Julie Gilbert often describes her life in parables. She tells of bringing a smile to the face of a homeless man when she cranked up the Beach Boys and jumped out of her car to dance with him. She once earned the trust of an abused high school girl simply by showing up week after week, and listening.
But for the 37-year-old Best Buy Co. Inc. executive, a story from her days growing up in a small South Dakota town seems particularly illuminating as she strives to help transform Best Buy from a company built -- as she likes to say, "by guys and for guys" -- into one that is a great place for women to work and shop.
When she was 8, Gilbert and her friends decided to plant a giant community garden. They sketched out pumpkins and radishes and dreamed of a bountiful harvest. Then they put a shovel into the hard, dry soil. Even bouncing on the spade with both feet yielded little more than blisters and frustration.
Gilbert ditched her pals and ran to the coffee shop. Rebuffed by farmer after farmer, she finally persuaded Ronnie Louder to come plow their humble plot.
Victory? Not quite, recalled Gilbert, during a recent interview at Best Buy's Richfield headquarters. "When I got back, my friends didn't treat me very well," she said. "In their mind, I wasn't there, so I must've been goofing off."
Then Louder showed up. He plowed their little plot in 15 minutes. "Suddenly, everybody's cheering. We're back engaged," Gilbert said. "But they hadn't put a value on what it took to reach out and convince the farmer to bring his tractor."
Best Buy appears to have put some value in Gilbert's persuasive abilities, promoting her in July to senior vice president in charge of increasing the number of women who shop at the electronics retailer's 1,200 stores.
Women influence about 45 percent of consumer electronics purchases, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. That adds up to about $90 billion spent each year in a $200 billion industry.
Best Buy, which historically has focused on young, male shoppers, has already widened aisles, toned down loud music and harsh lighting and added personal shopping assistants in some stores. Until about a 18 months ago the retailer controlled $10 billion of that $90 billion female market, Gilbert said. But recent efforts have increased that by $3 billion, in part because of work she has done through a program she started in 2003 called WOLF, or the Women's Leadership Forum.
The program is the keystone of her seven-year career at Best Buy. And though she may not yet be hearing widespread cheers, as in the childhood story, she has taken WOLF from a dream -- literally -- pounded out on a laptop computer in the wee hours of the morning, to a program that includes about 20,000 of Best Buy's 140,000 workers.
Gilbert's goal with WOLF was simple: to help women become well-rounded leaders at work and in life.
"My goal was to unleash the talents of employees who don't have official power ... by purposefully creating an environment where we'd support each other, instead of picking each other apart," said Gilbert, who worked on WOLF in addition to her normal duties for the first 18 months.
She started by forming "WOLF packs," small groups of women and a few men (who had to apply) who met regularly. Pack meetings taught women better business skills -- such as reading profit-and-loss statements -- helped them make contacts with other women who had different or more advanced skills, and tapped the power of many minds to generate specific ways to make Best Buy a better company -- inside and out -- for women.
She formed partnerships with a handful of nonprofits, and made volunteering a requirement.
In the early days, Gilbert was taunted in hallways by howling men and shunned from meetings or work parties. Someone scratched the doors on her car, and the keys to her home were stolen.
"I was challenging the old-boys network, which is very, very powerful," she said. "It creates a lot of tension in the system."
But the program started getting bottom-line results. Within the first year and a half, turnover among women declined 5.7 percent. It was worth about $5 million to the company in training and recruitment costs -- an amount that exceeded the budget for the program, Gilbert said.
In the past year, the number of female job applicants at Best Buy has increased 37 percent; the number of female general managers has increased 40 percent. Since 2005, the number of female Geek Squad agents has nearly quadrupled.
Other results go beyond the bottom line.
A job-sharing program grew out of the work, as did a pamphlet for parents about Internet safety for children. The work inspired a new line of Liz Claiborne bags and accessories for laptops, phones, MP3s and cameras that just arrived in Best Buy stores. And this year, recognizing that highly organized women (and yes, men) often get holiday shopping done early, Best Buy extended its normal 30-day return policy to run through Jan. 25 for purchases after Nov. 1.
"Julie brings this amazing energy to the cause," said Tim Sheehan, Gilbert's boss. "It's infectious and it really gets people thinking about the business in different ways."
Up the silver maple
Gilbert arrived at Best Buy in 2000, after getting burned out by eight years of 100-plus-hour workweeks as a tax consultant at Deloitte and Touche in Minneapolis and New York. She helped launch the Virgin Mobile cell phone unit in Best Buy stores, and was instrumental in building the lucrative Magnolia Home Theater unit by creating living room experiences for buyers, complete with sofas and lighting.
She was on a fast track. But on store visits, male executives ignored her, she says, shaking hands and greeting her male colleagues who often were lower on the totem pole. Female employees hugged her, however, saying they rarely saw female executives in Best Buy stores.
Then one day two things happened. A female employee confided to Gilbert that women simply didn't fit in at Best Buy. And a senior executive complimented Gilbert's work, but said she'd made powerful enemies -- from women higher up the ladder -- women Gilbert says she'd never met.
From a dream, a vision
The combination caused a fitful night. A dream called her back to her childhood days in Draper, S.D., current population 92, when she would shimmy up the giant silver maple in the family's front yard and listen to coyotes howl in all directions.
In the dream, Gilbert said, she was back in the tree. The howls came from women reaching out to other women through the darkness. Gilbert awoke realizing she had to "give voice to the lost wolves who want to be heard and respected."
Gilbert said she knew instantly it would be her calling, though she wasn't sure Best Buy would embrace such an in-your-face shake-up.
But Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson surprised her. Speaking to an audience recently to introduce Gilbert, he said that he found the idea "highly eccentric, very, very unusual and brilliant." He also said he knew it would be "incredibly contentious, because anything that matters is." He and other top executives ultimately agreed to provide Gilbert cover while she developed the program.
Gilbert credits her resilience in male-dominated businesses to growing up sandwiched between two brothers and watching both parents work hard. Russell and Janet Hurst ran a restaurant and gas station along Interstate 90 and also supplied oil to farmers. When she was 6, her father sat her down with a stack of accounts receivable to copy, determined to teach her about business.
Gilbert was a tomboy who wore her brothers' clothes and learned how to hang sheetrock and fix car engines. She built forts out of straw and rafts out of tractor tires. When she was 8, she got a job marking cans at the grocery store. As a teenager, she cleaned motel rooms.
Her life couldn't be more different today. She lives in New York, drawing energy from fashion, ethnic diversity and the high-powered lifestyle. During weekly commutes to Minnesota, she stays with her parents and regularly sees her two brothers, who also live in the Twin Cities.
Gilbert travels the country to give motivational speeches, and recently spent 10 days in South Africa spreading her message of female empowerment through business.
There are moments of doubt every day, she said, but the determination that grew out of her rural South Dakota upbringing remains.
"People are threatened by the work I do," she said. "What gets me over that is that my scoreboard is very different than many people. I'm not motivated to be CEO of Best Buy. I'm motivated to leave a legacy that's global, that extends beyond Best Buy. And it makes me very strong and steady in my point of view and in my conviction."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335