shaky about and you do it.

SCARPINO: Do you think self confidence is an important quality for a business person or leader?

MILLER: I don’t think you can say how important it is. It is so important. How do you teach someone self confidence? Raising my own children I’ve asked that question. Some have it; some don’t, in one degree or another. Self confidence is very, very important, and I think that every experience that you push yourself a little bit and you do it gives you some more self confidence.

SCARPINO: Do you think that somewhere out there, out there on the self confidence spectrum, there is a line that one crosses from self confidence to arrogance that sometimes gets leaders or business people into trouble?

MILLER: I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen that happen. I hope it hasn’t happened to me.

SCARPINO: No. There’s no implication of that. [laughing]

MILLER: No, but I’ve seen that happen. My thought on arrogance is they’re not self confident. I think that is somewhat a protection. The leaders and people that I have met and respect are not arrogant.

SCARPINO: How do you think a leader manifests self confidence? How do you know it when you see it?

MILLER: They are—They obviously have a vision that they are able to communicate. Communication is another big word. They treat people the way they would like to be treated, because if you‘re a leader you need to be a leader of people. Those people, if you‘re smart, you choose very carefully and you choose very good people who care about your vision. Probably the best thing to do then is to give them a directive that is clear and get out of the way and let them do what they do best. Certainly to choose people that do things, certain things, better than you can.

SCARPINO: Does that characterize your style?

MILLER: Yes, yes. Going back to team work again. I enjoy that. I like to work with people.

SCARPINO: While you were in college, and I think you graduated in 1960, so it must have been 1956 to 1960, were there any events that took place that shaped your development as a leader or businessperson whether it was locally or nationally or internationally?

MILLER: I was able to hear speakers of world renown—the university, not only speakers, but even musicians. I heard Errol Garner; I heard Duke Ellington. I loved jazz and loved music. Upton Sinclair, I heard him speak.


MILLER: It was awesome. In fact I just read the other day that appearance at IU was one of his last. It was one of these little bits of information you don’t expect to pop up, but I remember very clearly listening to him and certainly reading his books. The university—and I wanted to go to a Big Ten university, because I felt, not that smaller universities and colleges don’t attract these people, because they do. But I did want that far reaching element.

SCARPINO: And it worked for you at Bloomington?

MILLER: It did work. It did work. And of course Herman Wells who was the President; he is still revered. You still feel his presence there. He was a brilliant businessman, a brilliant leader, but he was also so very, very accessible.

SCARPINO: I was actually fortunate to meet Herman Wells a few times before he died. He was quite an individual, well into his eighties and nineties.

MILLER: Yes, he was.

SCARPINO: Did you ever think of yourself as a leader while you were in college?

MILLER: I probably didn’t. I probably didn’t.

SCARPINO: I read an interview that you gave with Indianapolis Woman, November of 2005. And in that interview you talked about your college years, about women’s roles in the fifties and early sixties, and you said something that you alluded to a few minutes ago. You said: “When I look back and think I was not looking outside the box. Women were in a box then and I did not look outside of it.”


SCARPINO: What did you mean by that?

MILLER: Well, I will give you a specific example, when I had graduated from IU and then we went back for graduate work, and I was married at the time. My husband was starting law school, actually was in his second year lawyer, or a law student. I wanted to teach in Bloomington. I went in for the interview, and we were expecting our first child. The interviewer said I could not teach because I was pregnant. It didn’t even occur to me to argue the point. It was discriminating, and that was such a valuable lesson too. Another time when I graduated my counselor told me when I was interviewing for a teaching job that I should definitely have a face to face interview. I suppose you would always do that, but he said because with your last name being Polito you will be discriminated against and you are also a woman, although teaching that will be no problem. But, that was a valuable lesson, because I felt discriminated against when he said that. I think I have a better understanding, certainly not as good as I should, but I have a better understanding of how people feel when they’re discriminated against. There’s no better lesson then to experience something.

SCARPINO: Do you think that a successful leader needs to be able to think outside the box?

MILLER: Absolutely, yes.

SCARPINO: How do you figure out where the box is? [laughing]

MILLER: I know. [laughing] Well, we always tell, I always tell people you want people with a point of view even if it’s not an acceptable point of view or a point of view that is [pauses to think] in the box. I think you need people to always be pushing a little bit. I love to have ideas and I—in a meeting, people come up with ideas. You say there are no dumb questions. Well you say that but you know that everyone, no one, wants to say something that everybody looks at him like, what are you thinking? I think that’s a part of being a creative person. I think leaders have to be creative. They have to always stay fluid because there’s such a danger of becoming solid not moving and that’s a big danger. You always want to stay fluid.

SCARPINO: Do you think there’s some balance or tension between creativity on the one hand and safety and comfort, standing inside the box, on the other?

MILLER: I suppose. I heard an expression the other day that I loved and I never heard of it. Somebody said, everyone thinks that they’d like to live in an artist’s colony until they do and then they want some type of structure. I suppose that’s true; life is a balance. So, you want creative people, but you also need to have some processes and structure in place so that you know, a river has banks but between those banks it flows freely. So, you need some type of structure or boundaries. Certainly, in between, you want to be pretty free.

SCARPINO: So, do you think some of the responsibility of the leader is to be creative on the one hand and to figure out where the banks are on the other?

MILLER: Yes. Yes. Because people need to know what your vision is, what your direction is, and how you are going to get there. You need to measure. Measuring, one thing I learned from Governor Daniels. He always said that unless you’re measuring, you’re just practicing. So, you need measurement.

SCARPINO: When you gave that interview, and you said that women then were in a box and you were talking about your college years, do you think that’s changed?

MILLER: Oh, yes. Yes. And being the mother of three sons and I see them in the workplace now and they are working side by side with women. The women who are often superior in the workplace to them. I may be wrong but I think that they accept that as a very natural thing. They accept the work place. Of course there are always going to be the exception to that, but I see them as working side by side with women and thinking that’s fine. Of course maybe their mother had some influence on that because I usually—I worked during the time they were growing up.

SCARPINO: Do you think of yourself as a role model?

MILLER: You know, I do. I do. I think it’s important to do that. If someone calls me and asks for—it happened yesterday—I had a phone call and someone said, I have some great ideas for bags. And then they said, I am not going to take any business away from you, but I don’t know where to start. We had to help. We had people that would listen to us and give us some advice. The best advice is no advice. The best advice is to throw back questions and let that person answer some questions, which is what happened to us.

SCARPINO: Who supplied you with advice, particularly when you were thinking in terms of creating Vera Bradley?

MILLER: When we started with this idea we needed most of—both Barb and I are somewhat right and left brained. Barb is definitely more right brained than me. She is very, very creative. Very talented. Very talented designer. I am probably more left brain. So, we went to SCORE: Service Core of Retired Executives. A friend of ours who had a design business, furniture and interior design business, said you should go to SCORE. So, I looked it up in the phone book, and we have a SCORE chapter in Fort Wayne. I called. They sent out the form. Do you need help with marketing, sales, finance, and I checked all of them. I took our box which was our office with some of our prototypes in; it was our office. George Cook was the person they had us see, and he had just retired as Executive VP from Grey Magnum Wire, which is a branch of Alcoa. George being an accountant was just the right person for us. He is still here. In fact I was saying I am going to call him this week because I haven’t talked to him in a while. He is in his late eighties now and a wonderful man, taught me so much, because he’s the one that never answered my questions. I said George, we need a system; we need to be plugged into a system thinking of a franchise or something. He said “I can‘t do that.” You have to walk before you run; you need to figure things out. Being in business, this is our twenty fifth year in business, we figured some things out. We still have a long way to go, but we did figure some things out and he was a huge help. Huge. And it was free.

