"I never want to look back in life and say, should have, would have, could have."
Shelley Zalis, is very much a woman of action who has made the business of equality the focus of this stage of her life and career. A successful entrepreneur in her own right, she founded the Girl’s Lounge to provide professional women a place to support and learn about each other at major conferences
From that platform, she has now built the Female Quotient - an organization dedicated to driving equality in the workplace.
She is an evangelist, a disruptive force, a community builder and a change agent. She is also putting her money where her beliefs are.
I talked to Shelley about the role her childhood played in her becoming a disruptor, about why she decided to make gender equality her business, about what needs to happen next and about the moment she wondered if it was all over.
- Be willing to listen to your inner voice, embrace it, and be willing to act on that.
- Take responsibility if something has to get changed.
- Embrace everybody else along the journey. Be welcoming and open-armed so that others share the benefit.
Episode 13: Shelley Zalis
Hello. You're listening to Fearless, where we explore the art and science of leading creativity, that unpredictable, amorphous, and invaluable resource that's critical to every modern business. Each week we talk to leaders of the world's most disruptive companies about how they're jumping into the fire, crossing the chasm, and blowing up the status quo, leaders who have mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable. Today, the world needs leaders who can unlock creativity like never before. Fearless leaders. Why shouldn't that be you? Before we jump into this week's show, I wanted to give you updates on two of my guests from previous episodes. Kerry Sulkowicz, who was my guest on Episode 10 of Fearless, is this week on the Katie Couric Podcast, talking more about the psychology of leadership and specifically offering his psychoanalytic view of Donald Trump from a leadership perspective. It's a fascinating conversation, and I encourage you to listen to it.
In breaking news, Heidi Hackemer, my guest in Episode 3 of Fearless, has just announced that she's stepping back from Wolf & Wilhelmine to take a job. Those of you that listened to my conversation with Heidi know that it must have been quite a job to convince her that this was the right time to hand over the day-to-day running of her own company to the next generation of leaders, and it is quite a job. She's joining the Chan Zuckerberg Institute to build out their creative studio. As she says in a post on Medium in which she describes her decision, no one's quite sure yet what the creative studio will look like at CZI, but that they're committed to authentic and consistent storytelling to make some big changes for good.
I know two things to be true. Heidi is again following her inner voice, and two, she's built her company with the intention that she could one day become irrelevant to the success of that company, that the next generation of leadership would be ready to take up the next stage of the journey. More leaders would build better businesses if they were intent on making themselves irrelevant instead of essential to the long-term success of their company. I'm going to ask Heidi back on the show in a few months and hopefully have a talk about what she's learned about the latest chapter of her own journey. And now, on with the show.
Creativity is not gender-specific. Indeed, the most fertile environment for original thinking is one that includes true diversity of background, race, culture, as well as gender, because diverse viewpoints are the best catalyst for creative ideas that solve problems, or profitable creativity, as I've come to call it. Given the truth of that statement, it's a waste of untold value to see so many companies, organizations, and institutions possessing such skewed workforces. Workplace diversity is towards the very top of the list of talking points of most leaders of creative businesses, but it needs to be more than just a talking point. It needs to be a behavior. I'm going to do a future show on cultural and ethnic diversity. Today's show is going to focus on gender equality. There are a growing number of increasingly important initiatives aimed at addressing the issue in practical, real world ways that move past the theoretical and conversational and into the doing. Kat Gordon's 3 Percent Conference highlights the lack of women in senior leadership roles.
The See It Be It program that I was part of at Cannes is investing in helping high-potential creative women unlock their own potential earlier in their careers. Madonna Badger's #WomenNotObjects movement is focused on eliminating the objectification of women in advertising, thereby creating new norms and expectations for young men and women alike. Leaders like my previous guests Heidi Hackemer and Susan Credle work relentlessly to ensure women are being given opportunities to lead. Advisors like my wife, Chris Tardio, work with female leaders to help them unlock their own potential and make intention choices about the lives and careers they want to create.
My guest today, Shelley Zalis, is very much a woman of action who has made the business of equality the focus of this stage of her life and her career. A successful entrepreneur in her own right, Shelley founded The Girls' Lounge to provide professional women a place to get together at major conferences and to be able to support and learn about each other. From that platform, she has now built The Female Quotient, an organization dedicated to driving equality in the workplace. Shelley is an evangelist, a disruptive force, a community builder, and a change agent. She is also putting her money where her beliefs are. I talked to Shelley about the role her childhood played in her becoming a disruptor, about why she decided to make gender equality her business, about what needs to happen next, and about the moment she wondered if it was all over.
Charles: Shelley, welcome to the show. Thanks very much for being here.
Shelley Zalis: I know. I'm so privileged to be here. Thank you for including me.
Charles: I started this show because I wanted to talk to people about how to bring their best selves to life, not just to work, but to life every day, how to lead with intent, how to live a life that was conscious and sort of self-aware. You told me a story a couple of weeks ago that I hope you'll be willing to share again that really has stuck with me. You were talking about being in a meeting, in a room with large windows, and you went to open the window, and something happened. Do you mind sharing that story again?
