Shelley Zalis: Founder & CEO of The Female Quotient

Episode 341

In this episode, Shelley Zalis, Founder & CEO of The Female Quotient, takes us through her journey as a serial entrepreneur, including her many key learnings along the way. Before starting The Female Quotient, Shelley served as the only female CEO of a top 25 Global Research Company, founding and leading the Online Testing Exchange before its sale to research giant Ipsos. She is a pioneer in the field of online advertising and market research and has been called the Chief Troublemaker for her incredible advocacy work over the years.

Today through the signature pop-up experiences known as the Equality Lounge®, Shelley engages an international community of women rising up to catalyze important change. So much covered in this incredible interview that you won’t want to miss! On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Shelley Zalis, who is the CEO of the female quotient. And I’m thrilled, thrilled to see and hear all of the progress that they have made. I remember meeting Shelly few years ago when she was first kind of getting going, and hearing all of the progress that she’s been able to not only make for the female quotient, but also for so many founders out there is just absolutely incredible. So in case you are not familiar with Shelly, she’s an internationally renowned entrepreneur. She’s been a journalist for Forbes, she’s a TED speaker, a champion of gender equality. And today as the CEO of the female quotient, Shelly works with Fortune 500 companies and impact organizations to advance equality in the workplace. And so through their signature pop up experiences known as the equality lounge, Shelly is known for creating an international community of women rising up to create lots of amazing, amazing change. So before starting the female quotient, we’re going to get all into what she was up to. But just absolutely amazing experience as the only female CEO of a top 25 Global Research Company, she has been called the chief troublemaker, that is one that I have not been given as a title. But I certainly would be quite proud to receive that very excited to have this conversation with Shelley. So without further ado, welcome, Shelley.

Shelley Zalis 2:20
I’m so excited to be here. And I am so inspired by you and all that you’ve done. And I remember that first moment that we met, and you told me about hint. And I was like, Oh, my God, genius. And we had you in one of our lounges. And of course, all the women were racing to grab their bottle of hint, and we couldn’t talk it fast enough. So and where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going just always blows my mind. So so happy to be here. Well, so,

Kara Goldin 2:50
so nice. And yeah, and I’ve been a part of I was at con i guess a few years ago, I was on one of your panels. Super, super fun. Everything that you’re doing is just so so inspiring. So let’s talk for a moment about your upbringing, your early life, I read that you were one of four sisters. Not surprised actually knowing what you’ve done today and knowing that you were one of four sisters. What was life like around your house? I mean, was it obviously very heavy women around the circle and lots of opinions, I’m sure but I’d love to sort of hear what impact you think that had on who you are today.

Shelley Zalis 3:31
Yeah, it was amazing. I never, I never missed having a brother. And you know, my father who was truly the king. In the family. We all always served my dad but my mother was truly a powerhouse. My mother and father both were instrumental in our lives. My father lived life with adventure and wonder and curiosity and, and really had a no regret policy taught us that life was just living in the moment. And we traveled together all over the world, as a family, which kept us all so incredibly close. And as one of four girls believe it or not, we were best friends. And we were not competitive with each other. You know, we shared close. We my sister and I, who’s 14 months older than me, my older sister, we shared a room. And I have to say we even shared boyfriends. Not at the same time. But if my sister you know, she might have dated someone if it wasn’t for her. I would take him you know, I took her leftovers. And you know my other sister. Shireen was a little younger than I was and my baby sister Rachel, much younger than me, but they just wrote an article about my baby sister and I and we will call it the power sisters. And it was amazing because they compared and contrasted us of how similar we were yet how different we were and how similar sharing the same values and The story was so awesome. I love this story because they talked about how we both wear nice clothes. But my clothes were cutter and hers were over trending. And I wore my dresses, below my knees, and she wears them way above her knees, and I go to sleep at 10pm. And she’s just coming home and doing a wardrobe change. And I at the time was working in Hollywood, and she was working in Hollywood, but I was more on the business side. And she was in the celebrity side. I mean, it was just, we were all great friends. And I love that great girlfriends, and my parents did something so incredibly right, teaching us the good values and how we shared everything. And that is just what it was like being raised in a household. And from my father, we were his girls. But we also were great athletes, we were the boys who never had, you know, from a perfect spiral football. And that’s what being raised in a household and my mother, she didn’t have a paid job. But she had a full time job, a big an amazing mom. But she also was PTA president and did a lot of nonprofit work. And, and then when we left the household when we all went to school, she became the Senior Policy Advisor for Pete Well, Wilson, and believe it or not, she created the first conference for women in the state of California. Oh my god, that was 30 years ago, I just found the agenda from that first conference. And it’s the same topics that we are still talking about today in the equality Lounge, which is pretty darn crazy.