SCARPINO: You must have been his most successful pupil?

MILLER: We got more than we paid for. It was free.

SCARPINO: I am going say a few things for the record here.


SCARPINO: So, that when somebody listens to this tape in twenty years it will all be in one place. You graduated from college in 1960 and from 1960 to 69 you taught school, middle school, high school in various places. You spent a couple of years teaching in Hammond, Whiting, and Bloomington, Fort Wayne. I think you taught business and Phys Ed, is that right?


SCARPINO: And some adult education?


SCARPINO: And then you moved to Bloomington where your husband went to law school and then in 1965 to Fort Wayne when he accepted employment with a law firm?

MILLER: Um hm.

SCARPINO: And then I understand you stopped teaching when your third child was born. Your son, Jay, who was born in 1969. Is that right?


SCARPINO: Okay. So, did you like to teach?

MILLER: I loved it. I loved it. I thought it was great. I enjoyed it very much. Liked the high school kids. When I taught junior high when we were in Bloomington—that‘s a funny age; they‘re junior high.

SCARPINO: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. [laughing]

MILLER: How we ever get through middle school, I don’t know. I did; I loved teaching. I enjoyed it very much.

SCARPINO: What did you like about it?

MILLER: I could see the progress of the kids. I could see them learning something and of course everything I taught is now in the Smithsonian. I taught short hand. I taught typing, which is now keyboard and I am so frustrated that we didn’t have computers then because I missed that. I use one now, but I had to learn. My kids learned by osmosis. I swear they were born with a computer gene in their brain. I loved to see the progress of the kids. Something like short hand, which no one does anymore, that you went from nothing to teaching them the skill. I loved to teach. It was fun.

SCARPINO: Do you think that the skills that you developed as a teacher carried over into your work as a business person and a leader?

MILLER: I know they did. I know they did being able to get out in front of a group and speak. That was invaluable. Having an organization, lesson plan and learning how to get along with students and teachers who came from varied backgrounds. Some kids had many advantages; others had none. How to work with those different types of people.

SCARPINO: I’d like to start talking about your work as a business person and your friend and partner’s name is Barbara Baekgaard?

MILLER: Baekgaard, like your back.

SCARPINO: Now for the sake of the poor person who has to transcribe this recording I’m going to spell it and I hope I get it right and it’s B A E K G A A R D.

MILLER: Yes. It‘s Danish.

SCARPINO: All right. I recognized the double A. The pronunciation was eluding me. I read an interview with her in which she talked about you and she was quoted as saying, talking about the two of you, “Our backgrounds are totally different. You would almost think we had nothing in common.” What was different about your backgrounds?

MILLER: I told you I came from this little farming community in central Illinois and she came from Miami Beach. Her father was a very successful businessman and a very nice person, very nice person. And her mother—wonderful person.

SCARPINO: What was his business?

MILLER: He was a salesman, and then he bought the Vectra Light Candle Company and later sold that to Lenox. It’s now Lenox Candles. He also had a cream shampoo that he sold and it became Luster Cream Shampoo, which the young people listening to this won’t remember that but it was…

SCARPINO: …Well I do for the record…

MILLER: …It was a very big shampoo. A very successful and from a big city, although she went to a very small Catholic school in Miami Beach. I think her school might have been smaller than mine.

SCARPINO: High school?

MILLER: High school, grade school, small Catholic school.

SCARPINO: You ended up in Fort Wayne because your husband accepted employment here in a law firm. How did she end up in Fort Wayne?

MILLER: Her first husband bought a paper company here. She moved into my neighborhood, Wildwood Park, and I was the welcoming committee of one. I knocked on her door. Jay, who was I think five then, my youngest son was with me and she said “I’m nice.” I said “welcome to the neighborhood.” And she answered with “do you know how to hang wall paper?” And I said “no” and she said “well come on in, I‘ll teach you.” So, we had a wall paper business that was our first business venture together.

SCARPINO: Is that the firm you called Up The Wall?

MILLER: Yes. That was Up Your Wall.

SCARPINO: Oh, Up Your Wall, okay.

MILLER: We hung wall paper, and we also sold paper. We drove to Chicago or Columbus where they would have discontinued papers—warehouse full of them. Buy the paper, the rolls of paper, for maybe fifty cents a roll. Drive it back in our station wagon, in our basement called all of our friends and said we have great wall paper for a dollar a roll. Not a bad profit.

SCARPINO: Sounds like a healthy mark up.

MILLER: Sold the paper and said, by the way, if you need it hung we’ll do it. So that was our first business together.

SCARPINO: So, how did you learn to hang wall paper?

MILLER: She was a good teacher, too. I wasn’t the only good teacher. She was a good teacher.

SCARPINO: She already knew how to do this?

MILLER: She knew how to do it. Yes.

SCARPINO: She also said that your backgrounds are totally different but you had nothing in common but then she said that you and she shared the same core values the same approach to life and business. How would you characterize those core values?

MILLER: Both have a good work ethic, enjoy it. We both like things to be right. We’re picky. I think she’s probably pickier than me but we’re both picky. In fact when I was kind of looking at some things, reading some things knowing you were going to come—and I probably won’t be able to find it now… yes—it was an article I had read by Danny Meyer who’s a restaurateur of some renown. Union Square Café in New York is one of his restaurants. It was an article about a salt shaker that was in the middle of a table and that’s where he wanted it, exactly in the middle. If people moved it, he would come back put it back in the middle. His philosophy, as far as being a leader, was consisted of three words—constant, gentle, pressure. As far as being picky, we are, but not in an abrupt loud way. It’s constant, you keep reminding people exactly what you want and that it has to be the best. Do it gently because that’s how you‘d like to be treated. But keep the pressure, keep moving that salt shaker back to the middle of the table so that everybody gets the message. And, I think that has been an important message here for both of us feel that way. We do things in a very special way, we think.

SCARPINO: Is it common in your experience for good friends to become good business partners?

MILLER: Well, when I was in business school at IU they told me a partnership was the most difficult relationship. I think whether it be marriage or business. It’s probably true; probably true.

SCARPINO: Okay. Your wall paper business, do you remember what year you started that in? I just violated one of the oral history rules by asking you a date.

MILLER: A date.

SCARPINO: But I thought I’d fish for it.

MILLER: I can tell you, it would have been 1974. Without children I don’t know why that I would ever remember a date because I always go by how old they were.

SCARPINO: Would you characterize that as a successful business?

MILLER: I think it was—it was. We wanted a flexible business because we were raising children at that time. Barb had four and I had three. We could take a job whenever we could and we were paid cash so we had some money. We had fun. We knew we were good partners because I liked the straight walls, and she liked the doors and windows. We liked doing the same things, but we brought different skills.

SCARPINO: This, I assume, is the kind of wall paper where you clean the walls with whatever; you put the paste on and all that stuff.

MILLER: All that, all of the above. I think that’s why we started Vera Bradley. We got tired of having paste in our hair.

SCARPINO: Hard work?

MILLER: It was hard work but it was fun.

SCARPINO: How do you manage…?

MILLER: …You notice how we manage to say fun?

SCARPINO: I did notice that!

MILLER: That is so important.

SCARPINO: You think that a person to be successful ought to like what they’re doing?