Shelley Zalis: Yeah, I think first of all, the way we learn from each other is by sharing, so I will always share every story that I have, but I haven't even shared this one, so thank you for asking. It was pretty amazing. I was in a hotel room having a business meeting, and I needed some air, so I went to open the window, which was openable, and as I was opening the window, this gust of wind came, and I felt the window opening more than I remembered it opening, so I tried to hold it up from ... And of course, the wind blew the window, including the middle frame, off the wall, and it hit me on the head, and I ended up being pinned under it, but the-
Charles: This was a huge window, just for context, right?
Shelley Zalis: It weighed 250 pounds.
Charles: Oh, my.
Shelley Zalis: It actually took three men to lift it, but the crazy part about this story was what I thought about in that 30-second moment. I was about to say "in that 30-second window," but in 30 seconds, I thought about five things, which I have no idea how I even remember this, but this is how clear it was to me. One, I hope God takes care of my children. Two, I hope I lived the life I wanted to live. Three, I hope I'm leaving a legacy at this stage of my life. Four, within 30 seconds, I will either be dead or paralyzed, and five, I prayed for guardian angels to hold the corners so the glass wouldn't shatter in my face and it wouldn't hurt me when it came down on my body. Then I was pinned under it, and I don't remember being under the window, but then I remember, thank God there was a girlfriend of mine that I had a meeting with that was in the room.
If it weren't for her, I would have been under there until housekeeping came, who managed to pull me out and lay me on the floor, and then I just remember saying, "I think I'm gushing blood," which I was. But it was that moment in time that you evaluate your life, and it's why today I am so proud to be doing what I'm doing, because I think that life is full of conscious decisions. We do make choices of what we want to do, who we want to be, how we want to help others, and in that moment of 30 seconds, I felt really good about all those things. I felt good that I'm doing work that makes me feel proud and inspired, and I always say, "When purpose meets passion, you're unstoppable," and I've done a whole 180 on my career. I went from the business of market research to now the business of equality, and impacting change, most importantly collectively, is where I'm at in my life stage right now.
Charles: I was so struck by that story, because I read an article probably two years ago that was written by a palliative care nurse dealing with patients who are in their last hours, days, sometimes weeks of life, and she captured the conversations and put them together in a list of the five regrets of the dying. I was really struck when you told me the story that, as you went through your list of five questions, two of them were the questions that people ask of themselves as they get close to death, which is, "Have I lived a life of purpose? Have I lived an intention good life?"
It's something that in my work has become more and more important to me when I'm working with my clients, with working with business leaders, to help them recognize that those questions are incredibly important not 20, 30, 50 years from now, but right now, today, that we have a responsibility, almost, to live lives of meaning for you, because to your point, you've made this transition. You are living a life that is filled with purpose, and clearly we're passionate. Anybody who knows you even remotely understands that you are passionate about this and are hugely effective at it. What in your background gave you that awareness that you wanted to make a difference, you were prepared to do the things to blow up the status quo to make a difference?
Shelley Zalis: Well, I mean, I call them heartbeat moments, and I say you can cognitively rationalize a decision. You can intellectualize why you're going to do something or why you're not going to do something, but a heartbeat, buh boom, buh boom, buh boom, you can't control a heartbeat. That's emotion. You can't control emotion, and so I've always followed my heartbeat moments, and when it takes me somewhere, I don't even think about how I'm going to do it or why I'm going to do it. I'm like, "I got to follow that," or else you're going to have real issues if your heart just keeps pounding really hard, and you don't satisfy delivering on that. I want to just go back to one of the things that you talked about with regret. I have a no-regret policy, and I've had this my whole life, especially with children, where you're raising your children, you're working full time.
I always said I never want to look back in life and say, "Should have, would have, could have." I want to live my life in the moment every single day, and I think that that helped me make a lot of decisions. I would always say, "Well, if I'm going to go on this business trip, am I going to miss something important?" If the answer is, "I'm going to miss something important," I didn't do it, and it was those choices. I still was incredibly successful in my career, and you look back, and oftentimes you hear people saying, "Well, I waited," or, "I didn't have children because I didn't have free time at work," or ...
Then one day they might not have that job anymore, and then they look back and say, "Shoot, I missed a moment," and so I really believe in living in the moment, thinking forward, and acting in that moment, and that has been really good for me.
Charles: Where do you think that came from, as you look back over your entire life, including your childhood? Where do you think that awareness, that intention, came from?
Shelley Zalis: I think my father. I think that my father, he doesn't even wear a watch, because he doesn't believe in tracking time, like if he's in a ... He's a cardiologist, and he never wore a watch. I'm like, "Dad, how did you know to go to your meetings?" "So I wasn't going to rush through a meeting with a patient to go to the next one. When I was done, I was going to the next one," or he never wanted to go on a motorboat because that was a destination. He liked to go on a sailboat where you just experience life, and he also taught, I'm one of four girls, and what he taught all of us is to live life and not save your money for a rainy day. He doesn't want to save his money for giving all of us inheritance when he passes. He wants to enjoy it with us now, so every other year, we chase, as a family, total solar eclipses.
Charles: Oh, do you really?
