Innovate May 2017

Empowering Women Each Step Of The Way

Written By: Alyssa Ramos


Sitting on a throne of orange and blue collegiate wristlets, handbags and a throw blanket, CEO Barbara Bradley Baekgaard gave a dose of her warm cadence and spitfire humor. And much like her handbag line, Baekgaard’s colorful personality captivated the room.

The co-founder of the American handbag and luggage company, Vera Bradley, shared a wealth of stories at the University of Florida’s Eighth Annual Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium. As the keynote speaker, Baekgaard’s experience in business reflected common themes of the symposium: collaboration, confidence and courage.

On Thursday, around 500 attendees composed of community members, UF faculty and students listened as female entrepreneurs shared their insights. This year, the symposium was held in the Reitz Union Grand Ballroom where attendees were treated to lunch, advice from a panel of female entrepreneurs and of course, Vera Bradley pencil cases to take home in the new blue (Cuban Blue) nonetheless.

Tickets sold out, and due to popular demand, the organizing committee had to put a cap on the number of people for the morning session of the event.

Nola Miyasaki, executive director of outreach and incubation, attributed its success to Baekgaard, the engaging guest speakers and the event’s excellent marketing. “(The speakers) exceeded my expectations. I was really impressed by all of them,” Miyasaki said. “I have to say my favorite part of the conference was having Barb here. She was just so funny, interesting, thoughtful and insightful.”

Leah Lytle, founder of Artsy Adobe and winner of the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award, led a conversation with the handbag mogul during the lunch break. Baekgaard discussed how she founded her brand, her bold attitude and her old-school approach to her company culture with her co-founder Patricia Miller.

“We have a sisterhood, we truly do,” Baekgaard said. “I don’t even know people’s titles … I go by relationships and how you feel about someone and if they fit in with this family, do they believe in you.”

Relationship building is a main priority in the Vera Bradley work culture and it shows. Baekgaard admires everyone she works with. Even after spending a long work day with her employees, she’ll insist on going to dinner with them afterward.

“A lot people in business say, don’t hire your friends and family, I’m the opposite of it. Don’t hire all your friends and family – that’s not what I mean – but choose the ones…that will follow you, the ones that believe in you.”

Lytle introduced Vera Bradley as a brand that shook up the handbag industry and helped the market for specialty stores like Artsy Abode. It all started with one vibrant idea, bits of fabric and the gumption to just do it. Her success seems arduous, but Baekgaard said what seems almost obvious – hone your strengths and be true to yourself.

“We are who we are. We are women designing for women, and I know what I want in a bag and how long this strap should be,” Baekgaard said. “I think we are honest and real.

Speakers like Jennifer Ransaw Smith, founder of Brand iD, and Naomi Whittel, founder of Reserveage Nutrition, echoed Baekgaard’s takeaways.

Smith gave a humorous yet relatable outlook on balancing her role as a mother and as an entrepreneur. Smith’s presentation constituted eight lessons about the sacrifices made in order to be an entrepreneur. Though above all, she encouraged women to embrace their goals and go with their gut feeling.

Whittel, a bit more systematic, broke down the idea of thinking strategically and finding a focus during the entrepreneurial process. She outlined what she called the three M’s: margin, materiality and momentum. She shared how she beat the odds through perseverance and seeking sponsorship or what she calls an active form of mentorship.

“I say be bold whatever it is that you want to be an expert in, assume that, follow the road map of those you see as experts,” Whittel said.

The panel of female entrepreneurs constituted Kim Wilson, the founder of Social News Desk, Nicole Irving, the founder of Irving Publications and Michele Brewer, co-founder of Adam’s Rib Co. Sharing their personal stories, they showed that entrepreneur ship relies on creating a support system that works.

This is the first year that this symposium has been opened to the public, and it drew a wide array of women from the community and students from different majors. Ariella Bak, 21, who learned about the event through a friend, is a public health major at UF. Bak has always devised, what she calls, weird business ideas, and she sought out this opportunity to learn more about entrepreneurship.

“They kind of gave us their own perspectives and walked us through their journeys to see what they went through to get to where they are today,” Bak said.

Jaclyn Horton, a 20-year-old accounting major at UF, attended the event last year when it was held in the University Auditorium with only 250 people. Horton said she preferred this year’s set-up.

“It was a more fun, interactive experience because we got to sit with other people at our table that we didn’t know and talk to them, rather than just being in a lecture hall and sitting in a formal row,” Horton said.

Such female empowerment inspired people in the community, such as UF data analyst for teaching and technology Beth Hathaway, and Black C Art Gallery Director, Allison Good Vandenend, to carve out their own niches.

Now, they plan to increase personal development and hone in on what they’re passionate about. Hathaway and Vandenend said they jotted down book recommendations and took note of integrating their passions into their work lives.

“I want to come back next year,” Vandenend said. “I thought it was very well done, and I’m interested who else they’ll get and what I can learn.” 

ALYSSA RAMOS is a second year Journalism major at the University of Florida with a minor in French. She is an aspiring magazine journalist, a fashion enthusiast, and a Netflix binger with hopes of telling people’s stories through all forms of media. For now, she is still honing her writing skills, but she’s always in search of a good book and a strong cup of coffee.

Leave a Comment