Kara Goldin 6:38
That is absolutely crazy. Well, I read that you really say that most of your female empowerment really came from her just watching her sort of do what she was doing. You know, I always think back on my mom and some of the stuff that she was doing. I mean, at that time it was she was just a mom, right? She was creating art programs in schools in Scottsdale, Arizona to teach people about the masters. And it was, you know, again, like I was hiding half the time when I would hear that she was doing all these different programs, but to be able to go and do things that no one else was doing and disrupt in some way. It really, truly is something that I think back on that things can be done if we keep showing up. And we’re resilient. And it sounds like you had the same type of experience with your mom.

Shelley Zalis 7:29
My mom is so incredible. And she lives right down the block. She’s 85 years old, she is she has more energy than I do at 60. And, you know, she lives life to the absolute fullest and was and is the most incredible mother, friend, community leader, activist, positive mindset competence builder. And, you know, it’s all about mindset truly, and really gave us that inner confidence and, you know, made us believe that we could do anything we put our minds to, and is still that today. And, and that’s why she’s ageless, you know, truly she walks around the block and is young in every single way and is my role model and inspiration for who I am and, and who I hope to be grandmother great grandmother, I mean truly remarkable woman.

Kara Goldin 8:30
I love that. So prior to founding the female quotient, we’ll get into that in just a minute. But you were the only female CEO of a top 25 Global Research Company founding and leading the online testing exchange. But I would love to hear a little bit more about that whole experience. And overall, you pioneered on online research and started a company called ATX. But I would love to kind of hear about that experience and sort of what you were up against when no one was talking about online research.

Shelley Zalis 9:04
Yeah, you know, I went to Barnard of Columbia University and I saw a little ad on a billboard on the career bulletin board. I thought I was applying for an ad agency job. I thought that was kind of sexy. I had no idea that it was for market research. I didn’t even know what market research was. And of course, I went to this job interview and there was four women in the in the company at the time, working for a guy named Bob and Dave vedera. And they were eating frozen yogurt and they were gossiping and talking about you know meeting People Magazine. I’m like, Oh, I could do this job. And you know, so of course I love the job and fell into it and found out it was not a creative ad agency looking at ads, it was a market research company. So I fell into market research. I did not apply for a research job. I was I got a D in statistics so I leave It’s likely person to get a market research job, as a matter of fact, that when I sold my company for a lot of money, and I was in the New York Times, The My professor from statistics called me up and he says, Are you the same? Shelly Ballard that within my statistics class that just sold her research company? I said, Yes. He says shocking, hysterical,