Shelley Zalis: 20 of us, and my parents take us. They treat all of us, and it's an adventure of a lifetime, and as a result, I have such a close-knit family. One of four girls. My parents, God bless them, are still here, and we are a real, connected family, because we travel together. We have adventured together. We live life in the moment. We don't stash it for under the mattress for that rainy day that might or might not come, and so I think it's my father that's given me that passion for life and experiences. We once were on a trip. I must have been 10 years old, and I think we went to the Bahamas, and my father said, "Okay, we're going to go on a glass-bottom boat," or, "Who wants to go on a glass-bottom boat?"
All of us said, "Well, we don't care. I don't care. I don't care," and my father looked at us, and he said, "What are you, pumpkins? You don't care? You either want to go in the boat, or you don't. You can't not care about something," and that has always stuck with me. If you believe in something or want to do something, who are you waiting for to give you that decision? You got to want to do it yourself, and I'll never forget that, and my mother has also been such an important influence in my life, where I think I coined "Confidence is beautiful" from my mom. My mom has always made her daughters feel like we could achieve anything. I mean, now we talk about with women today, we don't see role models for positivity that we can break that glass ceiling or actually create a new glass ceiling, and my mother always made us believe we were the most beautiful in the whole wide world, and that we could do anything we put our minds to, and that it was about confidence.
It was about feeling good about yourself, because you can't help others if you don't feel good about yourself, and so I think between my parents, life lessons, living your life, living in truth, living authentically, not doing things to please others, but doing things that you want to do and that you believe in, have been really amazing lessons for me.
Charles: Are you close to your sisters?
Shelley Zalis: Very close. I always say to my parents, "How did you have four girls?" I mean, you can only imagine all very close in age, and we never fought. We shared clothes. We even went out with the same guys, a couple of sisters. Not at the same time, but we passed them down, and I think that we all, all of my sisters are all completely connected. We're also similar in our values and how we live our life, yet with different twists. They actually wrote a story on my baby sister Rachel and I in a magazine called Power Sisters, and it was hysterical, because they talked about how much alike we were. We were both in the movie business, and we were both very entertainment-centric, living in LA, living life with passion, but we were different, and they said I would wear couture clothing below my knee, and she would wear the latest trend above her knee, and I would go to sleep by midnight, and she was doing a wardrobe change at midnight.
I mean, it was just a really cute compare and contrast, but what ultimately we all have in common is our value and believing in a community and supporting one another and not being competitive. My mother raised us to be best friends, and still today, I mean, all of my sisters, we love spending time together, and their children are connected in my world, and it's really wonderful. I-
Charles: Yeah, it really is, and rare, I think. I mean, there are so many cases of families being dysfunctional and disconnected and, in some cases, damaging, and so to hear a story where you're actually supportive and loving and kind to each other is affirming. I think it's a memorable lesson.
Shelley Zalis: Well, I don't even think my family even knows what I do for a living, but they support me. It doesn't define us. Being good people, true to ourselves, really is what defines each and every one of us, and of course, family holidays, I always want to do a reality show on the Zalis family because it's pretty funny.
Charles: For you personally, what came first? Was it establishing your career, or was it having your own family?
Shelley Zalis: I actually didn't even think I was going to have a career when I had a family. My mother, when I was growing up, was an incredible mother, but she was involved with the school PTA, and she started all these important foundations, and she did a lot of community work. It was only after we all left the house that she had a pretty successful career, which we'll talk about, but that's what I thought. I thought when I got married and had children, I was going to be a full-time mom, because it's such a big responsibility, and I loved how my mom always took me to school and picked me up, and she was the lunch mom, making the lunch in the school kitchen with all of her friends. I loved that, and I remember saying to my husband when we got married, he said, "What are you going to do when you have kids?"
I said, "I think I'm going to be a full-time mom," and he said, "Well, gosh, I don't know if you're going to be happy doing that. You don't seem the type to want to just do that. I think you're going to want to have your career," and he's the one that really encouraged me to be able to balance, even though I don't believe in the word "balance," but you have one life. It's work-life integration with many dimensions, and I thank him every single day, thank you, Phil, for encouraging me to really be a more modern version of myself that I could quote-unquote "do it all my way." I wasn't a normal mom, but I was a great mom. I guess my kids would, hopefully, agree, so if you kids are going to listen to this, you better call in and say that I was a great mom.
Charles: What was the choice you made in terms of a career? How did you respond to his challenge?
Shelley Zalis: Well, I think that life has five dimensions. Work, or career. Family. Community. Friends, and the one thing we always forget about is ourselves. We always forget-
Charles: Very true.
Shelley Zalis: ... about ourselves in that equation, and I think that not every life stage can you do all five and do them all equally, so as I was raising my children, I ended up combining me and my girlfriends together. We would exercise together or have breakfast together, so I got to see my girlfriends. Community, I might have had to step back a little bit and not be on every committee, and what I told my children was, "I will never miss something important to you, so if there's a soccer game or a play, anything you want me on, I will never miss those moments," and my kids learned to tell me what they wanted and what they needed, and I never miss those moments. The same with my husband. I think I could not at all have had the career that I had without having an amazing partner at home, and so we each had our responsibilities.
