Melissa Barra was named one of the 50 most powerful Latinas in business by the Association for Latino Professionals for America. As Sleep Number’s senior vice president and chief sales, services and strategy officer, she says her personal recognition also is a reflection on the company’s culture of individuality and inclusion. Sleep Number stands out as one of the few public companies in America where the board of directors has 50/50 gender parity. Women have 40% of senior-management positions at the smart bed maker, distributor and retailer. Barra has gradually added responsibilities, earlier this summer becoming head of all sales functions on top of her other duties. (Some answers have been edited)
Q: Tell me a little of your background.
A: I was born in Honduras and actually grew up in a number of different countries in Latin America. My mother is American, my father was from Honduras, and as I grew up we moved a lot because of their careers. My father worked in the Inter-American Development Bank — it is very similar to the World Bank — and my mother was a CFO for Citibank in a number of Central American countries.
Q: What did you learn from moving around so much in your youth?
A: I lived in Honduras, El Salvador and Panama. That just generated an appreciation for diverse experiences and different cultures and different ways of doing and thinking about things. It created a significant wanderlust in my life.
Q: Tell me more about your recognition as one of the 50 most powerful Latinas in business.
A: Being recognized among a group of such talented women is an honor, but it’s also a recognition of our culture of individualization at Sleep Number and the opportunities that we have to grow and contribute. I tend to think of myself as a business person and not necessarily categorically as a female, Latina businessperson. Having said that, I am very conscious that I am a part of a very small group of people — that 4% of women of color who are in a C-Suite role. And I take that responsibility very seriously as a driver and advocate for diversity and inclusion because I believe that drives better business and community outcomes.
Q: How proactively does Sleep Number work at being more inclusive throughout the organization?
A: It’s the very basics of thinking about your talent very comprehensively. It starts with measuring — knowing about your diversity numbers — and again diversity in many different ways including thought and opinion. Be able to measure and understand where you are at and then be deliberate about either setting goals or establishing the processes so that you have a diverse talent pipeline. That starts with [talent] acquisition and continues on with development and retention. It’s an entire system of being conscious and focused on it, and we believe in that and believe in individualization, and we believe that drives better outcomes for the company.
Q: You paused your career for five years when your first son was born. How did you step back into it?
A: I was actually living overseas when I took time off. When we moved to Minneapolis, we didn’t know anybody here, but I knew I wanted to go back to work. The most important thing I learned then, and certainly throughout my career, was to be an advocate for myself, being very humble and knowing that I don’t have to do it all myself. I reached out to the network that I had, to a couple of people from my educational background or people I had contacts with, just a lot of cold e-mails. [Barra received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, and earned an MBA at the University of Chicago.] I reached out to a University of Chicago grad and I sent him my résumé. He didn’t respond to me, but he forwarded my résumé on to a VP who ran corporate development at Best Buy — who happened to be a Notre Dame graduate. Serendipity. We met for coffee and a networking session. A couple of months later he called back and said he had an open position and said he wanted to talk with me again.
Q: Earlier this summer you assumed new responsibilities at Sleep Number. What do they include?
A: In addition to my prior responsibilities, which included the enterprise strategy for the company, our customer relationship center — which is our service center, as well as communication and public relations. I added on responsibility for our sales organization, which includes our stores, store operations, promotions and real estate as well as field services, which includes all of our home-delivery technicians. What we are doing with this change is to bring all of our customer-facing teams together into one org. In today’s world, brands pop up overnight. Customer experience is the differentiator; it’s been called the holy grail. We believe that customer experience brings to life a company’s vision and its strategy, its values as well as its culture. When we are bringing all of our customer-facing teams together, we are already strong, but we want to make it stronger. Our vision is to be a beloved brand, and beloved means more. It means giving our customers an unparalleled experience across the board.