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August 19, 2006

How do you create a retail revolution? Julie Gilbert at Best Buy, Inc. is doing it one WoLF pack at a time.

Julie_gilbert_best_buy “If we are loyal to each other and we bond together with other males, we can reinvent the company and the industry.” Julie Gilbert

Today’s INSIDE LOOK features Julie Gilbert, Vice President of WoLF and Entrepreneurial Initiatives at Best Buy, Inc. WoLF stands for Women’s Leadership Forum which was Julie’s personal project while she was the Vice President over Best Buy’s Premium Customer Segment. It's a networking group functioning inside the corporation.

“WoLF is a movement to develop amazing leaders,” Julie told me, “If we want to be a great place for women to shop, we have to be a great place for women to work.”

Julie is on a mission, to have Best Buy’s female employees contribute to their individual futures as well as the company’s future direction. It’s based on woman-to-woman networking and came out of her concern regarding the lack of women-to-women mentoring opportunities. Out of need and “inspiration” she created a way for Best Buy’s female employees to network, learn, and create from each other and at the same time build business for Best Buy. Her WoLF packs aren’t part of HR, marketing or sales and yet all three departments benefit from the packs. 

WoLF is a combination of building leaders who happen to be female and using their unique perspectives to turn the company into a female focused organization and serve the $55 billion female consumer electronics market. Women actually outspend men today in the consumer electronics, but the industry was built by guys for guys. As Julie says, “It’s a different world today”!

What started as a way to help women become better leaders at all levels, however, is transforming Best Buy and creating a new business model based on “real” relationships regardless of title, education or gender.

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MARY: Welcome Julie, what terrific news for the women of Best Buy.

JULIE: It’s a good time for Best Buy men as well. I just received an email from a guy who is involved in WoLF and he said that he has not had such a powerful experience in his 18 year career.

MARY: This isn’t the first time you’ve connected the disconnected. I read that before you came to Best Buy that you co-created a new business at Deloitte and Touche by merging the taxation and consulting divisions.

JULIE: I was a senior manager there and noticed that the two divisions didn’t communicate with each other well. It was almost like one group was “blue” and the other “yellow.”  My interest in consulting and curiosity caused me to think of a new business opportunity that combined the two and then spent the next six years building the new business across the country.

MARY: Before this new WoLF position, what did you do at Best Buy?

JULIE: I created and led the team that created Magnolia Home Theatre, which is now the largest high-end home theatre in the world. I also co-created a venture which launched Virgin Mobile in the U.S. from a Best Buy perspective.

MARY: I’m impressed… with those two successes, I can see why you get the support that you do. I read that you have a Masters in Strategy and Marketing from Carlson School of Management and a CPA. That explains how you can identify a business opportunity and then be able to prove that it will be profitable. 

JULIE: The financial side of my brain is always thinking, “How can we make money from this”? In turn, that’s the challenge I present to the WoLF packs, to come up with ways to improve their own career and also make Best Buy more profitable. They go hand in hand.

MARY: Why WoLF? Which came first, the name or the initiative?

JULIE: The dream! No, really… I was touring Best Buy stores as part of my Premium Segment job where female employees frequently hugged me. One day, about 2 ½ years ago, I asked one why she did it. She said, “You give us hope that we can one day become you.” It made me want to help women more directly. That night I had a dream and woke up at 2 am. Growing up in South Dakota, I often heard the howls of wolves or coyotes howling in the distance during full moons. In my dream, I heard the same thing, but instead of wolves or coyotes, it was women’s voices. Inspiration struck me and I realized that each of us feel alone like a stray wolf but if we are loyal like wolves are loyal to each other, and we bond together with other males, can reinvent the company and the industry. AND we can build amazing leadership skills in the process.

MARY:  I can see why the pack structure would work, providing a place for women to speak freely and support one another is a key element in how women interact. They can’t do that inside the current business model, it’s too hierarchal in structure. When did you start WoLF and how many women are participating?

JULIE: I started it the day I had the dream, while still in my Premium Segment role. I literally launched the first WoLF pack on October 12 which was one week after my dream. In August 2005, I transitioned to do it full time. This year, we will have impacted directly more than 10,000 employees as well as thousands of people outside of Best Buy through “Community Give Backs” which is a core pillar of the program.

MARY: I know Best Buy has about 120,000 employees worldwide, so that means about 10% of Best Buy is already benefiting from the program?

JULIE: Yes ,that’s correct.  To be clear, not all 10,000 are in WoLF packs. We actually have 7 ways for both women and men to participate. The first, of course, is to be in a WoLF Pack. We have 21 packs of 27 people across the country today. Next, Community Give Backs - pack members like to volunteer time back into society. We have quarterly events across the country to ensure they have an opportunity to do that. Third, agree to be a Network Partner. They must want to mentor another WoLF anywhere in the country. It probably should go without saying that those in the packs are committed to their career at Best Buy. Part of a pack’s success is the membership longevity. It’s hard to know and support one another if you come and go quickly.

Each year we sponsor an Annual Event which we’ve been doing for 3 years – last year we had over 1700 attendees from the U.S., China and Canada. We also had 45 other companies join us as well. Next month [September] we have 1600 attending a 3 day event. Another way to participate is Just Be You.  In this, we have the first group called the Dancing Wolves which is an actual hip-hop dance group. Its purpose is to illustrate what it is like to express yourself like you should be doing in your job each day with new ideas, and just bringing your “whole self” to work. We’ve had about 300 participate so far.

Inside the WoLf packs you can be an Alpha WoLF. These are leaders of the packs and they must go through a nomination process and then be interviewed for the positions on the packs across the country. And for those who want to participate but can’t because of the size limitation on the packs, we have a Be My Guest Program. Anyone can be a guest at any of the meetings or activities.