We didn't have mother-father role. We had parents. We were co-parenting, and my husband was responsible for sports and responsible for finance and responsible for ... That's about what he was responsible for, and then I was responsible for education and the home, and play dates, and all of that, but then when I was out of town, he had to cover my role, and I never complained if he didn't do it the way I did. It was fine, and I would have to cover his role, so I was a hockey mom when he was out of town, and I had to learn how to tie the skates really tight or get someone to help me tie them really tight, but we shared the responsibility, which allowed us to have a very happy, loving, successful home environment, and it allowed us both to have careers. He's a butt doctor. He's a colorectal surgeon, so he had his career. I had mine, and we merged together, really, in raising a family.
Charles: And you decided to get into what, from a career standpoint?
Shelley Zalis: Well, I didn't really know what I wanted, truthfully. I was in market research, so I was working in the traditional survey business at the time. I mean, this is how old I am. We had typewriters, and badass-
Charles: I remember those.
Shelley Zalis: ... cell phones-
Charles: Yeah. Yeah. I remember those.
Shelley Zalis: ... that were so chunky and used that it was pretty funny, but-
Charles: Correction tape.
Shelley Zalis: And we had overhead projects and acetates, and no one probably even knows what that is, and mainframe computers at the time. I was working in a small little mall intercept research company. We would stop people in the shopping malls and ask them questions on a survey and write the answers with pencil and tick the boxes and all the above, so that's how I started. I really was so inspired. I was one of five women in the office. It was a six-people office, with my boss, Dave Vadehra, who so inspired me, because he was such a down-to-earth ... We used to have this brilliant idea jar sitting in the office, and we'd all put our ideas in there, and then at 7:00 PM, we did work long hours, at 7:00 PM we would open up the jar with a bottle of wine, of course, and read the ideas, and just activate them. We would just do it. We had this small, successful little company called Video Storyboards, and then I got this call one day from a company called ASI, which was a quantitative research company. Very, you talk to a lot of people.
I went in to my boss, Dave, and I said, "Dave, what's quantitative research?" I used to sit and type and do tick, tick, tick, so I don't even know what that is, but I think it's time for me to fly. I worked for him for about six years, and he said, "Well, it's just what we do, but with bigger sample sizes." I said, "I hope you don't mind. I think it's time for me to fly. I'm going to go interview for that job," and I went to ASI, and I met with the chairman, Gerry Lukeman, who is a mentor to me. He is such a role model for me in terms of how to manage people, how to build teams, and I didn't even know that I needed to learn this at the time, and he sat me down, and he gave me a test.
He gave me two ads, and he said, "Tell me which one would score better." I'm like, "This is cake," and I got the job in a minute, and he said, "What do you need in your office?" I said, "I need a typewriter, because I think on a typewriter, and I need a TV in my office, because I watch ads, and that's how I learn what the ads are." Anyways, I had a really successful career there, but what was amazing to me while I was at ASI was, I started realizing I was a very out-of-the-box, non-linear thinker. Market research is very linear. You dot the i's, you cross the t's.
It's all about data, and I remember saying to management, I had all men above me, "Well, maybe we need to migrate research from offline to online, to the internet," and I was told that, I mean, this was in 2000, that it was ahead of itself. I mean, there was no one online except wealthy young men with broadband connection. The @Home Network was what we had, and it was early adopters, which is hardly a representative population, and I remember going home that night. That was a heartbeat moment for me, when I talked about it, and I said to my husband, "Why am I never right? When is God going to bang me on the head and say, 'This is the right time. Now's your time'?"
I said, "I think I have to follow my heart and pioneer online research," and he said, both my husband and my father both said, "We will support you. If that's what you need to do, you need to go follow your heart," and that's what I did. I left, and I started a company. Originally, I brought it to A.C. Nielsen. I mean, I think I've reiterated a couple of times, reinvented several times. I started it, A.C. Nielsen, at The Nielsen Company, and then I went to IFILM, which IFILM was basically early YouTube. Then I left, and I started a company called OTX, and OTX Online Testing Exchange. At the beginning, people thought I was crazy and wrong, and thank God, I say if I wouldn't have tried, I would never have known. The worst that could have happened would be, it'd be wrong.
The best would be that I built the largest, fastest-growing online research company in the world, and so in nine short years, we were the fastest-growing research company. I was the only female CEO in the top 25 in market research my whole career, and in OTX, I created a lifestyle company. I didn't even know what that was. I never heard of it before, but I built a company that I would want to work for, and I called them the uncorporate rules. Everything I hated about corporate America, I undid in my company, and I ended up having a company of over 250 employees. I recently sold that seven years ago to Ipsos. The funny part was, Ipsos acquired ASI, and ASI is where I started my career, so I came full circle, which was quite remarkable.
But along my journey, I just remembered, as I was having more and more employees, I wanted to have a company that people wanted to be at, and that I would retain the best talent and not have to replace, and all the issues I had in middle management, raising a family, being in a huge company, I didn't want that to be an issue for all my employees, men and women. It's not just a caregiver issue. People want to have a life that includes work, not the other way around.
Charles: I think to go back to your catalyzing moment, your heartbeat moment, as you described it, that really resonates with me, and I think as people are going through the early-mid stages of their career, that kind of impulse and following that kind of instinct is so important. I know that Chris and I, my wife and I, we had two or three moments like that where we reached a point and we said to ourselves, we defined it, slightly different words, but I think the same sentiment, "We know what our minimum level of success is. It's what we are doing today. Let's leave this behind. Let's see what else we're capable of. We know we can come back and do this, be a producer in an ad agency or whatever it might be." I think as you're going through, as I said, your early-mid stage of your career, following that heartbeat moment, following that instinct, is so important.
