Telling people that you are a strong woman is admirable, but being strong enough to break the rules makes you a leader. Changing the golden rule of “Do unto others as you’d want to do unto yourself” into something like “Do unto others as they want for themselves,” is the attitude that has helped Shelley Zalis do it all as a female CEO. She raises her family like a rock star and travels the world like one too. She pioneered research making it go from offline to online, and through this experience, she developed The Female Quotient. This involves mentorship at all levels and all ages to continually learn from other’s wisdom. Learn how Shelley found a way to own her voice and why she needed to break the rules to make new ones.
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The Female Quotient, Sharing Wisdom at All Levels with Shelley Zalis
I'm so excited that you are able to join me here at NRF 2018 for a special edition of the Business Building Rockstars Show. It's really nice to be in this space with you. Thanks for being here.
You bring your own energy anywhere you go. That is very clear. You don't need the surrounding to be a rock star. You are a rock star.
Tell us a little bit about who Shelley Zalis is.
My nickname is Chief Troublemaker. I pioneered online research. When you take those shitty surveys on the internet and you swear against the person that created them, that was me. I was the mother of that invention. I migrated research from offline to online in a day and age where only wealthy old men were on the internet, hardly a representative population but created the new norm where the only thing you know today is research on the internet. That was me. I was the only female CEO on the Top 25 in market research my whole career. I knew that I always did think very differently than my peers. I realized I had to break the rules to create new ones because they just didn't make sense for a woman “doing it all,” raising a family, being the CEO of a company, traveling around the world. I created the end corporate rules when I launched a company called OTX, Online Testing Exchange. It is what it is, an online testing exchange. I sold that company seven years ago to the third largest research company in the world, Ipsos, a French company. While I was there, I realized that being the only woman in my category at that level, I wanted to give back with generosity to other women rising the ranks. I wanted to go to CES, the Consumer Electronic Show, which was in Vegas with over 180,000 people, less than 5% women. I called a few girlfriends and invited them to join me. I told them to invite their girlfriends, and 24 hours later, 50 women showed up.
Two remarkable things happened. One, all the men's heads turned, like, “Where did all you women come from?” That's when I coined the phrase “Power of the pack.” In the corporate world, a woman alone is power. Collectively, we have impact. The second was a confidence moment. I coined the phrase “Confidence is beautiful.” I really felt like I was surrounded by people just like me. Why do we need to conform to the rules that make no sense? Let's break the rules, create new ones and rewrite the rules for the modern workplace. That is when The Girls’ Lounge was born. I left Ipsos after five years. Then I started a company called The Female Quotient. The Female Quotient is what it is. First came the Intelligence Quotient (IQ), then the Emotional Quotient (EQ) and now the Female Quotient, (FQ). When you put women in any equation, the equation gets better! We say diversity is good for business, but yet we're going backwards. This is really a time where we need to use our voices, work together, activate change and not only empower ourselves with bringing our best strengths to the table but also advancing equality in the workplace with new solutions. I went from the business of online research to the business of equality by accident.
What you're doing is amazing. If you search, #SeeHer or #GirlsLounge or #TheFemaleQuotient, and there are some other hashtags you probably used out there, you're going to find so many different things that Shelley is up to. It's super exciting and super empowering. One of the things that’s beautiful is that there are women of all ages. From college campuses to corporate conferences, you are everywhere and you're bringing together women and some men of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all races, of all religions, of all ages and having these open conversations. How has that impacted your life personally as far as where you are today? Is this where you saw The Girls' Lounge going?
I could not have written the script. Every day is a new day and I end up going where it takes me. My girlfriend Linda Yaccarino, she's Head of Global Advertising Sales for NBCU. She's Vice Chair. We coined something called “Mentorship in the moment.” It is mentorship at every level, at every age. We all learn from each other. It's not just wisdom being pushed down or pushed up. It's wisdom shared all around. It's so important. It's the first time in history. We have five generations in the workplace, Gen Z coming in and traditionalists moving up, but retiring later. We all have to work together. It's not diversity of gender, race, age, religion. It's diversity of mindset. We benefit from one another. Regarding men, it is very important. Transformation must include men. We're all in this together. Gender equality is not a female issue, it's a social and economic issue. We can have women having unplugged, authentic conversations where we have a safe environment to share, but change has to happen together inside the workplace. I have no idea where I am tomorrow, but wherever I am is where I need to be. It's been nothing shy of inspiring, it's been nothing short of exhilarating. Bringing the power of the pack together, we've connected over 17,000 women working together across every corporation, every level. We've created a girlfriend network which is quite powerful.