Kara Goldin 10:28
hysterical. He

Shelley Zalis 10:29
was Haguenau Banchon. And it was, we’re still friends today. I said, By the way, hey, I have to come back and teach you how to contextualize data because you didn’t do a very good job of it. I were still really good friends today. He’s now at a consulting firm. But anyways, so I fell into this market research company called Video storyboards. We did storyboards, research. And then from there, I went to a company called asi. That later got sold to Ipsos. And when I was at ASI, I, this was traditional research. My first review, and I talked a lot about this, I got a terrible review, I thought I was the perfect employee. I came in early, I stayed late, I said yes to everybody. And I thought I was like, you know, genius. And of course, my review typewritten with typewriters, at the time, was like a six page typewritten report, the first three lines were, I was smart, and I’m nice, and I’m a team player. But the rest was, I take too many clients to lunch, I push, you know, in, you know, the team out of their comfort zone, I, you know, I’m not an order taker, I invent too many things. And I’m not following the rules and all that kind of stuff. And they rip me to shreds. And in the end, they put someone above me, for me to report to someone else. And I had two options at the time, they wanted me to sign the review and agree with it. And I remember looking at my boss at the time, and I should have said, You’re right. But of course, I looked at him. And I said, this is the biggest mistake you’re making in your life. And tears came down my eyes. And I said, I disagree with this review. But I don’t have a choice but to sign it. And they put someone above me, and I knew I was going to leave this company. That’s how I got my name chief troublemaker. Because from that day on, I knew I was gonna break every rule and create new ones. And it was this moment of truth, which I call heartbeat moments. But boom, boom, boom, boom, your head is supposed to agree. That’s, you know, really the cognitive. But your heart is the emotive. It’s that emotional moment. And I knew if I followed the rules, it would never work for me, I would never be able to be a mom. Because I couldn’t state the long hours, I couldn’t travel, I wasn’t going to be able to just be an order taker, I was going to have to create my own rules to thrive in the workplace. The second heartbeat moment was when the internet was starting to form and people were starting to do online advertising. Facebook was being created. People were starting to create websites, brands, were creating websites. And I started testing websites. And I thought, well, what if we migrate research from offline to online, but the only people online were wealthy, old men with broadband connections. So I went to that same boss, and I said, Let’s migrate research to the internet. And that boss said to me, it’s too soon. There’s no one online. And the next week, I was on a panel with the Chief Research Officer of Procter and Gamble. And so I’m on the day, I’m on the panel, and my boss and my boss’s boss, and my boss’s boss, man, man, man. We’re all in the front row. And I’m on the panel with Larry Mach, the Chief Research Officer. And I’m whispering. And I come off the stage. And my bosses all said to me, what did you say to him? What did you say to him? Because they were all worried about me because I broke all the rules. And I said, I just asked him, when is the right time to come and talk to you about migrating research from offline to online? Because you all told me that it’s not the right time. I just want to know when is the right time. And he said, Come talk to me next week. So I said, we’re going to Procter and Gamble next week. So my boss said, Great, Paul will go John will go, Ringo will go one star will go. And I said, But what about Shelley? I got the meeting, I am going and they said, Well, no, it’s really a boys club. I said, Well, if I’m not going, I’m going to cancel the meeting. And you can all wait for the right time. And that was the end of that. I knew in that moment that I am so sick of waiting for the right time. And I’m so sick of all these men telling me who I am. And what I’m going to do that I’ve decided I would rather be the boss of my destiny. And I left the company And I started, oh, TX online testing exchange. And I became my own boss. And what year was that I decided I’m going to create this was in 2000, okay. And I decided I was going to be my own boss, I was going to write my own rules, because the rules of the workplace didn’t work for me. And then if I was going to thrive, I needed to be my own CEO. Because if I stayed in the corporate world, I would fail. And I would keep getting in trouble. And I would keep getting bad reviews. And I will keep being wrong. And you know what, I was tired of being wrong, I wanted to be right. And I didn’t want to be the exception to the rule, I want to create the new norm. So I created my own company, and I wrote my own rules that would work for everyone. Because if it works for me, it would work for everyone. And OTS became a phenomenon. And I actually pioneered online research. And I was the first in the world, and OTs at 250 employees. And the crazy thing is, I sold in the end to asi. Asi got acquired by Ipsos Creek, I sold Ipsos and acquired asi. And so selling to a company that I left years later, in 2015,

Kara Goldin 16:22
that is absolutely so crazy. It really just goes to show you especially for you know the people who really have the vision. And when no one else saw that vision. I mean, sometimes you just have to be able to stay alive, right and keep going and keep pushing forward and stand up for what you believe in. I think there’s so many lessons in that story, Shelly, I love it.

Shelley Zalis 16:45
I didn’t even have the vision. I just knew I didn’t have a choice. And I followed my heart. And I had to believe in me. And the crazy thing is I needed a million dollars to start my company. And at the time, my husband was a fellow in medicine, we didn’t have the money. And my father, my father. And so I went to my father and my husband, I said I need a million dollars to start this company. Because I had to build the technology, I promised a young 20 year old kid, a million dollars, I needed a million dollars to build this technology. I said I’ll give you a million dollars one day if someone buys into this, so build this on the fly. And I went to my husband and my my dad and I said I need a million dollars, they were each gonna give me 500,000 each, but I was afraid to take the money because I knew if I took their money, I would not take a chance I would be safe building something new, you can’t be safe. There was no textbook for what I was doing. I was building something that didn’t exist. And I knew if I took their money, I would never take risks. And so I went to Nielsen, and I said I need a million dollars for this idea. And so they gave me the million dollars. And they took 80% of the company and I 20% which was so dumb, but anyways, no regrets. And I gave a 20 year old a million dollars. I didn’t take anything for it. And I mean, that was the story. So I had no idea what I was doing. But I had no choice. And I followed my heart. And that’s what I call them heartbeat moments. But boom, boom, boom, boom, you’ve got to follow your heart. Until this day, I will always follow my heart. That