Shelley Zalis: Well, I mean, it just takes you to places you wouldn't necessarily rationalize, because, by the way, change is scary.
Shelley Zalis: And everyone wants to be experts at what they know, and when you go into a territory that you actually don't know what's going to happen, it is scary, and fear kicks in. I am the first to share my failures. I think my failures led to my greatest success, and I always say, "If you don't try something new, you'll never know," and it's what, I think, Albert Einstein says. If you have the same mindset getting you where you are today, you can never evolve, so sometimes, you got to have a disruptive mind. It won't cognitively come, because that's scary, which is why if you follow your emotion, it's going to take you to that next step even if it's scary.
It was a scary time. I had to beg people at the beginning to come work with me, and by the end, we were the cat's meow. We created a wow factor company with many firsts. We were the first to pioneer online research in the movie business. We were the first to create digital rights management around content. We were the first to ... I mean, oh, God, we were the first in so many things, and being the first is really scary. Then I had heard something once, and I didn't even understand the entrepreneurial world at the time. I just knew I had to do whatever it was that I was going to do, and I don't have an MBA, so it was just really gut pushing me.
Someone told me that being the first is really hard, because you usually fail, because you're trying something new, you've got to build a new ecosystem, and there's no money, there's no support, there's no credibility. Being the second, people are copycats. They say, "Wow, this is a cool idea. We're going to pick up all the things that the first company did wrong, and-"
Charles: And fix them, yeah.
Shelley Zalis: " ... and fix them," but they don't really know what's under the hood. Then the third company's the sweeper. They come in with credibility. We've already built an ecosystem, and they win. I remember, when I started OTX, I said to myself, "I have to be the first, the second, and the third. I'm going to compete with myself along the way, which will keep pushing us to evolve and be our best." That was just a motto I had in my head. I mean, I wasn't competitive with anyone else, because I'm the queen of collaboration, but I was competitive with myself. That there's no way I'd be the first, because I was ahead of myself, and then not sweep.
That's always been a principle for me, is, be the first, take that step, because someone's got to do it, but make sure, A, you bring everyone along with you, because that's how a movement starts. I say what I'm doing now went from a moment to a movement, which was another heartbeat moment for me, but someone's got to take that first step. Two years ago, we were on a migration. Have you ever been on, to a migration?
Charles: Mm-mm (negative).
Shelley Zalis: So we'd been on safari in Africa, but a migration is when you actually see all the wildebeest crossing the river. Well, you see them migrating, but to see a crossing is quite remarkable, because you never know where they're going to cross, and the river is very big, and you see thousands of wildebeest running in the herd, and it's like a stampede, and then they attempt to cross. But there's crocodiles in the river, so they dip their toe and then they say, "Nope, not the right place." Then they keep migrating and they do it again. We were very fortunate to see an actual crossing, and what was remarkable was, you see that brave little wildebeest, I always say, I hope it was a woman, who put her toe in first, made the decision to go, and then they all-
Charles: They go.
Shelley Zalis: ... follow.
Shelley Zalis: Now, the first one-
Charles: What an image.
Shelley Zalis: ... usually gets stampeded or picked up in the river, but someone has to make a move, and when you all go together, A, it's a lot more fun, a lot less scary, and way more sticky, way stickier.
Charles: It's a really powerful image and a really powerful metaphor. When you made your own crossing into what you're doing now, what was the motivation behind that? So you sold the business, I know, but you obviously had choices in terms of what you were going to spend the next part of your life doing. What made you decide that being in the business of equality was where you wanted to focus?
Shelley Zalis: It wasn't conscious. It was a heartbeat moment again, and I sold my company to Ipsos, wonderful ... It's the third-largest research company in the world, based in France, in Paris. I went from a company of 250 employees, operating in six cities, including London, which represented the rest of the world to me, and I sold to a company of 16,000 employees. I was doing 16 million in revenue, I sold to a company of 2.6 billion in revenue. I was operating in six cities, they were operating in 83 countries, so quite a big leap, and they acquired OTX because they wanted to catapult on my research and integrate it into their portfolio.
And so I went to running global innovation for Ipsos in 83 countries, traveled around the world. One of the things that I saw that was very clear was a lack of women at the top, and I wanted to go to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This was five years ago, and I heard there was 150,000 people, less than 6% women, and that's kind of intimidating, and so I decide to invite four girlfriends in business, and I said, "And if you know other women, invite them." 24 hours later, 50 women showed up, and two remarkable things happened. One, all the guys had turned. You had a posse of 50 power women walking the floor of CES, and all the guys are like, "Where'd you all come from?" That's when I coined the phrase "power of the pack."A women alone has power. Collectively, we have impact.
Then the second remarkable thing was just a confidence moment. It's when I coined the phrase "Confidence is beautiful." I was surrounded by so many other women that had similar challenges of work-life balance, and, "How do you do it all?" The Girls' Lounge was born in that moment. I had a king-size room at the Four Seasons. We were all piled in, women in my closet showing each other technology, doing business, doing deals. By day two, we had a two-bedroom suite, and by day three, we had 150 women in the penthouse of the Four Seasons.
