How I'm Skirting the Rules

I’ve Gotten 7,500-Plus Female Leaders to Bring their ‘Girl’ to Work to Fight for Equality for All

Shelley Zalis, founder of The Girls’ Lounge, is breaking the status quo in order to start a new conversation about success that is based on collaboration rather than competition.

Shelley Zalis, founder of The Girls' Lounge

The Girls' Lounge founder Shelley Zalis is reminding women that collaboration leads to impact.

Shelley Zalis is harnessing the power of the pack, and so are the 7,500-plus corporate and executive women who have attended The Girls’ Lounges. What started as an informal female gathering in Shelley’s hotel room at the mostly-male 2013 Consumer Electronic Show has turned into a movement that emphasizes collaboration and mentorship to activate real change. Today more than 47 of these networking events have become the go-to place for women at influential conferences around the world, from Cannes Lions to Advertising Week to SXSW to the 2016 World Economic Forum (which, by the way, was 82 percent male). The movement is also creating campaigns that are breaking the old rules to create new ones, including #NotGoingBack, which aimed to get a woman on the front of U.S. Currency. Find out how this skirter has taken many steps towards gender equality with an army of women by her side.

The Girls’ Lounge is Skirting the Rules by using collaboration to transform the rules of women in leadership. In the past, women have been trained to be competitive with each other, but that way doesn’t help us get ahead. I’m not saying one person can’t make a difference, but if we could have done it alone, we would have by now. I saw the magic in working together when I went to CES in 2013. There weren’t many women in tech at the time, so I invited some girlfriends to hang out in my hotel room and told them to invite their friends. About 50 women showed up. I called a hairdresser, and all these women were getting their hair done and talking about business. The next day, about 150 women ended up walking the floor together at CES. Two remarkable things happened at that moment. The first, all the men’s heads were turning like ‘WTF is happening?’ The second was an internal feeling of confidence. It felt so powerful to have this group of smart women surrounding me. I realized the importance of bringing my feminine side to the business world. Those were the heartbeat moments that shaped what The Girls’ Lounge is today.

I believe the most powerful feminine strengths that help women get ahead are caregiving qualities that are in general feminine attributes, such as being nurturing, collaborative, empathetic, passionate. A true leader really wants his or her team to be the best rather than focusing on his or her own personal success.

The biggest risk I ever took was when I broke the rules for my entire career. I’ve been known as Chief Troublemaker. If you don’t break rules, you can’t create new ones for change. For example, my first big risk was when I was at a market research company and I had the idea to migrate research from offline to online. I was told that it wasn’t the right time, and no one was online except for wealthy old men with broadband connection.

But I had another heartbeat moment and had to take that chance. So I created the ecosystem to make it the right moment. I was a little ahead of the curve, but I stayed with it. My company, Online Testing Exchange, became one of the biggest research companies in the world when I sold it to Ipsos nine years later.

An example of how listening to my intuition has helped me is knowing that building relationships is key to business growth. I had a poor review once from a guy who was criticizing me for taking colleagues out to lunch, flying to clients for in-person meetings, and spending too much money. I said to him, ‘I don’t do deals, I create relationships.’ I really had to follow my instincts about that—luckily I did. I became the business development executive in market research. It showed me that one of the most important talents I have is relationship building and finding value for everybody in the equation.

My secret talent is I’m jet-lag immune—I don’t have jet lag. I can be in three different cities in three different countries on the same day. I’ve been to Paris for breakfast and New York for dinner. Also, I’m more comfortable in stilettos than I am in flats.

My biggest rebel move was recently leaving a big job at Ipsos. I was running global innovation for 83 countries and they were sponsoring The Girls’ Lounge. It was another heartbeat moment where I knew that I had to to take the The Girls’ Lounge from a company initiative to an industry collaboration. There are a lot of times when you have to believe in your gut. The easy way is to default and follow. The hardest way is to take a risk. I had to follow my purpose and passion to take it to where it needed to be.

A woman is most powerful when she has confidence in herself. When she owns her strengths. When she understands that perfection does not exist and she is equal in her own regard to everyone else. When she shares and gives back with generosity to others.

A time I wish I’d listened to my inner knowing more was the time before I knew I should live with a no-regret policy. It was when I was a junior executive and mother that I made a promise to myself that I would live with no regrets. So I always looked forward when my kids had a game or a play and asked myself whether I would feel bad if I missed it. If the answer was yes, then I found a way to be there, and to skirt the rules even if I had no permission by negotiating with my colleagues. Because 10 years later no one is going to remember that you left the office early, but you will regret missing moments that matter to you.

The female disruptor who most inspires me and why is all the women in The Girls’ Lounge who are willing to be bold, brave, and change the game.

My advice to my younger self would be that your biggest learning moments won’t come from any textbook, and definitely not by following the rules that make no sense. Your biggest learning moments will come from those transformative, disruptive times in your career when you have to write new rules for yourself because the traditional way no longer works.

To find the possible within the impossible I say there’s always a yes, you just have to find it. My biggest impossible challenge was getting studios to say “yes” to online research when they had exclusive contracts with their current vendor. I found a clause in the contracts that said “exclusive mall research” and I was offering online research. That was the loophole that started the new trend.

My favorite “mini-skirt” is practicing what I call life blocking. There are only 24 hours in a day and you can’t do it all every day. But the game is finding ways to do what is most important most days. What I call life dimensions, or the stuff that is most important, depend on your personality and life phase. They may include work, family, friends, community, self-care, and—if you’re single—dating, because you have to make time for it if it is what you want.

Dimensions are flexible. It’s important to reorganize and reprioritize depending on your life stage.  For example, if work and family are both important dimensions at one life phase, you might not be able to put as much time into community. If friends and exercise are also dimensions for you at this stage, you might combine two dimensions into one by inviting friends over to exercise. For me, my personal and work friendships have always been an important life dimension. I’ve prioritized this dimension, and I believe it is one of the keys to my success.