MILLER: Yes. You know like what you do, love… What is it they say? Like what you do; do what you like.

SCARPINO: I’m glad to hear—I don’t know how many times I have had that conversation with graduate students. If you’re not enjoying this you’re in the wrong business.

MILLER: You are in the wrong business; you’re right.

SCARPINO: How in the world did you manage, the two of you manage, to develop a business while raising seven children between you?

MILLER: You know, that’s a good question. I look at my business associates today, a lot of them young women having children, I can tell that I’m slowing down a little bit because I go home and I don’t have children at home and I’m doing all that I think that I can do. I suppose youth has something to do with that. Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm generates energy. If you’re not enthusiastic about something it’s a drag, and we were enthusiastic about it. I’m not saying when our head hit the pillow at night we weren’t out. It’s so great to be enthusiastic about something.

SCARPINO: Did any of those seven children become business people themselves?

MILLER: Yes, they’re all in business. They’re all in business.

SCARPINO: I also read that the two of you did home clothing shows.

MILLER: We did.

SCARPINO: And were those clothes that you designed and …

MILLER: . . . No, no. The women listening to this if it still continues—I don’t know how long this will be in the archives or available—but when you say a home clothing show right now you have Carlisle and you have Doncaster and a company owns the inventory. And then they send the inventory to a home for, say, a week. And then we have that inventory for a week and we invited, I don’t know, three hundred of your dearest and nearest friends to come to your home during that week, try clothing on, and buy it. That’s what we did. It was a clothing company called Dunworthington. It was out of Cleveland.

SCARPINO: Dunworthington?

MILLER: Dunworthington. Barb had a friend visit her one weekend, and she said every day she came down the stairs in the sharpest, cutest outfit. She said, where’d you get those cute clothes? She said, well I went to a Dunworthington Show. So, we contacted them, and they had a week open, and it was Thanksgiving week. Nobody wanted it. No one else was out of Cleveland, but we said we’ll do it; we’d like to do it. So, we drove to Cleveland in a U-Haul trailer, little trailer, picked the clothes up, brought them back; had them in our home that week. In the spring and summer Barb would have it at her house, and I would have it in the fall and holidays. So, two weeks out of the year spring/summer one, fall/holidays two.

SCARPINO: You put the clothing out on display, and people would try it on?

MILLER: Dining room table, everything. Rented some racks and invited friends. And sold clothing one week and Barb had, has, two daughters and we’d send them to high school, they were in high school then, in cute outfits and the girls of course, their friends, would tell their moms they had to come to our house and buy these clothes. We had a wardrobe for about forty percent off of retail. That was the beginning of Vera Bradley because at this time we had the idea for Vera Bradley. We had some prototypes made up, of some bags; duffels, smaller duffels, handbag, and we’d bought the fabric at a local fabric store—retail.

SCARPINO: I assume you’re not doing that anymore?

MILLER: No. But we had a woman, Mirabella, who was an alteration person and she would be at the sales, so if you bought something and you needed it shortened or altered she could do it right there. We asked her to make these prototypes, and I think we made about a dozen bags. We decided we needed a name that wasn’t our names because this was our marketing research and so we came up with the name, Vera Bradley, which is the question most asked. Where is Vera Bradley? Where did that name come from? Well, Vera Bradley was Barbara’s mother‘s name. My mother’s name as we’ve said is Wilma Polito. We didn’t know much about business, but we knew that Vera Bradley might be the better name, so it was Vera Bradley.

SCARPINO: It does roll off the tongue a little easier.

MILLER: Yes, yes.

SCARPINO: Was her mom still living when you…

MILLER: …She was, and we did get permission to use her name.

SCARPINO: No, no. Actually, I was wondering if she lived long enough to enjoy the success of your company named after her.

MILLER: She did; she did.

SCARPINO: The home clothing, I mean, part of it—I admit I don’t know much about this—but it seems to me that in order to be successful you had to figure out how to market it. Was that sort of a training ground for things you did later on?

MILLER: You know, I think you’re like wet cement. I think everything that lands on you leaves an impression, good or bad. I am sure along the way and even those clothing shows—because we had to, as I said I used to teach business, I taught book keeping too, so I was always the one kind of keeping the books, and Barb was selling.

SCARPINO: I read in one of the pieces that I pulled together that you actually came up with this idea in the Atlanta Airport.

MILLER: We did!

SCARPINO: Is that true?

MILLER: Yes, it is; it is. Barbara’s father had a birthday in February, which is a great time for a friend’s father to have a birthday that lived in Florida. So Barb and I and her sister and her sister’s friend who lived in Columbus, Ohio, went down to spend a week in Florida and left our families here, our husband and children here, in the ice and snow. On our way home we had a layover in the Atlanta airport. We noticed that the men were carrying carryon luggage, the canvas garments, duffels, Land’s End-type luggage, but the women were carrying that as well. We thought that they should have that carryon luggage that was functional but should be pretty, should be feminine. So, when we got back to Fort Wayne, so that was in February, and I know our sale was the Saint Patrick’s Day week, I remember that, the home clothing sale. We thought, well, we’ll make some prototypes up. There’s nothing very creative about a duffle bag. The silhouettes were—In fact, I remember we went to the store and looked at a McCall’s pattern for a duffle bag. You’ll still find them in there. That’s what our duffle bag looks like. We picked some fabric out and put those bags in the sale and that’s where we had to have the name Vera Bradley because we said it was a company out of Florida. We sold them all, so we thought well we might have an idea that would sell. We each put in two hundred and fifty dollars.

SCARPINO: So you started the business . . .

MILLER: . . .with five hundred dollars . . .

SCARPINO: . . . with five hundred dollars? So, how, then, did you ever get this company up and running? I mean, I have some specific questions I can fill in with, but, you have five hundred dollars and some ideas and you sold some prototypes but how did you go from there?

MILLER: Well, one thing that helped us was that our husbands were employed. When I look at men or women who are starting a business who are the breadwinner, the chief breadwinner. I think that is rough, because we still had income coming in, and we didn’t take a salary or make any money for at least two years. We ran out of money. We ran out of that five hundred dollars believe it or not, and so then we went to the bank and asked for a ninety-day note of two thousand dollars. The banker gave it to us. We took some prototypes in to say this is what we’re doing. He really didn’t ask any questions, nor did he have any kind of enthusiasm for this great idea that we had. So, we got two thousand dollar note, and I remember my hand shaking as I signed that, and we came through the revolving door. We were out on the sidewalk, and we looked at each other and said, “He didn‘t say anything.” He didn‘t say, “that‘s a great idea; that‘s not a good idea; I like your bags; I don‘t like your bags.” It was just flat. We said we need another banker. So, we went back in that day, probably ten minutes after we walked out, we went back in and we said we would like to see another banker. And, they gave us Bob Marshall who was, who handled commercial business. Bob was perfect. He went on to be a VP, and in another bank. Actually, we moved banks because he moved. He always asked, how are you doing, can I help you? He was a true partner.

SCARPINO: And this was in 1982 when you got started?

MILLER: Um hm.

SCARPINO: So, two thousand dollars was worth a lot more then than it is now.

MILLER: It was. It was. And, then we mortgaged our homes, and our husbands agreed to do that. So, we had good partners at home and commercially in banks.

SCARPINO: I mean, one of the questions I was going to ask is how were you able to finance this? How did you persuade vendors to work with you?