That's how The Girls' Lounge formed, and people asked me all the time, why did I call it The Girls' Lounge? By the way, it was not a thought process of calling it The Girls' Lounge. I had no idea it would turn into the movement that it is today. I thought it was just going to be a nice little get-together of women at CES, and I said in the social world, the difference between girls and women is age or life stage. In the corporate world, women at the top have historically been competitive with one another, because there's such a scarcity of jobs, and we also conform to the masculine ways.
I mean, the rules were written by men for men 100 years ago when women weren't in the workplace, and we've never adjusted them for the modern workforce today, and I say, so I wanted to reclaim the word "girl." Girl is a mindset. It's about being bold, brave, fearless, being girlfriends, supporting one another. There's also a boys' club, so I don't know why there's not a girls' lounge. And empower one another, and it really was about connecting, and collaborating, and activating solutions of change always together.
The Girls' Lounge now is five years old. I launched it while I was at Ipsos. It was called the Ipsos Girls' Lounge, and then when my five-year contract ended at Ipsos, it was a moment of truth for me. I had asked Ipsos if they were committed to The Girls' Lounge, because it's something that became my purpose and my passion, and they absolutely were committed, and I will thank Didier Truchot and Ipsos every single day for allowing me to build such an amazing concept within the Ipsos walls, and they supported it for two years. It was just that moment of, "What do I do now?" The Girls' Lounge was growing so big. The impact was enormous, so I decided, and it was a heartbeat moment, that I needed to leave the world of market research and go into the business of equality and run The Girls' Lounge.
Ipsos was very supportive, and now it is an independent industry, collaborative movement by and for all of us. It's not my lounge. It's not yours. It's ours collectively, and The Girls' Lounge is a community of corporate women that have connected through experiential popups at industry conferences. We do Girls' Lounges at conferences. We do them within corporations, connecting women, and we also do them on college campuses to recruit women into companies, and then in the last year and a half, I put The Girls' Lounge underneath the umbrella called The Female Quotient. First came the intelligence quotient, IQ. Then came the emotional quotient, EQ. Now comes The Female Quotient, FQ, and I say when you put women in any equation, the equation gets better. When you hear that diversity is good for business, you say, "Well, why are we then going backwards? Why do we still not see diversity at work inside of companies?"
And so I now have three pillars, one of which is community, The Girls' Lounge. The other is all about reimagining workplace culture for the modern workforce, and I'm creating measurement for accountability, so we just recently a launched a movement with the ANA, the Association of National Advertisers, called #SeeHer, which was creating conscious awareness of, for media and entertainment to accurately and realistically portray girls and women in everything we do, from ads to TV shows. And we've now created something called the GEM score, Gender Equality Measure, so that we can add equality as a dimension to measurement, because you can't treasure what you can't measure, and you've got to have metrics for success. That, we launched a year ago with the White House, and we've tested over 20,000 ads, and we're testing the top 200 programs, as well as cable shows, so that is in the culture bucket.
The third pillar is about to be released, which will be a platform to get more women in the talent pool, but to coach them along their journey so that we ensure that they not only get, they're not only attracted to companies, but they stay in companies. I'm working on this whole concept of life stage profiling, where it's not ... Arianna Huffington taught me this, and she said, "I don't understand why we always do exit interviews. They're gone. Why don't we ever do entry interviews?" And then I started thinking, in middle management, which I call the messy middle, which is where we see the most falloff, especially with women, they're getting more responsibility at home, more responsibility at work. They don't know how to do it all, and they do one of three things. They either leave to raise their family, and coming back in is quite difficult, or they rise the ranks to leadership, but have tremendous stress over work-life balance issues, or they leave and start their own company and create their own rules, which is what I did.
Had we have life stage profiled, had when my kids were young, I would have been able to say to the CEO, "I can't travel 20, seven days a week. I can't work 24 hours a day. I have a family, but I'm the best business development person you have. I don't want to be an exception that you make exceptions for. Make me the new rule, but let everyone have life stage priorities. Maybe it's a young man that wants to go on dates, or a young woman that wants to go on a date, or someone that has pets. We all have life stage needs, or we might have aging parents, or my father likes me to say 'ageless parents.' Whatever it is going on in your life, we should be able to still accommodate that so that we retain our best talent and not lose them to life stage issues." So I'm working on a bunch of stuff right now.
Charles: I had the founders of The Second Shift on here a couple of weeks ago.
Shelley Zalis: She's great.
Charles: Gina and Jenny are fantastic. I think that's a model that's very much of the time and starts to address in one of these areas that you've just described part of the issue. Why do you think this is an issue? Why are there so many problems in terms of gender equality? Why are we still grappling with this? I read an interview that you gave when talking about JFK introducing gender equality pay legislation, 1963 or 4, I think you said. Here we are 50-something years later, and we're still dealing with that as an issue, where women are paid 79 cents on the dollar?
Shelley Zalis: 79 cents. I actually sell candy for a dollar to men and 79 cents to women, just to sensationalize how silly the conversation is, and Gloria Steinem says, "I don't understand why it's just not equal pay for equal work." I mean, of course. I think the problem is accountability. I really do think that it's what I said before. You can't treasure what you can't measure, and it's been really easy for everyone to just ignore it and not be conscious of it.
