Advancing the Conversation

Advancing the Conversation

Do private sector companies feel the same gender disparity still plaguing most public firms? We want to know.

The Editor’s Note appeared in the April issue of Twin Cities Business. The Women in Leadership event has been postponed until October 12. The same featured panelists are scheduled to participate.

As I write this in February, TCB’s April 23 Women in Leadership event is already sold out. Short of moving to the Minneapolis Convention Center, we’re running out of ballrooms that can accommodate the level of interest in this annual event.

Of course, we owe a great deal of that interest to this year’s impressive panelists. Best Buy CEO Corie Barry is the first woman to lead the $42 billion retail company, and one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs. Bethany Owen is the first woman CEO at Allete—she was appointed in February, a year after becoming president of the Duluth-based energy company, which is a leader in the clean energy field. Ecolab senior vice president Gail Peterson leads global marketing, overseeing communications, market research, sustainability and market partnerships for the St. Paul-based water, hygiene, and energy tech giant. In 2019, she was inducted into the Executive Leadership Council, a national organization that advocates for the advancement of black executives. She’s one of just 19 Twin Cities business professionals in ELC, a group of around 800 CEOS and corporate leaders. And finally, Kim Skanson is president of Cargill Business Services, a title that doesn’t entirely do justice to the responsibilities on her shoulders: overseeing delivery of IT, human resources, finance, transportation and logistics, strategic sourcing, and trade execution services to Cargill businesses around the world. She leads 6,500 employees globally in fields that have been historically male dominated. Through volunteer work and board service, she’s been a champion of STEM education for girls.

As you’ll read in the 2019 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership included in this issue, the percentage of women in executive roles and on boards of public companies is increasing. Honor Roll companies, with 20 percent or more women corporate directors and 20 percent or more women executive officers rose from 25 to 31 in 2019. Still, 31 companies leaves a long runway for improvement.

That’s one of the reasons we chose to profile Sleep Number president and CEO Shelly Ibach in this issue (page 44). Eight years into her tenure, she’s currently the longest serving female CEO of a public company in Minnesota and committed to helping other women move up. More than 40 percent of Sleep Number’s senior leaders are women, as are half of its board directors. This doesn’t mean giving women preferential treatment; Ibach says shifting culture starts with making sure women have a chance. Every time Sleep Number hires for a key role, Ibach says she insists on a diverse pool of candidates. Sometimes that means waiting longer to start the interviews. Sometimes it involves pushing her recruiters. Do what it takes, Ibach says. “Having diverse perspectives and experiences is critical to optimal performance.”

Having diverse perspectives and experiences is critical to optimal performance.”
—Shelly Ibach, president and CEO, Sleep Number

She offers this advice to women on the rise: “A lot of times, an environment heavily dominated by men will cause women to retreat. I say lean into adversity. You have nothing to lose.”

We talk more about how companies can diversify their leadership and the benefits it presents to corporate performance in this issue, and we’ll continue that discussion at our event. There are sure to be takeaways whether you work for a large corporation like Sleep Number or a much smaller private company. The research we publish each year focuses on public companies because they are required to share their employment stats. So it’s easy to spot a board made up only of men (they’re listed on page 7 of the census supplement). Private companies don’t have to do the same.

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One of our goals at TCB is to explore gender challenges and realities in a broader range of workplaces. Do women working in the private sector face the same shatter-resistant glass ceiling that still exists at public companies? We want to know your experiences, your concerns, and what questions we should be asking to advance the conversation. Sign up for our e-newsletters and watch our @tcbmag social media for more opportunities to connect on the topic and to participate in an upcoming survey about women in leadership. I’m always happy to hear from you directly at

Meanwhile, for anyone who couldn’t get a ticket to the Women in Leadership event, thank you for your interest, and know that you won’t be left out. We’ll be sure to share highlights and insights at There’s more work to be done.