MARY: Ok, I have to hear more about the Dancing Wolves...

JULIE: That’s kind of our fun thing that’s also instructional. You know how stupid you feel when you’re first learning to dance? You don’t know the steps and your moves are sloppy and you’re embarrassed that everyone is looking and laughing at you? Learning how to dance (for real) is also our metaphor for learning how to take on anything that you don’t feel comfortable doing - first it’s the mis-steps, then you get your footing and finally you are so confident that they can’t get you off the stage. This is a place where the women can try out their steps both literally and figuratively.

MARY: I can see why being on in a pack is both inspiring and fun. Do many apply?

JULIE: Yes. Everyone wants to be part of something that has such a positive impact and they all know what type of person we’re looking for - if they have a high career commitment, can network and giveback, we want them in the pack.

MARY: Women already do a lot of volunteering, why is it important to make it part of the pack culture?

JULIE: First, because it’s the right thing to do and second because you learn more communication and coaching skills, gain empathy - all of that makes you more human and everyone benefits.  It is this skill that will ensure they are truly great leaders—investing in other people and finding ways to help them be successful.

MARY: Other than as a guest, how do men participate?

JULIE: Men can participate in all 7 ways and do.  On Wolf Packs, Each pack has 25 women and 2 additional men for 27 total. The men have to apply and adhere to the values as well. To be honest, they are just as excited as the women to be included. It’s interesting because they get to hear the stories that women share about what it is like to enter a room and not have their hand shook and how that instantly makes them feel like an outsider. Men don’t go through that same experience, not as much, anyway. There are just enough “men” in the room to remind the women that Best Buy serves both genders, but not enough to stifle the conversation. If my emails are any reflection, like the one I mentioned earlier, being inside a WoLF Pack is a positive experience for them as well. 

MARY: How do you put the packs together? Are they all customer service people for instance?

JULIE: No, in fact that’s what we don’t want. You can’t build your career path if all you know is people on your level. The packs deliberately contain people of all rank and title. We’ve discovered that as the women talk, the rank tends to disappear. The important thing is that the women get to know each other and learn how to build out their own “network” of associates.
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MARY: Besides being personally beneficial, I can see where women customers would be more apt to patronize a Best Buy store that treats its employees with such respect. What about the business side of the pack, are the packs coming up with new Best Buy programs?

JULIE: We have innovation projects launched on the packs to reinvent the company. For example, one of the projects is a Job Share innovation pilot to build a capability where professionals in stores could share a job to ensure we keep talent that may not be able to do the full-on retail hours.

MARY: I’m sure parents appreciate that and anyone else who has to split up their personal and professional life. What about the customers, can they feel the WoLF influence yet?

JULIE: You’ve heard of the Geek Squad, right? It’s a company within Best Buy that helps customers trouble shoot their electronic problems. Recently we’ve seen where the women geeks, we call DIVAS [Dynamic Intelligent Vivacious Agents with Solutions] have turned up more business simply by being… well… women. They may be called out to a home for a computer problem, and then the homeowner feels so comfortable with them that they take them to a second electronic snafu and so on. Sometimes they even invite them to dinner.

MARY: I didn’t know the Geek Squad had women, I’ve only seen the guys in action.

JULIE: DIVAs are fairly new, but because they see things from a woman’s perspective they are uncovering issues the guys might miss. One of our Geek Agents-Kat S., was very passionate about educating parents on the risks their kids face on the Internet. [Child predators can easily find kids based on information they share freely with the emergence of sites like myspace.com and others.]  She created a brochure and training for parents so that they will be educated on this and ensure their children are safe. It's called the Internet Lingo Guide for Parents, Keep Your Kids Safe.

MARY: What a very needed idea. Did you put the information online as well?

JULIE: Yes. There was such a high demand that we put it on the front page of the Geek Squad and added other things since then. The brochure itself is in the Best Buy stores that have Personal Shopping Assistants throughout the country or what we call "Jill stores."

MARY: I’m sure you’d like to have more Geek’s (or DIVAs) like her.

JULIE: Actually we’ve partnered with many organizations to build female linkages.  One of these is Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago to build a pipeline of agents specifically for the Geek Squad. I guess you’d say it’s a women-helping-women program.

MARY: Really? I met some women at BlogHer that will be happy to hear that. Finding ways to encourage girls to go into technology was a big concern during the tech session. I have to admit though, that women-helping-women isn’t normally how you visualize Best Buy, are you afraid it will hurt it’s image? 

JULIE: This isn’t about marketing, it’s about changing the way all women perceive technology and helping them to do that through education and support, both as employees and consumers. It’s also about changing the way we relate to one another, and becoming better leaders through helping others be successful.  If you are an amazing leader, you can accomplish anything you wish.  The best ideas happen when people are allowed to think freely - and howl once in awhile…

MARY:  You got that right! Thank you Julie for not only leading the women of Best Buy, but defining a whole new business model for other consumer companies to follow. I have to go now,  and load up on Best Buy stock. 

For more information on Best Buy and the Women Leadership Forum email wolf@bestbuy.com.

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Comments

Julie and her team are awe-inspiring. I can see that a little more collaboration and we can make some significant changes together-- very quickly! All in the realm of improving the bottom line.

let's keep the conversation going!!!

Patricia Neal, CEO, Heartland Inc., Edina/Minneapolis MN

I had the pleasure of hearing Julie talk about the genesis of the WoLF program recently. Her conviction and dedication to foster leadership was amazing. I hope that her efforts in the business world can be transposed in the legal world as well.

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