Charles: You say "everyone." Do you mean everyone on both sides?
Shelley Zalis: Corporate America, because we've never had accountability for it, or we've never ... I think only now are we bringing this to conscious awareness level, and I think that these things just have been happening, and I think a lot of it is legacy issue. Like I said, rules were made 100 years ago by men for men. Women weren't in the workplace, and women are just catching up to salaries, and I think there are still truisms. Women are paid on past performance, and men on potential, and so if you were paid a certain level, and now you're starting a new job, they ask what you were paid in the past, so I think that bias does kick in, but not because we hire people that look like us. We hire people that act like us. Who would you want to travel with? Someone that likes to go drink beer and play pool, or someone that says, "Oh, let's go have tea and shop in our free time?" It's like-minded-
Charles: Perversely, in my case, probably the second, but I take your point that it's-
Shelley Zalis: Well, exactly. It really, and I think that's really where the boys' club comes about. I just did a huge study for Unilever globally on the unstereotyped mindset, and the findings were remarkable. I mean, it's at 55% of men and women globally. Study was done in eight countries, 9,000 people still say it's a boys' club, and not by default, but by choice. People want to be around people that they like to be with, especially in mid-level. Entry level is not an issue. We start 50/50. Leadership level, you define your own terms. It's the mid-level. It's the messy middle that we have significant challenges, and I think the other part is, women have tried to act like men, or bringing their masculine selves, because they want to fit into the boys' club. They don't want to be excluded, and so I think this is where we need to reinforce back to what this conversation started with, owning your strengths, living your life.
I mean, Oscar Wilde says, "Be yourself, because everyone else is taken." We need to celebrate our unique contributions to business, and I'm trying to encourage women to bring their feminine qualities of leadership to the table, and the masculine qualities, and I don't see male female, because men can have feminine characteristics.
Shelley Zalis: Nurturing and pathetic, compassionate.
Charles: The best leaders have all of those qualities-
Shelley Zalis: Collaborative.
Charles: ... regardless of sex.
Shelley Zalis: Correct, and then the masculine, linear, analytic, decisive. We need all that talent in the talent pool, and if we hide our qualities, we are not doing anyone justice. It's a mistake.
Charles: Well, and I think to that very point, Chris, my wife, whom you know, obviously, asked me a question.
Shelley Zalis: Who's amazing. Hi, Chris.
Charles: She is amazing. She asked me a question three or four weeks ago. Chris exclusively works with, advises women business leaders, and she said to me, we were driving home one day from somewhere, and she said to me, "How would you summarize the difference between men and women in one sentence?" I actually, I said this out loud at a See It Be It conversation that we part of in Cannes, and I said, "I think that in general, men tend to show up like Superman, and women tend to show up like Clark Kent," by which I mean, men jump in, often uninvited and often unproductively, and against their own best interests and the organization's, and women tend to hold back and need to be helped to step forward. I was talking to Wendy Clark a few weeks ago, and Wendy told a story that when she got the call from the headhunter to interview for the job at Coke that she finally took, her first reaction was to say, "No, I'm not ready."
It was her husband and her mother, actually, who said to her, "Yes, you're going to go and have that conversation. Regardless of whether you take the job, you're at least going to go have that conversation," and I think there is sort of a genetic part of this that we have to acknowledge and help people to show up in the right time and the right way for their own best interests, which might be, in some women's case, sooner than they think they're ready, and in some men's case, might be later than they think they should be.
Shelley Zalis: We say when you have that voice in your head doubting yourself, and this is a Wendyism, she says, "Just shut that bitch up." Shut that bitch up in your head, because it is true, Harvard Business Review just did an amazing study that when there is a job with 10 requirements, if a guy can do six out of 10, he's like, "Yup, I got this," whether he knows how or he doesn't, and a woman, if she can't do 10 out of 10, she says, "I'm not qualified." I think that these are real issues that I explain to women. Men aren't qualified either. You're both equally not qualified.
The value is, surround yourself with people on your team, so even if you don't think you can, you have to fake it in your head and say, "I got this," and then you'll figure out how to deliver, and by the way, you'll overdeliver.
Charles: That's right, and there's that wonderful Amy Cuddy TED Talk where she talks about fake it till you become it, based on a-
Shelley Zalis: Of course.
Charles: ... life story that she went through, which I would recommend to anybody listening, and I say this is really personal for me, because for years, I used to show up like Clark Kent. I was very, very, very atypical.
Shelley Zalis: You look like Clark Kent. Let's see that Superman-
Shelley Zalis: ... insignia.
Charles: Yeah, exactly, under the shirt. But it took me a long time, actually, to realize that sitting back waiting for people to ask you in was not very helpful, to me or to the people around me that I wanted to care of, and so I've over time taught myself, "Step in. Insert yourself. Right? Don't wait to be invited." And as I work with some very, very successful women, I see some of those characteristics as well, and encouraging them to step into their own power, to use a cliché, and to use their voice, and to put it out there, and to suddenly realize what happens when they do is extraordinarily empowering to watch. By the same token, there are men that I've seen who jump in, and you're like, "Yeah, would have been better if you'd just waited."