MILLER: We started small. We went to a store here in Fort Wayne; Nobsons was a women’s clothing store. We contacted our friends and relatives from wherever they lived and sent them a bag and said do you like this? If they said, yes, we said, how would you like to sell for us? Again, connections and networking with your friends and family.

SCARPINO: How about marketing? I mean you talk to your friends and family but after you’d sold to people you knew and their friends how did you go from there to brand your product?

MILLER: We decided that from the beginning—and here’s the vision part that you, probably everyone you talk to probably talks about their vision and their direction. We knew that we didn’t want to have this business as a, in a fair, or a—we wanted the big time. We wanted to go to either the apparel mart, the apparel shows, or to the major gift shows. How we knew that I don’t know because—Well, I do know, because Barb’s father had been a salesman, and he did gift shows. We went to Chicago and walked the show because of the proximity. It was close. To see what it was like. We didn’t know if we wanted to be in the gift business or the apparel business. Because with bags, women’s bags, you could either be in the apparel business as a fashion accessory or the gift business. In the apparel business there would be so many bags. In the gift business when we walked through that Chicago show, you didn’t see many at all. Another good point was that in the gift business you have two seasons. You have spring and summer, and you sell spring and summer in January and February. And fall and holiday and those shows are in July and August. So, we decided to be in the gift business because we didn’t have much competition there, and it was a simpler season. You had two seasons so you had to come up with new items twice a year rather than in the apparel business; it’s many more seasons. Also, in the gift business the delivery was, then, four to six weeks. It has changed. We’re in the time of immediacy right now. But it was four to six weeks so that gave us some time; some more time. That was a good decision.

SCARPINO: Was part of what you did, identifying the niche for your business?

MILLER: Yes. What market are you in, and do you want to sell at the Goshen Fair or do you want to be bigger than that? It’s curious, I had a phone call yesterday; I think I mentioned this woman that had an idea for a bag business. She didn’t have that vision. She wanted to work out of her home, and we didn’t.

SCARPINO: But you started that way as I recall.

MILLER: We did. In 1982 International Harvester was one of the, if not the, largest employer in Fort Wayne, and they announced that they were moving to Springfield, Ohio. That was a devastating blow for Fort Wayne. We put an ad in the paper for home sewers. You wouldn’t want anything that I sewed. My mother made every home-ec project I had. But I was good at keeping numbers, and we both agreed on design and that sort of thing. Barb didn’t want to sew it either even though she could. We decided we would be the managers, and we would have someone else do the production. The phone just rang off the hook. People needed work. That was probably the toughest time of the business because we would ask people; we would give them a kit, we would give them a prototype, and we would give them a cut out fabric. At this point we were cutting out patterns on the ping pong table in the basement.

SCARPINO: You were cutting the patterns out in your basement?

MILLER: With orange handled Fiskar Scissors. And we said we need you to make X number of bags. They had to be able to make minimum wage so they had to time themselves, and they have to be perfect. Well, perfect to you isn’t perfect to someone else, so trying to find the best sewers was a tough—that was a tough time. That was also the time when we were in our home and trying to raise family and, you know, juggle everything.

SCARPINO: But at some point you must have had to make the transition from cutting patterns on your pool table and having women sew your bags to centralizing it somewhere. How did you go about doing that?

MILLER: Yes, yes. Well, finally the cream always rises, so we found the ones that were the best, and Kim Adams was one of those people. I just went to Vanward, Ohio, the other day, where she gave—her business gave ten thousand dollars for a butterfly house in a park in Vanward. She employs probably almost two hundred sewers, and we have about five different sewing companies. We still sub contract our sewing, but they do a marvelous job.

SCARPINO: So the sewing is not done at this building?



MILLER: No. We do some sewing but for the most part we let someone else do that. We do everything else. We cut out the patterns. We design it. We market it, sell it, market it, and ship it but someone else does the construction.

SCARPINO: After you sold to your friends and neighbors and family and so on, how did you develop your marketing plan from there?

MILLER: George. George Cook helped us with that. We got a consultant to help us do the marketing. But, we did go to the Chicago gift show, and you know how they say luck is also part of the equation of a successful business? That happened to us, too; probably in several ways, but I can give you an example of that. At the gift show, and the gift shows are in every major city, so there’s not just one. But, it happened to be in Chicago. The gift industry, the Chicago gift show, was owned by the George Little Management. Companies owned the gift shows. They had a party one evening for all of the exhibitors on the roof top of, that was then McCormick Place. So, went to that, and we noticed this darling little girl. She was Asian, and she had little earrings that little girls have, magnets behind their ear and it just sticks, you don’t have pierced ears. We were oohing and ahhing over her. And her mother was there. Her mother, we found out later, went to IU, Indiana University, and all of a sudden the mother said, “Shhh, my husband is speaking.” Her husband was George Little.


MILLER: And so she must have told him about Vera Bradley. The next day we were in the basement of McCormick Place in this little ten-by-ten booth, because we were just beginning. I will say it was a beautiful little booth with fresh flowers and draped fabric, and it looked nice even though if I looked at it today I would probably wonder how we sold anything. But he came down.

SCARPINO: Maybe for the record you could say a little bit about who he was?

MILLER: Well, George Little, his father had started the George Little Management and George and his brother were taking over from the father and they owned several gift shows including the Chicago gift show. They still are in the business, and we still know them. We were pointed out to him. I don’t know, he might have walked through the show. These are thousands of booths, it’s a big show. But the fact that we happened to be with his wife and his little girl at the time and we made the Indiana connection, you know, that six degrees of separation. Connection is important, but we were lucky that we were there and she was there and made that connection.

SCARPINO: Do you think that luck makes an important role in a successful business venture?

MILLER: I think it does. Of course, they always say when you do have something like that happen hopefully you’ve made a good impression. Being people-people, we like to talk to people, and genuinely interested in people. I mean somebody else could have sat next to her and maybe not even talked to her…


MILLER: …but we did.

SCARPINO: I’ve got two more questions I’m going to ask and then I am going to switch to the standard leadership questions that you already have.


SCARPINO: We’ve been talking for a while and so maybe if you want to take a break or …

MILLER: It’s fine. And if you do?

SCARPINO: No, I’m fine. You’re doing all the talking. [laughing]


SCARPINO: I read an article about you where you spoke at DePauw University’s Management Fellows Program.

MILLER: Um hm.

SCARPINO: October 2005 you received the Robert C. MacDermond Medal for Excellence in Entrepreneurship. One of the things that you said when you spoke, or at least it was reported that you said, kind of struck me. You said, “doing business is all about relationships like anything else it’s the people you work with. It’s how you treat them and how they treat you.” I was wondering what you meant by doing business is all about relationships.

MILLER: It is. It is. The people that you hire and I mentioned you need to hire good people that care about your business. It’s about your reps. A friend of mine, when we started, said every time you sign that commission check to a rep you do it with a smile on your face because if they’re making good money you‘re making money. That is so true. It’s about vendors. When we started we had CBD—check before delivery—for fabric, and it’s a good way to do business if you don’t know if somebody can pay. You have certain milestones in your business when you finally get some credit. Everything from our banker to George Cook to our employees to our customers—it’s all about relationships and the name Vera Bradley. One of the reasons we wanted a person’s name was that if you put a person’s name on a business it’s your endorsement; and we think that’s important. So, it’s all about relationships because the brand, and the brand name, is so valuable.

SCARPINO: Do you see yourself in some ways as like the personification of the brand name?

MILLER: That’s a good question.

