“Don’t Be Afraid To Break The Rules That Don’t Make Sense” Advice for Female Founders from Shelley Zalis

I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Zalis, CEO and Founder of The Female Quotient, a company fiercely dedicated to advancing equality. 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. You can follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

What is your “backstory?”

Before I launched The Female Quotient, I founded an online research company called OTX. As a female CEO, I know firsthand how underrepresented women are in corporate leadership positions. In 2013, I gathered a group of girlfriends to walk the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Being part of that “pack” of about 50 women gave us confidence and solidarity in a setting where we’d always been the minority. That was my “heartbeat moment,” when I founded the Girls’ Lounge and knew I found my calling.

The Female Quotient is in the business of equality. We host the Girls’ Lounge, a go-to pop-up destination at global conferences and events — including WEF Davos, Cannes Lions, SXSW, and more — where women connect, collaborate and activate real change. We also publish the Modern Guide to Equality, a living and breathing playbook to help companies create the culture they want, and work directly with companies and business leaders to deliver research, tools and experiences to advance equality in the workplace.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting part of leading The Female Quotient is watching women realize that they don’t have to compromise who they are or conform to the old “boys’ club” mentality to be successful. It’s incredible to witness that moment of self-acceptance when a woman gives herself permission to be who she is, without apology.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re the largest community of corporate women working together to advance equality. More than 17,000 women have come to our Girls’ Lounges, and we hold an annual dinner for over 1,000 women. You can really feel the power in the room when that many women collaborate…there’s power in the pack!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

My mom…I’m one of four girls, and from a young age she instilled in us the confidence to believe we could achieve whatever we could imagine. I’m also deeply grateful to all of the women who lend their mentorship, friendship, support, inspiration, and leadership to The Female Quotient in support of equality.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m committed to giving back with generosity what I wish had been given to me when I was rising in the corporate ranks. I want my legacy to be about advancing equality in the workplace. The Female Quotient is much bigger than me, but its mission and my mission are one and the same.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.

  1. Don’t be afraid to break the rules that don’t make sense.

I’m a big believer in “uncorporate” rules. For example, I don’t believe in punching a clock 9-to-5. I have a no regrets policy: I never want to look back and say “coulda, shoulda, woulda.” So I tell my people, don’t miss the moments that matter — if your kid has a soccer game at 4 PM, block it on the calendar like a meeting you can’t move, and go!

2. Leadership is not about motivating your employees, it’s about inspiring them.

3. Relationships matter — it’s not just about doing deals.

People work with people they like, and the only way to develop a genuine relationship is by spending time together in person. Phone calls, emails and texts won’t cut it.

This is why I started a tradition called “Bagel Fridays” at my former company, OTX. The company treated everyone to bagels (and fruit!) for breakfast, but the rule was that you had to eat with someone you don’t work with often. This helped the whole team get to know each other and build stronger relationships.

4. The best company culture is a culture of belonging: an environment that is nurturing, caring, and empathetic — not competitive and cutthroat.

Part of creating a culture of care is acknowledging that we are all at different stages in our lives, and that we all have lives outside work. Rather than allot people a finite number of vacation days, I encourage my teams to take the time they need when they need it — just don’t abuse it and leave your colleagues in the lurch.

5. Always have chocolate!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. :-)

Yes, but I’ll need a time machine! I would love to meet women who gave voice to the equality movement in a different era than the one we’re living in today, like Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan. I would want to hear about their “heartbeat moments:” what inspired them to dedicate their lives to this cause, and to ask their advice on how we can keep moving forward to achieve equality.


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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.