Shelley Zalis: Sheryl Sandberg says something that I just think is so interesting. When she asks a room of men and women, she says to the men, "How many of you men have ever been told you're bossy?" Not a single man will raise his hand. "How many of you women have ever been told you're bossy?" Every single woman will raise her hand, and what she said is, "You have to redefine in your head what bossy is. Replace the word 'bossy' with 'executive presence.' You have executive presence," and I think that if you always follow or wait to be invited in, you will be a me-too.
Shelley Zalis: Period.
Charles: Couldn't agree more.
Shelley Zalis: You'll just be a me-too, and I don't know about you, but I don't want to be a me-too. I think that we need all of our assets, all of our talent, and that if you add individuals together, wisdom of the crowds, wisdom of the crowd is always right. Diversity and mindset, and I think that's really what it's all about.
Charles: Yeah, I think that it is, and I think it brings us back to kind of where we started the conversation, which was if you're conscious of the life you want to lead and the legacy you want to leave behind, being a me-too is not actually a very satisfying answer. It doesn't get you to that place. I wanted to just throw out one other thought for you and just get your feedback on this. We were both at Cannes, obviously, two weeks ago. There's a lot of conversation around this. There's a lot of people talking about some of the things that they're doing. There's a lot more people saying, "We need to stop talking about Wendy Clark." Wendy again talks about, "Let's stop talking around it. Let's just do it," in a piece she wrote during that week. One of the triggers that strikes me as being relevant is that we talk a lot from a senior management, senior leadership level down about the things that organizations need to do to correct this.
And clearly, to your earlier point, and a lot of this is organizational and systemic, the part of the equation that you have touched on here today, but that most people don't talk about, is activating the talent pool, activating the workforce. To my mind, there's an argument to be made for inciting a talent revolution, that if the leaders of the companies demanded of the talent they hire that the talent themselves hold the leaders who just hired them accountable and say, "We will only work at companies that exhibit these kinds of characteristics," that would change behavior very quickly, if the people who you need to actually build these businesses said, "Sorry, we're not working for you unless we have this kind of representation, this kind of diversity of both gender and ethnicity." What's your thought around that?
Shelley Zalis: Amen. I mean, I think that it really comes back to what I said, accountability for change, and I think leaders, CEOs need to be accountable to their boards, and I think senior leaders in organizations need to be accountable to their CEOs. I think that it starts with a conscious decision. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, how would you want to treat your daughter, your mother, your sister, your girlfriend? How do you want your boys to perceive women? How important is the quality, and why is it important? I think that you're going to see first-mover advantage. You're going to see the companies, now that there is accountability for change, making those moves, and the companies that are sitting there waiting for permission or for someone to ... They're going to have FoMO factor very quickly, because they're going to be left out, and they won't be attracting the best talent pool. I mean, millennials, they're a generation with purpose in their DNA. They want to work for companies that want to make the world a better place, and I think that it is, now that we ...
I always say we have to stop admiring the problems, we all understand where we are, and activate solutions for change, and it's not that complicated. It's a next-step solution. It doesn't mean we're going to fix it overnight, but according to McKinsey, if we keep going at the pace we're going, it will take over 118 years to realize gender parity in the C-suite.
Charles: We're not that young, right?
Shelley Zalis: I mean, 118, I mean, I'll probably still be going strong at that age, but might need a walker, but I don't want to wait, and why should this next generation inherit our shit? You know what I mean? Let's fix it. Let them create their own new problems, and I think it's each and every one of our responsibilities. Who are we waiting for? Who is going to hit us on the head and say, "Now's the time"? The time is when you decide to take it. It's all choice.
Charles: Yeah. That's really well put. At the end of each conversation, I try to provide a three-theme wrap-up of what I've just heard that I think distinguishes you and where your success comes from, so tell me whether this resonates. I think the first thing that clearly is present is that you are willing to listen to your inner voice, and you embrace it, and you amplify it. You listen to it very closely, and you're willing to act on that. The second, I think, is that you take responsibility. You don't shy away from the fact that something has to get changed, and you're prepared to be, in some cases, the first wildebeest into the water, and hopefully that brings everybody else along with you, and hopefully you'll make it to the other side as well, that you're prepared to take that step. And I think third is that you embrace everybody else along that journey. You bring everybody with you. I mean, you are welcoming. You are open-armed about it. You want people to share the benefit from it.
I think those three characteristics, to me, anyway, really stand out as one of the reasons why you have become such an important force in the creative industries, from my perspective. Does that resonate with you?
Shelley Zalis: I mean, they all do, and I really have to say that we are better together, and that collaboration is so much more impactful than competition. Katherine Hepburn always says, "If you don't break any rules, you don't have any fun," so I think we need to start having a lot of fun breaking the rules that don't make sense, creating the new ones, and making that the new norm, and creating a new threshold for ourselves with accountability for change.
Charles: Perfect recap. Shelley, thank you so much for being here today. I've really enjoyed this conversation.
Shelley Zalis: Charles, you're amazing-
Charles: I'm grateful to you.
Shelley Zalis: ... and thank you for having me today, and any time you want to have a conversation unplugged, let me know.
Charles: I will. Thanks again.
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