SCARPINO: The reason I’m asking this is I’ve done a fair amount of reading about your background, and I actually had a graduate student spend some time this summer pulling information together and you seem to be the public face of the company, not your partner.

MILLER: Well we both are in different arenas. Barbara’s husband, Peer Baekgaard, was in the gift business as well. She’s probably better known in the gift business than I am. I seem to be the person that—She does not like public speaking, although she’s very good at it. I seem to be the person who is in the other arena. As you know was in the public arena then as a public servant for the state for a while too.

SCARPINO: Secretary of…

MILLER: . . . Commerce.

SCARPINO: Under Governor Mitch Daniels?


SCARPINO: Do you think that there are differences or similarities in the style and practices between successful male and successful female entrepreneurs and leaders? Are there things that they do similarly and things that they do differently?

MILLER: I think there is a difference. I think there is a difference. I was privileged enough to work with men when I was Secretary of Commerce, some very, very talented, successful businessmen. I think perhaps because of the generation that I am and the fact that, being a teacher and starting Vera Bradley, I’ve almost always been my own boss. But when I worked for the state and my boss was the Governor it made me a better boss because I was the employee. I realized the pressure that is on someone in that position. Also, I was working with men who were either my equal or superior and that had not happened before. I was very aware of that. I was aware of the fact that I desperately wanted to do a good job. I wanted to make them look good. I love to play tennis. Here we go back to sports! And if you are playing doubles in tennis, your job is to make your partner look good. In other words: set up the shot.


MILLER: If you don’t put it away yourself then at least set up the shot so when it comes back your partner can put it away. If I sound competitive, I am. [laughing] I like to win. When I was working, particularly at the state, but also here, and maybe that goes back to teaching. I love it when other people look good because of the way I have done something. I think that’s that team philosophy. I had this miraculous light bulb going off and I thought the first time I have a boss in business and it’s the Governor. [laughing] So that’s pretty heady stuff. He was a boss that I respected, who was definitely a leader. I had a clear vision of what my job was. I was on the other end, but it was exactly the way I felt.

SCARPINO: Did you articulate that vision or did he?

MILLER: He articulated the vision, but he chose me as an entrepreneur. I think that was such a good idea, because I was not only working with the Rolls Royce and the Hondas and the big companies—Lilly’s—but I was also working with a mom and pop shop that makes most of the colored clay that your school, grade school children, work with. They probably had three employees, and they had a wonderful little business. So, I was working with all sizes and all types of businesses. I think they could relate to me and I could relate to them because we’d actually started a business from scratch.

SCARPINO: Do you think that there are any differences, significant differences, in the way men and women approach leadership?

MILLER: I think that statement is too blanket a statement. I think some men approach it in the same way I do and some don’t. Blanket statements are dangerous. I can…

SCARPINO: Well, let’s try it a different way then, if there were a spectrum of leadership…

MILLER: …Um hm…

SCARPINO: …do you think that female leaders would tend to cluster at one part of the spectrum and male leaders at the other with some overlap? Or? Are there any differences and similarities based on gender?

MILLER: I think there probably are differences but I think those differences are fading away. As our image of women changes. I read once: it’s maestro not macho. I see a leader as being more a maestro, more a conductor, than a macho. At least that’s how I like to see business.

SCARPINO: In 1987, five years after you co-founded Vera Bradley, you were recognized by Venture Magazine as Entrepreneur of the Year for the state of Indiana. I’m not a math wiz, but that seems to be about five years from the time you founded the company. How do you account for that level of success that you went from cutting cloth on your pool table to, you know, Entrepreneur of the Year for the State of Indiana?

MILLER: I don’t know. We were so surprised. I remember that T. Boone Pickens was the celebrity at that, was in the Rooftop Ballroom in Indianapolis. They had a reception for the candidates, and we talked to this woman who had an oil refinery in Whiting. And, we were so impressed. She started that. I remember I said before you started typing, before you started recording, I’ve always wanted to belong to a club that wouldn’t have someone like me as a member. That’s how we were feeling at that reception. Oh, my gosh; we’re here, right, we were only five years old. And then, when they announced our name, it was incredible. But they said the reason we won was that we had started a business from scratch.

We started with an idea, with very little money, and kind of did everything, the marketing; the sales. So, we took the award and ran home as fast as we can before they changed their minds. [laughing]

SCARPINO: I don’t think they can that. [laughing] Well, if you had to analyze your own success, I mean, how would you? What do you think the key elements of that success were?

MILLER: Oh, probably, a vision, finding great people to work with, optimistic, energized. Passionate about what we did. Having fun. Being friends. The size we are now. We have about four hundred employees, it’s very disconcerting because I’ll see someone in the hallway and I’m thinking, do they work here? Because we knew everyone and their families and what grade their children were in. We still, to this day, everyone that has a birthday gets a crisp fifty dollar bill and a birthday card signed by us.

SCARPINO: My goodness.

MILLER: And the reason we started that was we were all women when we started, and we knew that if we gave a bonus or anything it would probably go to the grocery store. So we would give a fifty dollar bill and say “this is for you. We want you to buy something for you, do something for you, we don’t want you to spend it on your children or groceries or anything.” And that’s how that started. And we still do it.

SCARPINO: With four hundred employees now…?


SCARPINO: …a lot of birthdays!

MILLER: I think, should we still be doing that? I guess we should…

SCARPINO: You know, ten years later, in 1997, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce recognized you as Business Leader of the Year. So, by 1997 you had become a highly successful entrepreneur and leader recognized by the State Chamber of Commerce. How would you characterize yourself as a leader?

MILLER: I hope I lead by example. I hope I do. I do believe, again, in hiring great people. Give them a clear understanding of what their job is and let them do it. Maybe like the salt shaker in the middle of the table, you have to nudge a little bit, gently. But just let people feel that you appreciate them, that they’re doing a necessary job, a good job. Let them know why they are doing a good job, just not saying you’re doing a great job, but say—well look, you cut this many patterns last week, this week you’ve done this and we have this many mistakes but we’re cutting down on that. Let them actually see what the score is.

SCARPINO: You said in another interview that I read, it was actually November 2005, you were talking about Vera Bradley, and you said you are as enthusiastic about it today as you were twenty three years ago. How do you sustain the enthusiasm for twenty three years?

MILLER: I love it. I do…

SCARPINO: …Actually…

MILLER: I feel every year we have been in business has been the most exciting year. We are opening our own stores now. Every year we keep growing and I don’t mean growing number wise, but our sales increase, profits are good. But, we venture into new areas.

SCARPINO: Such as…?

MILLER: Such as licensing. We license now. We have a stationery line, a rug line, a furniture line, eyeglasses…

SCARPINO: I saw a cookbook on your table out there.

MILLER: We have a cookbook—that was our second cookbook. We have had two now. That cookbook sprung up from—we have a Happy Committee, and it is made up of employees. And, it’s a rotating committee so you are on for maybe a year.

SCARPINO: You said a Happy Committee?

MILLER: It’s called the Happy Committee.

SCARPINO: Okay. I’ll ask why?

MILLER: I took this idea from a friend of mine who’s in business. We plagiarize a lot, too. We hear a good idea we glom onto it right away. They plan our holiday party. We have a family picnic in the fall. Maybe it’s a year for the Olympics and we might at that time—but we can’t do it now—but we’d have a pitch in where everyone would bring a dish for lunch. Those dishes were so good we said, gosh we should do a cookbook; we really, we should do a cookbook with recipes that are very good and not that complicated because we’re all busy people. So, that was the impetus for the first cookbook. And that was successful so we did another one.

