Leaving a successful career as a CEO of market research company, Online Testing Exchange, Shelley Zalis set out to connect women in business. What began as a group of 50 women walking the floor of CES together grew into The Girls' Lounge, a go-to destination for women at conferences and corporate events such as SXSW, Davos and CES. In a few short years, the events have attracted thousands of attendees and big-name partnerships with the likes of Google, Facebook, Unilever, Spotify, JP Morgan Chase and others. I caught up with Shelly to discuss The Girls' Lounge and The Female Quotient.
LM: Let's start by giving me a snapshot of you and The Female Quotient.
SZ: We're in the business of equality. We like to say, "First came IQ (the Intelligence Quotient) then came EQ (the Emotional Quotient), now comes FQ (the Female Quotient)." At The Female Quotient, we work with companies and business leaders to advance equality in the workplace by tackling issues such as closing the wage gap, eliminating bias, changing company culture, creating empathetic leadership, and measuring progress.
We publish The Modern Guide to Equality, a living and breathing playbook to rewrite the rules for today's workplace in order for companies to evolve. We also host the Girls' Lounge, a pop-up space at conferences and corporate events for women to connect, collaborate, and activate change together. It's the power of the pack in action: More than 17,000 women have come to our Girls' Lounges, which we've brought to the World Economic Forum, Cannes Lions, SXSW, and other traditionally male-dominated conferences. Research shows that when women reach a critical mass of influence and make up about 20 to 30% of leadership positions, the power dynamics shift. We're building a community to create a critical mass of influence so that we can transform workplace culture.
LM: Tell me about your origin story. Why you? Why did you start this company?
SZ: Before I launched The Female Quotient, I was the founder and CEO of an online research company. It was rare to find other women in high-level executive positions--and women are still underrepresented near the top of the corporate ladder. Throughout my career, I've used the power of collaboration and been a mentor and friend to female leaders in my own industry and across other industries. While attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2013, I got a group of girlfriends together to walk the conference floor as a group, because I didn't want to walk the floor alone. At the time, women made up only a very small percentage of the 150,000 attendees, but being part of that "pack" of about 50 women gave us confidence. All the men's heads turned--50 women walking the floor separately wouldn't have been noticed, but a big crowd of women was hard to ignore. It showed me that the minority can feel and act like the majority. That was my "heartbeat moment" and the start of the Girls' Lounge, which is now part of The Female Quotient.
LM: Tell me about selling your previous business and what led to your aha moment before starting The Female Quotient.
SZ: I was the only female CEO in the top 25 global research CEOs my whole career. I was well known as the "Chief Troublemaker" because I broke the rules that made no sense. I created "un-corporate rules" in the company I founded, Online Testing Exchange (OTX), and created a lifestyle company before anyone was even using the term. I sold OTX in 2010 to Ipsos, the third-largest research company in the world.
My "aha moment," or as I like to say, my "heartbeat moment," was when I realized that I brought different qualities of leadership to the table. I was nurturing, empathetic, and passionate. These traditionally feminine strengths are what helped me be successful, allowing me to run my company like a family. I believe that emotion and passion belong in the boardroom. The Female Quotient is much bigger than me, but it reflects my personal mission to help women own their strengths and advance equality in the workplace.
LM: How did you think of the concept and what/who was your inspiration?
SZ: It all started with the Girls' Lounge, a safe and authentic space for women to be themselves and have unplugged conversations. But then we realized we also needed to create change in the workplace. According to McKinsey, at the rate we're going, it will take 118 years to reach gender parity in the C-suite--unless we create change now. We launched The Female Quotient to create next-step solutions for change and measures for accountability.
It's also about leadership inside of companies, and transformation should include everyone. As we all know, women are 50% of the population, and men need to be part of the solution. Gender equality is a social and economic issue, not a "women's" issue. That's why when we were invited to the World Economic Forum for the first time in 2016, we hosted an Equality Lounge where men and women leaders could come together to develop solutions.
LM: Discuss the aesthetic/branding of the company.
SZ: The Female Quotient aesthetic can best be described as "grace with grit:" a strong color palette of gray, black, and white with a touch of rose gold, to represent how we bring femininity into everything we do, without apology. Our branding reflects the characteristics of our lounges: warm, inviting, and inclusive.
In the Girls' Lounge, we don't wear name tags or badges. We don't want women to talk to each other based on title or where they work; we want them to discover other great women. After all, we all learn from each other, regardless of title or company. All of our invitations are sent out from a collective group of women, first names only. That's because companies don't make things happen, people do. Our people just happen to be badass women.
LM: What advice would you give to any other female entrepreneurs out there?
SZ: There's no such thing as perfection. Be yourself. Don't apologize. Ask for what you want. Know your worth. Confidence is beautiful.
I absolutely agree.