Corie Barry never saw herself in one of the top jobs at Best Buy.
That began to change in the fall of 2012 when she met her new boss at the nation's largest electronics chain. Barry was a vice president at the time, waiting to meet the company's next chief financial officer and fully expecting a man in a suit.
Instead, she did a double take when the petite Sharon McCollam breezed in, wearing an impeccable dress and designer shoes along with an air of confidence and friendliness.
"I literally thought I might run up and hug her," said Barry, 42, in a recent interview over sushi at the company's Richfield headquarters. "I felt like my whole life had changed."
In many ways, it did. McCollam, who became a key figure in Best Buy's storied turnaround, immediately saw potential in Barry and began grooming Barry to be her successor. Last year, when McCollam retired, Barry replaced her as the CFO of the $40 billion company.
Soon after, Barry was stunned to discover she was one of only about 70 female CFOs in the Fortune 500, or less than 15 percent. It was a stark reminder of how much of a glass ceiling remains in the executive suites and boardrooms of corporate America. While growing in number, there are still only about 32 female CEOs among the nation's largest 500 companies.
"It really blew my mind when I first looked up the stats," Barry said at a recent women in business event in Minneapolis.
But it's been a different story at Best Buy in recent years. Barry is part of a major sea change in the retailer's C-Suite, where women now hold nearly half the positions — and at times have outnumbered men. And 40 percent of Best Buy's board members are women, compared with the nationwide average of 20 percent.
In addition to matching online prices and partnering with some of the tech industry's biggest brands, company executives and industry analysts say a key ingredient of Best Buy's turnaround has been building a diverse and high-caliber leadership team.
"It's no accident that it had a good number of women on it," Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly said. "For us, it's part of our secret weapon."
It's a significant change for a company long dominated by men, as well as a stark contrast to the headlines coming out of Silicon Valley these days, where recent sexual harassment scandals at places like Uber have given the tech industry a reputation for hostility to women.
In her role as CFO, Barry has found herself in high demand as a speaker. With a "lean in"-type spirit, she has been encouraging women to have more confidence in themselves and be more courageous in articulating their ambitions.
"Ladies, there's a big difference between being a braggart and advocating for yourself," she told graduates when delivering the commencement address at her alma mater, the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., whose board she recently joined.
And she speaks passionately about the importance of having not just mentors, but sponsors, who will lift you up and challenge you at the same time, as McCollam did for her.
"Sharon was equal parts advocate and critic in all of the best possible ways, because she was from day one hell-bent on trying to help me advance my career," Barry said. "But she knew that in order to do that, there's going to need to be some tough conversations and hard feedback along the way."
The feedback was often immediate and sometimes painful to hear, such as being told not to play with her hair in meetings or pushed to sometimes be the one with a more controversial point of view in the room.
"Once I got my head around it, it was so incredibly useful," Barry said. "I think she always had bigger dreams for me than maybe I even had for myself."
For her part, McCollam said she knew she was only going to be at Best Buy for three to four years. Barry was the obvious choice to replace her, she said, because of her deep understanding of the business, ability to "see the big picture beyond the numbers," willingness to keep learning, integrity and love of people.
And she proved herself to be a star performer, McCollam said in an e-mail.
McCollam said she learned firsthand how important it is to have advocates in advancing her own career, though in her case they were never other women.
"There was no greater privilege in my career than to do everything in my power to see that such an extraordinary executive and compassionate person achieve their professional dream," she said of Barry.
McCollam wasn't the only one pushing Barry. In 2015, Joly asked Barry to step in as the interim president of the Geek Squad. She hesitated, given that most of her experience was in finance.
"I said, 'Why me?' " Barry said. "He looked at me and said, 'Well, why wouldn't you?' For me that was … 'Boy, am I holding myself to a high enough standard around what else it is I'm capable of?' "
When Joly arrived as CEO in September 2012, there were only two women in Best Buy's C-Suite. The company was in the midst of a crisis, not only as it grappled with the Amazon factor, but also as it recovered from the departure of the company's previous CEO, Brian Dunn, who stepped down after it was revealed he had an inappropriate relationship with a female employee.
Joly immediately set a new tone from the top.
"He was as out loud as I've ever heard any leader be about the importance of diversity on a leadership team," said Barry, noting that he quickly backed it up by picking McCollam as one of his first key hires.
While emphasizing that it's broader than just gender, Joly says he's always seen diversity as an "essential element" of corporate success in bringing different skills and styles to the table. Part of his view was informed by his background at McKinsey & Co., which has done many studies showing multiple benefits from having a diverse leadership team, and at Minnetonka-based hotel company Carlson, where he worked with prominent female leaders such as Marilyn Nelson.
Today, other top female executives at Best Buy include Shari Ballard, president of multichannel retail; Kamy Scarlett, who was recently promoted to human resources chief; and Trish Walker, head of services.
Barry admits it was daunting to replace McCollam, who was considered a rock star by Wall Street. So much so that when the company announced her departure and Barry's promotion last year, the stock tumbled 7 percent. Barry took a screenshot of the stock drop that day and keeps it in her office.
"It's a good humility reminder," she said.
These days Best Buy's stock has been trading near record highs despite the tough retail environment, a sign that investors are gaining even more confidence in Best Buy's team and strategy.
"In the end, Wall Street respects results," said David Schick, lead retail analyst with Consumer Edge Research.
He added that Barry has done a great job transitioning into the CFO role, noting that she had a big hand in the company's turnaround, too.
Now Barry is trying to pay it forward. She is executive sponsor of Best Buy's Women's Employee Network, an internal group that sets up mentoring circles and holds an annual summit.
The company still has a ways to go, she said, especially in recruiting more women to don blue shirts in its stores, where the workforce tends to be male-dominated.
Allison Peterson, president of e-commerce at Best Buy, said Barry has already become a role model for many young people within the company. Not only do people respect her because she's smart and has risen through the ranks, but she's approachable and genuine, she said.
"She inspires a ton of people," Peterson said. "Every time they hear her speak, they leave in awe."
After growing up in the small town of Cambridge, Minn., Barry sometimes marvels at her journey. Her father sometimes does, too.
She recalled at a recent talk how her father, an artist, once remarked that she now works for "the Man."
No, she quipped back. "Dad, I am the Man."
The audience full of early to midcareer women erupted into cheers.