I got to experience a breakfast that you did. What I loved was that a lot of situations when we have women groups or women initiatives, me as somebody who has been in predominantly male-dominated fields my whole life, I'm not as sensitive as I hear some women are when they're in these groups. You had such an amazing conversation about that and opening up the dialogue and opening up the conversation that we don't have to be offended as women. We don't have to say, “This is an offensive word or that's an offensive word.” It is that mindset piece and owning your own power and speaking up and just being real with other people. Over the years, everybody wants to be so PC and we've gotten to this point where people don't actually communicate. They “talk at” instead of “talk with.” I love what you and your panelists discussed. Can you talk a little bit about that mindset? You are a strong woman and there's nothing wrong with that. I love that you own that and you tell people that. They don't have to be demure and they don't have to be offended by the word “girl” for example.
First of all, I've always owned my voice. Oftentimes, it's not that people are trying to be offensive. They're just not conscious of what they say. It's easy to say, “I don't want to be spoken to that way,” or, “That's offensive,” or, “I don't want to go to a strip joint because all of you are going. I'd rather go to this wine bar. Why don't you join me in that direction?” From the age of 25 without permission, I was not a Senior Executive, I had to find my own voice because no one gives you your voice but yourself. I had a male boss. We had a meeting in Connecticut for dinner and I was staying in New York City. It was [11:00] PM and he drove me to the train station, dropped me off and said, “I'll see you tomorrow.” It wasn't that he was trying to do that to make me feel uncomfortable. It's just that's what he would've done. He didn't think about I'm being a young woman on a train by myself, not even knowing New York at all. I just said to him, “I'm not comfortable going on the train by myself. Either you've got to go with me or drive me to the city or put me in a car.” I didn't mean it to be snippy or whatever. I wasn't comfortable. He didn't think about it and he goes, “I'm so sorry.”
Tina Sharkey said, “We have to rewrite even the golden rule.” The golden rule says, “Do unto others as you'd want to do unto yourself.” Maybe it's, “Do unto others as they would want for themselves.” He would've put himself on the train. He was putting me where he thought to go. He never paused to say, “You're right. It's probably not safe for you to go.” These are the kinds of things that you have to point out. I'm now 55, going on 56, so I'm an old lady that's been around the block, but even at 27, I'll never forget these moments where I was in sales. I wanted to bring in Procter & Gamble as a client and all my bosses told me it wasn't the right time because it was a big move and you only have one chance to win. I'm like, “When is the right time? Is God going to hit me on the head and say this is the moment?”I happened to be at a conference with the person from Procter. I whispered to him, I said, “When is the right time to come in and pitch to you?” He says, “Next week.” I come back and I was all excited and I said, “We got the meeting at Procter & Gamble.” The team said, “Paul will go and David will go and Jim will go and Bob will go.” I'm like, “What about Shelley?” They said, “It's going to be all men there.” I said, “If I'm not going, I'm going to cancel the meeting. You all can get it yourselves because they're expecting me.” I had to find my voice. I didn't mean to be rude. I was being honest. That's what we need to do more of. Buildings and institutions don't make shit happen. They don't create the rules, people do. People, humans do care. There are exceptions to the rule but they're not the norm. Sometimes it's just pointing out and making people conscious of their unconscious. If that doesn't work, then you go to step two, but start with step one.
Something that you're communicating, underlying, at least my interpretation, is that by being authentic, by being real, and by communicating what you feel and who you are, it's not coming from a place of shame or blame to somebody else for them not realizing it. It's so neutral and that's something that's missing in dialogue in these days. People are pointing fingers and it's a “for or against” mentality that I'm observing in our society. That personal ownership of, “This is what I'm experiencing,” without any attachment to, “You're doing this to me,” but just a, “Here's what's going on for me.” It's a completely different conversation and one that is when we're willing to have it, it’s comfortable for everybody involved.
It's so crazy because oftentimes we assume things, and you know what assume means. I go back to middle school and I had a teacher whose name was Michael Schlyer. He was this hippie teacher. I will never forget him. He had a kid named Rainbow and his other child was called Chastity. He was so cool. We had something called “I'm mad at you.” We sat around in a circle and everyone said, “I'm mad at you because you didn't invite me to sit with you at lunch, and I'm mad at you because you talked behind my back and that wasn't very nice and I heard about it.” We talked about things. Maybe we need an “I'm mad at you” session in the workplace where it's listening lunches and we can talk about things that are on our minds and share so that we can be better. Better is a choice. Nobody wants to be a jerk. We are not aware. Conversation, open dialogue in a safe and secure environment where we know it's okay and that we are going to make the workplace a better place, and attract and retain the best talent, and allow people to be their best selves and thrive, is not a bad way to go.