SCARPINO: I am going to shift gears here a little bit and ask you the standard leadership questions.


SCARPINO: I know that you’ve seen them ahead of time and I saw that you took some notes, but maybe the fact that we’ve been talking for an hour or so will take some of the pressure off.

MILLER: Sure, all right.

SCARPINO: Again I am going to say for the record for anybody who listens to the interview that these are the questions that we ask everyone we interview for the Tobias Project so there is some basis for comparison over time. If we have time afterwards or are able to schedule the second interview I want to talk to you more about your business and about your philanthropic activities and your involvement in state government. Standard leadership questions start with the basic question, what do you read?

MILLER: Um hm. That’s a good question for today because I woke up early this morning and finished a book. It was Suite Francaise, that’s the name of it, by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian woman and they’ve found—well she was an author and a Jewish woman. And, during World War II they did not publish Jewish authors for a time. I hadn’t thought about that. But anyway, I just finished that book. But, that is an easy question for me to answer because I love biography. I am very excited because September 21st my favorite author is coming to Fort Wayne.

SCARPINO: And who is your favorite author?

MILLER: Doris Kearns Goodwin.


MILLER: And my favorite book is No Ordinary Time about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. My second favorite book is Team of Rivals, rivals about Lincoln’s administration and she wrote that as well. I had met her one other time—I was able to introduce her at IU. She was a speaker and she writes history in such a way that you’re there.


MILLER: And I enjoy it so much.

SCARPINO: Do you read much history?

MILLER: Yes, I enjoy history.

SCARPINO: Do you think a leader should read?

MILLER: Absolutely, yes.

SCARPINO: Okay. Do you ever read about other leaders?


SCARPINO: You mentioned like Lincoln and FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt.

MILLER: Um hm. I like Jack Welch. Biography, or I like a good novel, too, as long as it—I don’t like science fiction. I like something that’s real. But I do like biography.

SCARPINO: Who do you think are important leaders that—living or dead?

MILLER: Well, Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my favorite people. I suppose because she’s a woman but she was also probably a co-president with FDR because she was his eyes and ears and legs when he wasn’t able to do that. When I look back at what she was able to do at the time she did it—it was amazing. I look at our presidents and our governors, some of the business people—when you’re successful and can give back I respect that very much. So, if the leaders are good leaders and some have been very poor leaders, but to assume a responsibility like that says something. Leadership corrupts they say but sometimes it doesn’t. I also added educators.

SCARPINO: As leaders?

MILLER: As leaders. Some of the teachers I had.

SCARPINO: The follow-up question I was going to ask was—who inspired you?

MILLER: Many, many people. Many people. I just couldn’t name any specific one.

SCARPINO: And obviously if somebody goes back and listens to this there were teachers and so on that you named, people that you encountered.


SCARPINO: Are there particular individuals who helped you along the way? Along your way to being a successful business person or being a successful leader?

MILLER: Again, I have to say many people. Experiences have been more help to me than individual people—just experiences. Like the work that I’ve done whether it be in the scholarship office or knowing I didn’t want to be, work in a cafeteria all the time. Just experiences, and with each experience I had someone that I worked with and enjoyed.

SCARPINO: Do you think that somebody who ends up being a successful leader is somebody who has the ability to learn from the experiences that they pass through?

MILLER: Speaking for myself, I hope that I learned something every day. But certainly everyone that I’ve come in contact in a major way has been a great influence on me.

SCARPINO: Do you think that having a mentor or mentors played a role in your development as either a business person or leader?

MILLER: Probably so. Probably so. I just; there isn’t any one person that stands out or two or three people, there have been so many.

SCARPINO: And you mentioned a few, the man from SCORE, and your banker.

MILLER: Yes. Yes.

SCARPINO: Do you mentor other people?

MILLER: I try to. I try to. If somebody calls and wants to ask me a question, I try to always say, yes. Or, employees, or whatever, I try to.

SCARPINO: Is that hard to do sometimes when you get a lot of calls?

MILLER: Not a lot. Not a lot. I particularly, I love going to universities. I went to IU one time and spoke, and it was during lunch. And, we were in a big room, big table. Everyone brought a sack lunch in, and we just talked. They asked questions. That was so much fun to do that.

SCARPINO: It was like a brown bag lunch?

MILLER: Yes. Yes. I think that’s a good way to do it.

SCARPINO: Students were asking the questions?

MILLER: Yes. Students could come in. They have a, it was an entrepreneurial club and students, if they wanted to, could just bring their lunch in and sit down with me. We just talked. They asked questions and we just talked. I enjoyed that.

SCARPINO: What do you try to get across to the students as you were visiting with them?

MILLER: I suppose by doing it in that informal way, I mean I can stand up and tell you the Vera Bradley story and all that, but to get some insight into what kind of person you are, to know that I’m just like everybody else. I’m not on a pedestal. I’m a good person. Pretty logical person. I’m not a genius, I’m not—when you’re a business person unlike; well, I just read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein recently. Now, there’s a genius. I’m not a genius. In certain professions, like physics, you need to be a genius or it helps anyway. But being a business person is about the same thing. It is just choosing the right people, having a vision. It’s—it seems pretty obvious to me how you can be a good business person.

SCARPINO: Well, maybe if it was that obvious there would be a lot more successful business people! [laughing]

MILLER: You know when you go into a restaurant—of course that’s a hard; that’s a tough business.

SCARPINO: Yes it is.

MILLER: And you see, you critique businesses and you think, oh if they’d only do this or they’d only do that.

SCARPINO: Do you find yourself doing that?

MILLER: Oh, all the time. All the time. All the time. And I’m sure people do it with us, too. Why don’t they do this? Why don’t they do that? It’s tweaking all the time. Tweaking. Continuous improvement, never being satisfied.

SCARPINO: Do you think that maybe that’s one of the reasons why Vera Bradley has been so successful?

MILLER: I think so. We are never satisfied. We tweak all the time.

SCARPINO: What do you think are the qualities that distinguish effective leadership?

MILLER: Well, I think you want to have integrity, honesty. Great work ethic, be positive. Trust your instincts. Let people do what they do best and hire people that complement what you do. And not a clone of you, but fill in your gaps.

SCARPINO: How do you find those people?

MILLER: That’s hard. I’ll tell you the hardest part of a business for me is hiring someone and then find out at a later time that it is not a fit. That you have to let someone go. Because I feel that I’ve let them down. Because, perhaps I didn’t give a clear vision of what I wanted. And, it’s very tough to let somebody go. Very tough. But, on the other hand, you think well maybe this isn’t the right spot for them and you’re doing them a favor by saying this just isn’t working. You need to find something else. That’s the hardest.

SCARPINO: Is this something you’ve had to do very often?

MILLER: Fortunately, not too often, but it happens. It happens. Or, as we’ve grown, perhaps the job has outgrown them, and you try to find another place for them and sometimes there isn’t.

SCARPINO: It actually occurred to me as you were talking about jobs outgrowing people and stuff, there must have been some people—this isn’t one of the standard leadership questions, this just popped into my head—but there must have been some major technological revolution in this business in the years that you had it.

