by Sue Tomchin
Shelley Zalis believes that equality is not a female issue, it’s a social and economic imperative.
Zalis, 55, the L.A.-based CEO of The Female Quotient and founder of the Girls’ Lounge, works to empower individuals and companies to champion diversity and equality in order to create more successful business outcomes.
“I’m in the business of equality,” she says. “We say that diversity is good for business, yet we’ve gone backwards and have not created progress.”
The World Economic Forum ranks gender equality in 144 countries and in the the last two years, Zalis notes, the U.S. has dropped from 28th to 45th.
“We have been admiring the problem and have not created accountability for change, nor next-step solutions,” she says of the lack of progress. “We think it’s going to happen in one fell swoop which is not the case. We have been using textbook scenarios that do not work today.”
That’s where The Female Quotient and the Girls’ Lounge, come in. The Girls’ Lounge is an “experiential pop-up” where corporate women attending industry conferences gather to connect, collaborate and activate change together. The setting is usually a hotel penthouse or other congenial space and features confidence coaching, relationship building and authentic unplugged conversations.
Since it debuted five years ago, Zalis estimates that upwards of 17,000 women have connected through the Girls’ Lounge at such gatherings as the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Cannes Lions Festival and the Consumer Electronics Show.
“The Girls’ Lounge is a very personal journey for me,” Zalis says. “I’m giving back what I wish I had rising in the ranks.”
Calling it “Girls’” Lounge was very deliberate, she explains. “I want to reclaim the word ‘girl’ as a mindset. It’s about being bold, brave and fearless, about being girlfriends and supporting one another. There’s a boys’ club. Why can’t there be a girls’ lounge, a real place for women to connect and collaborate and to encourage women to bring their feminine qualities into the workplace?”
"As a CEO, I created a company that I wanted to work for. I had a high attraction and retention rate because we allowed people to have a life, including a career."
A second aspect of The Female Quotient’s work is to change workplace culture. Zalis seeks to “reimagine workplace rules for the modern workforce or break the rules to create new ones.” She runs boot camps inside of Fortune 500 companies to help them become “equality fit.” She has also created The Modern Guide to Equality, a toolkit to help companies close the wage gap and eliminate bias in hiring.
A veteran of the corporate world, Zalis found that the rules didn’t work for her, “as a Jewish mother, as someone who wanted to have a successful career but also a successful family.”
What’s more, her ideas were often not embraced in meetings. “I knew I always thought differently, but I was never right” she says, asking, “Why can’t I be right? Why can’t I bring the feminine perspective to business?”
In 2000, Zalis founded OTX (Online Testing Exchange), a pioneering online research company that flourished. The first female chief executive for a company ranked in the research industry’s top 25, she brought feminine leadership qualities to the boardroom. “As a CEO, I created a company that I wanted to work for,” she says. “I had a high attraction and retention rate because I created a company that allowed people to have a life including a career.”
She sold OTX seven years ago, and now pursues full-time her passion to advance women’s equality in the workplace. In addition to running The Female Quotient, she hosts a show on Bloomberg TV called Walk the Talk, where she works with leaders to advance equality within their corporations. She also writes a column five times a month for Forbes called “The Messy Middle,” in which she gives women tips about how to rise from middle management to leadership.
Zalis also co-created #SeeHer, a movement challenging the entertainment and advertising industries to accurately portray women and girls in the media, so that by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s vote, “they see themselves reflected as they truly are.”
She and her husband, Phil, a surgeon, have three children. She grew up in Los Angeles, one of four sisters who are her best friends, and attended Barnard College. She remains close to her parents, the “anchors” of her life. It was from her dad, a physician, that she learned to be adventurous. The family chases eclipses around the world; in August, 22 family members congregated in Yellowstone for the total solar eclipse.
Her mother, Zalis says, “is probably the most influential and inspirational person I know. She made us believe that we could be anything that we could imagine.” Her mother has been involved in many causes and has founded several organizations, from the Golda Meir Club to the first conference for women in the state of California for Governor Pete Wilson. At 16, Zalis looked around at the 3,000 participants gathered there to advance women’s rights and realized, “If my mom could do it, I could do it.”