We need to follow the golden rule. We need to have consequences for bad behavior. We need to have reward for respect in the workplace. We need to have listening conversations that are open, candid, authentic, unplugged, safe and secure. We need to create some new rules. Sometimes these rules are not so complicated like, “I'm sick of hearing about interruption.” Then take a bell and every time someone is interrupting, ring the bell. Let's make people conscious. We all know the Pavlovian response: the more you do it, the more you learn. Maybe we've got to go back to learning and call out bad behavior, reinforce good behavior continuously until it becomes part of your DNA. Have a policy like open door policy. Have a policy that no one is to go to anyone's apartment or home or private space that is not in a work environment. Make that a rule. It might sound so silly but maybe we need to call these things out until we get good at this.
Can we talk a little bit more about The Girls' Lounge and how this moment became a movement? What magic is happening there? What are you seeing? How did it come to be, where is it now and where is it going over the next one, three and five years?
I write the next chapter when it happens. I would tell you anything you want to know because I have no secrets, but I can only tell you what I know now. The Girls' Lounge went from a moment to a movement. We started with four women. I told them to invite other women. We now have over 17,000 women and we create pop-up spaces at large industry conferences that are predominantly men to create a safe space for women to have unplugged, authentic conversations. Men are welcome. They are the minority. When you're in a space full of women, the minority acts and feels like the majority. It is confidence-boosting on so many levels. We're doing pop-ups everywhere at major industry conferences, connecting women in marketing, media, advertising, research, technology and finance. We will be expanding into automotive and healthcare. Lawyers need a lot of help in that regard too. We also got calls from the builders industry. It's power of the pack in action.
We actually launched a campaign called #PowerOfThePack. Tag three of your girlfriends that are supporting other girlfriends and pay it forward with generosity. We are building pop-up spaces within corporations and within college campuses. We are creating equality bootcamps inside of the workplace. We have an Equality Lounge coming up at the World Economic Forum where it's solutions for change, men and women. Where are we, one to three to five years? I hope that women like you call me and say, “How do I create pop-up lounges in Ontario?” and then it just goes viral because once you get started, it truly is infectious. Having a network of people supporting people and girlfriends in the corporate workplace world and entrepreneurs having resources to tap into is magical. It's priceless.
You asked all of the ladies on your panel this question, but nobody asked you. I would love to know about this. You were telling a story about Milk. She had asked, “What is your brag, desire and gratitude?” Can you just give us a little bit of a backstory on the importance of that question and of being able to answer that, and why it's so difficult for women?
Women, in general, we always talk about everyone else. We are too nice to brag about ourselves. We want to brag about everyone else before we want to say something about us because we really don't work in the “I.” We work in the “we.” We share and we're good sharers. Every once in a while, you've got to know what you're good at. First of all, if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will. You've got to know what you're good at and then you also need to know how you surround yourself with other people that are good at other things. It is power of the pack. We all play off each other. We all bring value to one another. It is important to go deep inside. Oscar Wilde says, “Be yourself because everyone else is taken.” We need to discover our strength, celebrate our strength, voice our strength and then surround ourselves with others because that's when the power of collaboration kicks into action.
What is your brag?
I'm a great collaborator.
How about your desire and your gratitude?
My desire is to change the equation in the workplace. For my girlfriends in the workplace, I never in a million years thought that I would have 17,000 girlfriends working together, sharing, bringing value to each other, amplifying each other's voices and shining light on helping each of us rise. When you help someone else rise, we all shine. That is my gratitude for 17,000 amazing girlfriends that are paying it forward with generosity to so many other women.
Shelley, is there anything I didn't ask you that you feel is important to put into this conversation?
Most importantly that change happens in steps. Don't look at it happening overnight because then you revert back to say, “It's too big a challenge.” Break it into bite-sized steps. One step, two steps, three steps, and then look back and say, “Look how far I've come.” Secondly, we all have responsibility for change. Who are you waiting for? Take responsibility. Raise your hand and say, “I can be better.” Number three, never forget there's power of the pack. Number four, your voice matters. If you watch and wait, nothing will ever happen. Make it happen. You have the power in your heart for change to happen.
Where can people go to learn more about The Female Quotient and also The Girls' Lounge?
Thank you so much for being here.
- National Retail Federation's Big Show
- The Female Quotient
- Power Women Breakfast
- Shelley’s Forbes column
- NRF 2018
- The Female Quotient
- The Girls’ Lounge
- Equality Lounge
- World Economic Forum
- @ShelleyZalis Twitter
- @WeAreTFQ Twitter
About Shelley Zalis
Shelley Zalis is one of the most well-known thought leaders for advancing equality in the workplace. As the first female chief executive ranked in the research industry’s top 25, she changed the game, brought emotion and passion to the boardroom and has devoted herself to becoming a mentor and friend to women and leaders in her industry.
Today, through the Female Quotient, Zalis is sharing her mentorship and amplifying her message of equality to business women and entrepreneurs across many industries and levels. She is a sought-after speaker, talking at prominent events such as The Wrap’s Power Women Breakfast. Zalis authors a Forbes column that provides inspiration and advice for women in middle management (“the messy middle”) who are looking to rise up into leadership positions.