MILLER: Oh, we didn’t even have a computer to start with. George helped us put our first computer in. And then we used to cut our fabric. Well, we went from the orange-handled Fiskars to a motorized razor, ten inch razor blade, it looked like a jigsaw. I was always so worried someone would cut fingers off. Well, when we were able to justify buying a computerized cutting machine, it was a happy day for me for two reasons. It did a better job, and it meant no one was going to cut a finger off. We were able to do in eight minutes what it took us an hour to do before. So, the technology—and now we just opened a distribution center, and it’s better than Disney World. We have such technology.

SCARPINO: That’s a distribution center for your products?

MILLER: Yes. Our raw materials, finished goods, inventory. It’s about a two hundred and forty thousand square foot distributions center.

SCARPINO: Where is it?

MILLER: It’s just on the south side of Fort Wayne. We moved in, in January. We are so technically advanced now compared to where we were. It’s just fabulous to see.

SCARPINO: So, how do you climb that learning curve?

MILLER: You hire people who know how to do that.

SCARPINO: But you still must have had—must have needed to have vision to realize that was what you had to do. There had to be points on the horizon somewhere?

MILLER: Yes, and again, because we used to be right here in this building where we’re having this interview. There’s a point, I can remember before we had our first fax machine. We didn’t even have a fax machine. And we kept saying, now remember, most of our customers—we don’t sell to big department stores. Most of our customers are small specialty shops. That’s where we wanted to be, and that’s where we still are. Because we wanted—we don’t want the big department store. They’re more cookie cutter and so most of those people don’t need a lot of technology so we had to convince them they needed a fax machine. Not everyone, but now of course the store owners are much younger probably than we are for the most part, and they’re okay.

SCARPINO: Do you sell on the internet?

MILLER: We do.


MILLER: We do.

SCARPINO: So is there a Vera Bradley website, and people can order with their credit card right off the website.

MILLER: Yes. We have a great website. That just happened about three years ago.

SCARPINO: What criteria do you use to define successful leadership?

MILLER: Successful leadership? In business?

SCARPINO: We can start with that.

MILLER: Are you going to say in business?

SCARPINO: Yes, in business.

MILLER: Well, I suppose you’re a successful leader if your business is able to pay its bills. That means you’re going to stay in business a little bit longer. If you have people that buy into your vision and like what they do. I want my employees to walk in the door every day with kind of a bounce in their step, maybe not every day, but most days. And who are never afraid to walk in your office and come up and say—what I’d love is someone to come in and say, I just had the best idea. Also, to grow that brand. As far as a leader it means if you’re able to grow your business the way you want it or even beyond what you thought, you’ve probably been a successful leader.

SCARPINO: Do you think that it’s more important for a business leader to be able to sell the vision or the product?

MILLER: The vision. I think the vision because then you’ll have people who sell the product. A leader has the vision, and the managers do it. That’s a hard lesson when you start a business by leading and doing. You know, you do everything. And then there comes a time when you need to manage, and then you need to lead. I remember very well a day I was out in shipping and I got these looks like, we don’t want you here! You’re messing up our system. You realize that your job description has changed.


MILLER: Being an entrepreneur that is what happens. Your job description changes too.

SCARPINO: I’m going to follow up on what you just said and sort of bring one of our standard questions into focus. Do you see a distinction between leadership and management?


SCARPINO: What is the distinction in your mind?

MILLER: Yes. Well, the leaders are the ones who have the vision, have the ideas, and can communicate it in such a way that your managers understand what you want and your employees do too. And the managers do it. There is a difference, and that was a lesson that I had to learn, and I think probably every entrepreneur stumbles on that. You are so used to being in control…


MILLER: And you still need to be in control, but you have to let go, to let other people do it. Chances are they will do a better job.

SCARPINO: Do you think that is a measure of an effective leader, knowing when to let go?

MILLER: Yes. Yes. I do think that.

SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you a couple of questions that sort of pull together some of the things we talked about. They both relate to your concept and style of leadership. The first question is—how would you characterize your own idea or concept of leadership?

MILLER: Now, say that again.

SCARPINO: How would you characterize your own concept of leadership?

MILLER: Ooh… One thing that’s very important is to treat people like you’d like to be treated. And, again, that’s a no-brainer. Also to make sure—I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker one time, and it’s people sitting around a conference table like we’re sitting at right now and every person has one of those balloons over their head. One balloon has an orange the other has a banana the other has a pear and the leader’s saying now we all understand this, right? [laughing] So, it’s like that children’s game where you start telling the next person to you something, and then it comes out all different. To give a clear message to your people what you want and, here’s the maestro again, what that team will look like when everyone does their specific job. That’s what a leader does. They inspire.

SCARPINO: Related to that how would you describe to your style as a leader?

MILLER: Well, I worked with Mickey Mauer at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

SCARPINO: We should probably say for the record who Mickey Mauer is.

MILLER: Mickey Mauer is an incredibly successful man who served as Secretary of Commerce, after me and he was President of the Indian Economic Development Corporation. The Governor was Chairman of the Board and I served as CEO. Our styles were different but I think that was the strength of that team. He said I was a push over. [laughing] He was stronger but we were fair. I think we had the same vision. Even though our styles were a little different I think we complemented each other and we’re great friends yet. I think you can have different leadership styles. It doesn’t mean that there’s one style; just like there are; everyone’s different. You have to be you; I think that’s important. You have to be who you are. When you are starting out some times you think you should be a certain way or being a leader is, I don’t know what.

SCARPINO: Yelling…

MILLER: Yelling at people or whatever. And I had to go through some of that I think because you have to know yourself and that isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

SCARPINO: So, maybe, without leading the witness, do think it’s possible that part of the person’s development as a leader is figuring out who you are?

MILLER: Yes, very much so. I remember, remember I said I like biography. I remember reading Madeline Albright’s biography. When she was asked to be Secretary of State, and I’ve heard this from other leaders, she started doubting herself—whether she was up to the job, whether she was capable. So she called Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sandra Day O’Connor said I had that same feeling when I was asked to sit on the Supreme Court. I think many leaders take a position not feeling terribly confident about it. Maybe you’re prepared, but when you start on a new venture there are many unknowns. I felt that way when Mitch Daniels asked me to be Secretary of Commerce.

SCARPINO: But you were willing to walk through the door into the unknown? [laughing]

MILLER: I did. I did. That was a big decision.

SCARPINO: I asked you a couple of questions about your concept of leadership and your style of leadership. What do you think has worked well for you about your own concept and style of leadership? What’s worked out?

MILLER: I think that I know who I am. I’m the same person. I’m the same person to everyone. Now, that’s what I think. Maybe somebody else would say differently. I truly believe in people. I’m a people person. I like to work with people. I like to hear ideas from other people. I’m not a micromanager.

SCARPINO: Do you think an effective leader can micromanage and be successful?

MILLER: Very tough. You’re not going to grow very much if you micromanage.

SCARPINO: Are there things that haven’t worked so well in terms of your concept and style of leadership?

MILLER: There’s something I think—if there was an area I need to improve on and there are many—I would say I have ideas. I have a lot of ideas, but I tend to be enthusiastic about them and tend to present them before I have thought about it and how to best sell the idea. Because, an idea is only as good as how well you’ve sold it, because you have to have other people buy into it. I can do a much better job. I get an idea and I’m so excited to share it that I’ll just blurt it out and then people say that’s a terrible idea. I need some diplomacy. I need to know how to sell something better.

SCARPINO: As you think about your own style of leadership, and we’ve spent quite a while talking about that, can you think of an event or incident that really demonstrates or brings into focus your style of leadership?