Kara Goldin 18:19
is such a great story. So let’s talk about how that led ultimately to the what you do with the female quotient, or I should even back up how do you define the female quotient,

Shelley Zalis 18:29
the female quotient, so the name came very easily to me. First came IQ the intelligence quotient then can EQ the emotional quotient now comes up to the female quotient. When you put women in any equation, there’s a return on equality. And you know, that really was what it was all about. And we’re all about changing the equation and closing the gender gap. And, you know, as the only female CEO top 25 My entire career. I know what it’s like being in the boys club. I know what it’s like being an only in lonely. I know what it’s like at 60 years old. You know, this is a long time ago, not having girlfriends in business. I was always at the top, especially in market research. Without girlfriends, I had to always find my own voice find my way, break the rules, and be by myself. And it was a moment where I wanted to bring market research into technology and market research into marketing and market research into media and market research into every category. And so I wanted to go to CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, and I didn’t want to go by myself. I heard there was 150,000 people that went with less than 3% women. And I was so tired of going by myself to everything and having to break into this world of men. So I called Five girlfriends and sipto with me to say yes, and we’ll walk the floor together. And I said if you know other women, please invite them 24 hours later, 50 women showed up. And two remarkable things happened. One, every single guy’s head turned. And that’s when I coined the phrase power. The fact a woman alone has power, collectively, we have impact. The second was I was surrounded by women just like me. We talked about work life balance, we talked about impostor syndrome, we all had power of the purse, we had money to spend, and we were doing deals with one another. And we were sharing the good, bad and the ugly, and we were supporting one another. And that’s when the girls lounge I, the opposite of boys girl, the opposite of club is lounge, if there’s a boys club, now, this girl says, we created a safe space. And it was amazing. And day two, we were 100 women. Day three, I had the penthouse suite at Four Seasons. And we started doing our hair and makeup, and not apologizing for being women. I mean, how often are women just acting like men, because it was, there was such a scarcity of jobs. At the top, we were like sticking our shields in each other’s head to say move out of the way, I’m gonna take that job. And we were acting like men, because that’s how we were trained to be. And then, you know, next thing, you know, I decided, let’s do these potlucks and every big conference, and the girls lunch became a phenomenon. And next thing you knew I was doing 70 Girls, which is a big industry conferences, and I kept the name girls out because I wanted women to get comfortable being women stop apologizing for being a woman own it. We need men, but we need women, you need the feminine, and I intentionally had hair and makeup so that nobody would say I’m embarrassed to do it. And we had girl scientists for years. And then once women 750,000 Women later across 100 countries started supporting each other across every industry, marketing, media, advertising, research, technology, sports, entertainment TV, every cybersecurity face, every industry, I decided to then evolve and call it a quality match, bringing conscious leaders, fortune 500 CEOs into the space. But the space was dominated by women, designed by women for everyone. And then we got invited to the World Economic Forum. And at the World Economic Forum. My invitation was we want you to come but you might not feel well. My head said Who wants to go to space like that my heart said, I have to go. And we showed up in a tiny little space. Today. Eight years later, we are the destination for equality at the World Economic Forum. We have every fortune 500 club where the white patches that show up. Jamie Dimon comes. And we have the CEO of Cisco, we’re the CEO of sales. We’re the CEO of everybody. And we own this space. And what are the conversations all about? It’s a space designed by women for everyone. And the topics are how to close the gender gap. The World Economic Forum just published a report that says it’ll take over 132 years to close the gender gap. why we created the internet in 25 years, we created a vaccine in one year, we put people on the moon and 10. Why should it take 132 years, we could close it in five. It just takes conscious leaders. And that’s what our spaces are all about. It’s about closing the gap, and sharing solutions for change collectively. And so what is the female quotient all about? It’s about really, collectively transparently, figuring out how we can close and rewrite the rules in the workplace so that all of us can thrive. And that is what we’ve been doing at the

