Shelley Zalis
Founder and CEO

Write Your Own Rules and Stay True to Yourself

Shelley Zalis is an unstoppable force in the industry, and in life.  I’ve had the great privilege to see her in action many times from LA to NY to Davos.  Her mission is to drive gender equality in the workforce by providing the tools that women, men and corporations need to make meaningful progress. Her star-studded stages never mask her glowing passion and unwavering commitment to her mission, rather, they illuminate it.  As she always says, “When purpose meets passion, you’re unstoppable.” Here are some tips on career and confidence from the “Chief Trouble Maker” and contagious Trailblazer.

Who is Shelley Zalis?

Shelley Zalis launched the Girls' Lounge in 2013 after an informal gathering in her hotel room at the Consumer Electronics Show gave rise to a movement that emphasizes mentorship and collaboration among women to create real change in the workplace. As the first female chief executive to be ranked in the research industry’s top 25, she brings over a decade of proven leadership, professional compassion, and innovation to the movement.

In 2015, she went from the business of market research into the business of equality when she launched The Female Quotient, of which the Girls’ Lounge is one pillar. Her company is committed to advancing gender equality in the workplace by activating solutions for change and creating measurements for accountability. We caught up with her to find out how she is rewriting the rules of the workplace, and how you can, too.

Shelley, tell us about what you are doing now?

The mission of The Female Quotient is to advance equality in the workplace. We provide companies and business leaders with research, tools and experiences to promote equality, including the Modern Guide to Equality, a living, breathing playbook for activating change that's updated bi-annually.

In addition to offering the Girls’ Lounges at companies and conferences—such as Davos and Advertising Week—we recently launched the Girls' Lounge @ Campus, a global leadership program designed to cultivate the next generation of female entrepreneurs, executives and innovators, in partnership with SAP Next-Gen.

How did you get to where you are today?  What pivotal moments did you face along the way and what inspired you to do what you are doing now?

I got to where I am today by breaking the rules that made no sense and creating new ones that worked for me in my life, and at every life stage. I created the un-corporate rules that made sense to me, so I could run a company and raise a family. And by being myself with no apologies and owning my strengths. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

What do you see as the major opportunities/challenges for women today and what solution/advice do you have to offer?

A challenge for women today is getting past middle management to rise up into leadership positions. We call it the “messy middle;” a period where women may be getting more responsibilities at home at the same time they are getting more responsibilities at work.

What typically happens for women in middle management is one of three things:

  1. They rise to the top but have work-life balance issues.
  2. They leave the workforce completely to raise their families.
  3. They leave to start their own company, which is what I did.

Don’t fall out too early. You don’t get to write your own rules in middle management, but if you can push through to rise to a top leadership position, there is a rainbow on the other side: As a leader, you can write your own rules and give back with generosity what you wish you had rising the ranks.

What solutions or advice do you have for women who are wanting to embrace these opportunities/challenges?

Work-life balance is a common issue women talk about in the lounges when they are trying to rise to leadership positions—and when they’ve arrived. However, I don’t believe in work-life balance.  There are only 24 hours in a day, and you can’t do it all every day. The game is finding ways to do what is most important to you on most days. You have one life with many dimensions, and you must find ways to integrate your work and your life in order to be the best worker, partner, friend, mother and self.

What’s worked for me is doing life blocking, or what I call life dimensions. Life dimensions are the stuff that is most important to you, and it will be different depending on your personality and life phase. In general, there are a few main life blocks: You have family, work, friends, community, and—the last one that we often neglect—is ourselves. Don’t forget about you!

Dimensions are flexible, so it’s important to reorganize and reprioritize.  You might not be able to always do all five of those dimensions equally. This depends on your current life stage, such as if you have a family, or you want to go dating or have a sick parent you want to take care of. We all have responsibilities, it’s not just people with children. We all want to have a life. You may just have to modify.

Three more tips on how to take care of yourself?

  1. Stop thinking that you’re being selfish
  2. Don't take your mental and physical health for granted
  3. Correct workplace culture by modeling the way

Who helped you in your journey and what advice did they give you that really shaped your thinking?

Gerry Lukeman, one of my first bosses, encouraged me to find the story in the data, put my family first, and own my femininity. He taught me that my uniqueness is a strength. He also taught me that there is no such thing as trying: You either do it or you don’t.

“There is no such thing as trying: You either do it or you don’t.”

Final tips to share?

I’ve always felt that building relationships is the most important aspect of building a business. In my first job interview, I was criticized for spending too much time with clients. I thought about that for a quick second, and decided I was never going to be just an order taker. I want to know not only what my clients do, but who they are—including what matters most to them.

I’m so glad that I listened to my intuition and defined my own way of doing business, because I know relationships have been the biggest secret to my business success.

Networking is one and done. It’s where you shake someone’s hand and give them a business card. Where does that leave you? With a stack of business cards on your desk. A relationship, on the other hand, touches your heart and creates an everlasting partnership.

An executive may meet dozens of people during the day, but if you can make yourself memorable by finding a way to connect on a personal level, you won’t be forgotten. And, by the way, if you’re going to give or take a business card, include a note that is memorable and meaningful as a reminder of your value exchange. The cards that will stand out are the ones with meaningful notes.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, money or talent would be no object, what would you be doing?

Exactly what I’m doing. When purpose meets passion, you’re unstoppable.