MILLER: Well, it was interesting when I left Vera Bradley I had to take a sabbatical when I served as Secretary of the Commerce. In effect we started a business because the Governor abolished the Department of Commerce and started the Indiana Economic Government Corporation and when he asked me to do that…

SCARPINO: And you were the first person to occupy that position? Is that correct?

MILLER: Yes, I was the first Secretary of Commerce. When he said corporation, I said I think I can do that. I wasn’t sure about the Department of Commerce but when he said corporation, which was a quasi-public/private corporation. I think that building that company, which is what you were doing, was something that I had done before. And here’s the self confidence thing. Even though I was somewhat shaky—when I knew I had Mickey, I knew I had Nate Feldman, I knew I had Governor Daniels and some talented, talented people that we had hired, it was a team and I can do that. I can do that. You need to be able to inspire people to do their best.

SCARPINO: Did you see any differences in between being a leader in business and private enterprise and being a leader in government?

MILLER: Well, the difference was you were in the public eye. Instead of a business I was trying to help hundreds of businesses—in the state and out of the state and out of the country, even, and help them to either come to the state, stay in the state, grow in the state. The scope was very different and the fact that you were in the public eye. Here we can be somewhat anonymous about our decisions, and we can say yes this is what we’re going to do. But, there, being in the public eye was different. The responsibility, I felt, to hundreds of businesses was a big responsibility.

SCARPINO: So, what were you selling as Secretary of Commerce?

MILLER: I was selling Indiana. We were trying to be the most business friendly state we could be. How do you do that? Just like we do Vera Bradley. Customer service, if we had; if somebody calls you don’t get that call you call, you call them back. The sheer volume—I’ll tell you what was so difficult—email!


MILLER: Can you imagine how many emails you get in a government position now? And you know in your own business…

SCARPINO: I know how many I get. I can’t imagine how many you got… [laughing]

MILLER: It was overwhelming, so how to figure out how to do that. We made a pledge to…

SCARPINO: Did you answer your own emails? Is that a fair question?

MILLER: I did; I had an assistant, who went through them and tried to prioritize because I’ll bet I had a hundred a day sometimes, and it was just; that’s about all you could get done if you didn’t prioritize.

SCARPINO: There’s kind of a literature that exists about leaders and leadership and some of the people who write that literature want to argue that an individual’s views of leadership are sometimes formed in a particular event or a particular crisis. Was there an event or crisis that helped you forge your view of leadership?

MILLER: I don’t think so. You asked a similar question before about leaders and I’m fuzzy on both of those measures. Maybe that has to do with—maybe I’m not focused enough, but there have been so many events. Maybe that goes back to dabbling in high school. I have had so many different—I serve on a lot of boards; that has helped me. And, when I speak to students I tell them to try to hold positions of officers in organizations in their, whatever it might be—a position where you will be leading one, two, three people, or whatever, because there’s nothing like experience…

SCARPINO: …Um hmm…

MILLER: …to give you that self confidence and for you to learn. Learn by doing.

SCARPINO: Do you think leaders are born or made?

MILLER: Both. Both. You can become a better leader. I can become a better leader. Every day I can—there’s your continuous improvement. But, somehow I was born a curious person, and I think curiosity is very important.

SCARPINO: Element of leadership?


SCARPINO: Do you think it’s important or necessary for a leader to have a positive and reasonably well supported set of goals and projected outcomes?


SCARPINO: Can you give an example out of your own career?

MILLER: I’m a lister. I like to make lists, and I like to check them off, too. Again, being a leader you have to communicate to your people where you’re going. The old Yogi Berra: If you don’t know where you’re going you’re going to end up somewhere else.

SCARPINO: Do you think it’s possible for great leaders to pursue goals or outcomes of questionable utility or morality? In other words, to put that question in plain English, would you consider people like Idi Amin and Adolph Hitler to be leaders? Al Capone . . .?

MILLER: . . . Well they were obviously leaders, weren’t they? There’s no disputing they were leaders. But, it’s so important to have integrity and honesty. It’s so important. Yes, they were leaders. If you have millions of people following you, you’re a leader.

SCARPINO: Do you think there’s a difference between a leader and a demagogue?

MILLER: Yes. Yes. I suppose it’s the—it‘s human nature. Some people are better than others. Fortunately, in our country if someone is doing something that isn’t right they‘re often found out.

SCARPINO: We’ve been talking for about two hours which is…

MILLER: Have we really?

SCARPINO: …which is about the time you promised me. Actually, we haven’t had the recorder for quite that long but I would, I’m going to ask you one more question…

MILLER: …Um hmm…

SCARPINO: …and then if it is possible at some point in the future I’d like to have an opportunity to talk to you about government service and philanthropy…

MILLER: …Um hmm…

SCARPINO: …and some of the things we didn’t bring it up. Here’s the question I want to ask you. Based on the things we talked about today is there anything that I should have asked you, or that you’d like to say, that I simply didn‘t have the insight to ask you?


SCARPINO: This is the pitch over the plate for you…[laughing]

MILLER: Yes. Yes.

SCARPINO: Anything that you think that I should have brought up?

MILLER: Well, you said we were going to talk about philanthropy next.

SCARPINO: I would really like to talk to you, and not give it short shrift.


SCARPINO: I realize that I have; you’ve been kind for over two hours.

MILLER: I feel like I’ve been a broken record because it’s all fairly simple when you break it down. That is, I guess what I’ve been saying—you have to have the vision; the drive; the competence; the team; you know, the right people, and bring out the best in people.

SCARPINO: But, you know, as I listen to you talk about those various subjects, the thing that keeps running through my mind is that if everybody could that we’d all be leaders. I mean, there is something people who…

MILLER: Well, you have to be a risk taker. I guess we haven’t talked about that, and you have to be a risk taker. I brought this; I kind of went through; I tear things out. And, this was kind of cute. I just; it says, don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, that‘s where the fruit is.

SCARPINO: Do you think that is a quality of successful leaders? Knowing when to take a risk?

MILLER: Yes. And to be curious and not be afraid if a door opens. And you—and a calculated risk, calculated, to go through it, because you may have an experience far beyond anything you ever imagined, and it will mean so much to your life. And I was; whether I decided to go to college. What a huge decision that was because I knew I was going to have to work. But that also was good. Wanting is okay. And, starting a business was a risk, a calculated risk. We had a backup plan because we had a bread winner there in our husbands. Saying, yes, to working for the State was a risk. I remember one of my friends when I—I commuted on the weekends. I had to live in Indianapolis when I did that, and I have a wonderful husband.

SCARPINO: It was ’04 to ’06, is that right?

MILLER: I started campaigning for him in May of ’04, and that was a full-time campaign. I was in a parade almost every Saturday. On the road, but then he won the election, and so my tenure as Secretary of Commerce was January to January ’05. But had I not done that I would have missed one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, and one of my friends when I was home on the weekends said, what are you doing, you’re missing out on life? And I thought that is so wrong. I am having such an experience that this will be a huge part of my life. So, that’s the difference maybe between us.

SCARPINO: And you end up feeding that experience back into your business?

MILLER: I think so. I think so. It was tough coming back because I was gone a little over a year and a half. And things change. And so, it was tough coming back. I learned to be a better employer because I had a boss and had built a company, the IEDC, and built a team. I didn’t do it by myself. I had a lot of help. I just think that it made me a better person.

SCARPINO: Well, I thank you very much for giving me two hours of your time this afternoon. I’ll look forward to following this up at some point in the future. Thank you very much.

MILLER: Thank you.