Kara Goldin 23:53
pool. I absolutely love your leadership too, because I think you have just shown that putting spikes in the ground around a really hard thing. When everyone is saying it can’t be done. It can’t be done. You are doing it. And you are really having the hard conversations and forcing leaders, other leaders to have those hard conversations to so the progress you’ve made is just unbelievable. So how do you get these leaders I guess to show up and improve closing the gap in some way? Like how do you get them to do it? Are there quotas? Should we have these quotas? Should we not have these quotas? I’ve heard many conversations around that as well. The negative

Shelley Zalis 24:32
with the pandemic is so many you know we’ve talked about the great resignation. We are at a great time now we’re calling it the flipping point. Which is a great moment in time because what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It was a great break. The pandemic was a great reset moment as far as I’m concerned which is why we’ve just coined the phrase flipping point where the flipping point moment which means it’s a perfect time. opportunity right now to rewrite the rules. And so we are now bringing conscious and we call it conscious leaders. It’s not about men. It’s not about women. It’s about conscious leaders coming together to rewrite the rules of the workplace. And that’s what we’re looking for, who are the brave, the bold leaders ready to rewrite the rules, the rules of the workplace were written over 100 years ago by men for men, because women weren’t in the workplace. So it wasn’t wrong. It’s just time now to reset. And so that’s what we are doing right now we are working with a group. And we’re looking for a moonshot mindset group of CEOs that want to attract and retain the best talent, which we believe are the caregivers, we want caring leaders, and it’s the perfect time for reset. And so that’s what it’s gonna take. Because it’s not very complicated needs to be a priority. It just needs a priority. That’s all just like we pray out. When you put your mind to something and you put your priority and you decide you’re gonna do something you do it. Yeah, look at what we did when we had this pandemic, we created a vaccine to save lives, right? It took one year. Yeah, it’s not complicated. We have the data, we know that women are paid 80 cents on the dollar black women 64 cents on the dollar, Latinas 53 cents on the dollar, the data is in front of our faces. Why are we not paying people the same amount of money for the same work? Why? It is not complicated? Why are we not putting women in leadership positions, why women are as talented if not more talented, and more dedicated? What is the issue? No issue is called prioritization and accountability. That’s

Kara Goldin 26:56
totally agree 10,000% In terms of I mean, you’ve accomplished so much, and your progress is just unbelievable. I mean, since 2020 years, I mean, you can look back and look at all of the progress that you’ve made. Obviously, we have a little ways to go. And definitely, I think just having you doing what you’re doing all day is, is just absolutely so inspiring. What would you say is the best advice that you’ve ever received? We have a lot of listeners all over the world who are listening to this not only people who are thinking about, you know, second careers or third careers, but also people just getting starting out as entrepreneurs or thinking about what am I gonna do? I mean, the decks are stacked against me as a female. What exactly can I be doing? What would you say is the best advice that you’ve ever received that keeps you going every day?

Shelley Zalis 27:55
And believe in yourself, and number one, follow your heart. Number two, status quo is boring. Number three, every one of us can activate change. Sarah Jessica Parker says it best and one of her films. Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman. I love that all relevant. Don’t Don’t hide you, like you matter. Oscar Wilde, be yourself because everyone else has taken like, we all bring value to the table and be positive. Positivity breeds positivity. Open your mind. People just think that things can’t be done. Things can yes. Can no such thing is trying to do. You either do or you don’t. But go forward. Don’t go backwards and don’t stay in a circle push and impact others, like negative people. I can’t I can’t deal with negative people, everyone. People that look at things that are wrong, don’t look at things that are wrong. Look at things that are right. There’s so much good in this world going for good. Actually go from Great. An apathy is just a waste of time and have passion. Give me that passion. And I want to be surrounded by passionate, purpose driven people that gives me juice and can people’s love and hope because that energy is infectious and pay it forward for generosity. Because we all need that. Give someone a hug. Everyone needs a hug and some love. We all need that. It was such take time for yourself.

Kara Goldin 29:46
Yes, I love that as well. Well, it was such a pleasure to talk with you, Shelly and you are just such an inspiration on so many levels and you all of those things that you talked about. I mean just really giving People kind of the lift that they need in order to know that they can, I think is your gift for sure. We’ll have everything in the show notes too. But thank you. I really, really appreciate I appreciate your friendship and I appreciate everything that you do. It’s so, so inspiring.

Shelley Zalis 30:15
I am grateful for you.

Kara Goldin 30:17
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. Please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin and if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey including founding and building hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week and good bye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of Pentwater Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening