Chief Troublemaker

Female Quotient Founder Shelley Zalis is out to close the gender gap one moonshot at a time

By Jackie Krentzman

“Shelley doesn’t present research studies, issue white papers, or sit around in meetings. Instead, she gets it done.” —Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X (formerly Twitter)

In 2013, Shelley Zalis was fed up. She was at a juncture in her career—she had achieved enormous success as one of the primary innovators in the digital advertising and marketing arena. Still, something was rankling her. She was tired of attending countless industry conferences in which she was just one of a tiny handful of women in the room.

One day, as she was walking the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, she had a revelation.

“Walking around by myself, I was invisible,” says Zalis, the founder and CEO of the Female Quotient. “But if 50 women were walking the floor, in a pack, every guy’s head would turn and they’d say, ‘Where the heck did all you women come from?’”

The women at CES had the power of the purse—executives at their companies, they were closing deals. Women must go on the offensive, Zalis realized, instead of waiting for men to open the door for them. She decided to leverage the power of the pack and created her first iteration of the Equality Lounge, initially called Girls’ Lounge, at the CES conference. It was a safe space for women to gather, be themselves, feel comfortable and confident. They would revel in their femininity and their power.

“I brought in hair and makeup professionals, and we started doing deals while we were having our hair done,” she says. “I also added a little pink [to the lounge] because I wanted to sensationalize the fact that we don’t have to act like men to succeed.”

That first informal gathering was so powerful that Zalis resolved she would form her own company, the Female Quotient, to work with organizations and leaders to curate experiences, present thought leadership, and design solutions to achieve gender equality in the workplace and beyond. Its centerpiece, the Equality Lounge—renamed both to avoid the word girl, a stumbling block for some, and to emphasize inclusion—is a fixture at Davos, South by Southwest, the NBA All-Star Game, and other high-profile events.

“The World Economic Forum estimated it would take 132 years to close the gender gap,” Zalis says. “That was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. We created the Internet in 25 years; we put men on the moon in 10 and created a vaccine for COVID in one year. Why should it take 132 years to figure out how to pay Sally the same as Peter?”

She decided that if no one else was doing it, she would do it—she would close the gender gap. “I realized the only way to bring true equity for women in the workplace would be to take a moonshot mindset,” she says.

It’s definitely an audacious goal. Brimming with ideas, energy, and boundless confidence, Zalis was going to be the one to take the giant leap for womankind.

“The world is not big enough for Shelley,” says longtime friend and colleague Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X (formerly Twitter).

Shelley Zalis was raised in a middle-class family in Los Angeles, the daughter of a cardiologist and a homemaker. She and her three sisters thrived in their raucous household, encouraged by their parents to follow their passion, be bold in everything they did, and never to follow the pack. Once Zalis and her siblings were off to college, their mother became the first policy advisor to California Governor Pete Wilson.

“She taught us how to believe in ourselves,” Zalis says. “She would say to us this quote by Oscar Wilde that I love: ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’”

Their father cherished experiences. He never wore a watch, nor would he allow the family to take photos on their vacations. He wanted them to focus on living in the moment.

For their vacations, the family would chase solar eclipses throughout the world. Even as adults, with their own families, each daughter would receive a handwritten letter in the mail every other year from their dad, with a plane ticket and itinerary enclosed, telling them exactly where they needed to be and when. They weren’t allowed to check luggage because they were going to move fast and travel light.

After graduating from Barnard (during college, Zalis says, her education came from life, not a textbook), she began her career in advertising, and in the early 1990s landed in business development at Applied Science International Market Research, better known as ASI. She thrived there, forging long-term relationships with clients. She is fond of saying, “I didn’t do deals. I created relationships.”

Those were the early days of the Internet, and companies were still trying to figure out how to make money on the nascent web. One day Zalis had an epiphany: ASI’s clients could be infinitely more valuable not only by creating their own websites but also by placing advertising on other companies’ websites.

The company CEO loved the idea, but her immediate supervisor and coworkers did not. They didn’t get it, and they also didn’t get Zalis.

When it came time for her performance review, she was expecting accolades, a bonus and pay bump, and a promotion. Instead, she was taken to the woodshed by her boss.

“The review was like six or eight pages of single-spaced typewritten notes that ripped me to shreds,” she says. “It said that I said yes to clients too often, and I didn’t stick to the company’s cookie-cutter playbook. It also said I pushed coworkers out of their comfort zone by making them work too many hours. In short, I was breaking too many rules. I think that is why I became known as the Chief Troublemaker.”

Zalis wasn’t happy, but she needed the job. Her husband was in medical school (he became a surgeon, and they now have three grown children), and she was paying the bills. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to sign off on the review.

“I looked at my boss, and tears were coming down. And I said, ‘I’m not signing this because you’re wrong. You are making the biggest mistake of your life, and you are going to regret this.’”

Years later, after Zalis had made a name for herself as one of the visionary leaders in online advertising, she asked her former supervisor, who’d remained a friend, if he regretted the review.

“He told me no,” she says. “I said, ‘Why not?’ He replied, ‘Because if I didn’t write it, you wouldn’t be where you are today.’”

Nevertheless, she stayed on. Her next idea, which eventually became industry standard, was usability testing. She also proposed moving all research from offline to online. It was a tough sell.

One day, she was on a panel with Procter & Gamble’s chief research officer, one of the most powerful influencers in the market research realm. She whispered something to him onstage. Afterward, her team excitedly asked her, What was she telling him?

She said she mentioned her idea to move research from offline to online. He loved it and asked her to set up a meeting for the following week. ASI put together a team, but one problem: she wasn’t on it. It was a team of all men.

It was clearly time to move on. It was also time to embrace who she was and stop trying to fit into someone else’s box. If she was going to succeed, she needed to do it her own way.

“That was my ‘heartbeat moment,’” she says. “I will never, ever wait for anyone else to tell me what to do. The next day
I left the company.”

Zalis launched her first company, OTX (Online Testing Exchange), to test consumer interest in full-length movie trailers and short advertisements for films. OTX flourished, and Zalis was the first female regularly ranked among the top 25 in the research industry. A decade later, she sold the company because it needed to go global, she says.

Shortly after, she started her informal Girls’ Lounges and was convinced this was her future and the fulcrum for achieving gender parity. In 2015, she founded the Female Quotient.

“It was time to rewrite the rules of the workplace and fix it,” she says. “If I didn’t do it, I didn’t know who was going to do it.”

Yaccarino, who has attended many Equity Lounges across the globe, believes that no matter how audacious it sounds, anything Zalis puts her mind to, she will make happen.

“Shelley doesn’t present research studies, issue white papers, or sit around in meetings,” Yaccarino says. “Instead, she gets it done. That is the beauty of Shelley. And she welcomes anyone and everyone—from college students to CEOs of global companies—to join her. She has an army of advocates, with everyone equally mobilized to deliver. You are inspired to make a difference when you are around her because of her unwavering conviction.”

So when Zalis says every single gap in the workplace—the pay gap, the leadership gap, the childcare gap, the flexibility gap, the sponsorship gap—is fixable, well, you shed your doubts and sign up.

Her reasoning focuses on willingness, intentionality, and conscious leadership. Her conviction is that it’s time to stop fixing women and instead fix the system.

“It’s not very complicated,” she says. “It’s about kindness and respect and willingness. Look at our Equality Lounges. We designed them not just for women but for everyone. And soon, men began to put down the toilet seat [so to speak].”

In 2016, Zalis cofounded another company, SeeHer composed of media, marketing, and entertainment executives focused on eliminating gender bias in these industries and on ensuring accurate realistic portrayal of girls and women in entertainment media.

“The idea is, if you see her, you could be her,” says Zalis. “But it is not just about seeing her. Representation is going to create change—you’ve got to use your power to bring about that change.”

Close the gender gap? Eliminate gender bias in the media and entertainment industry? All of Zalis’s ideas and initiatives sound daunting—maybe even impossible—especially for one person.

But don’t tell her that. Talk to her for an hour, and you find yourself inspired by her belief in herself and her fellow female travelers. You think, Maybe she can do it. Her optimism, persuasiveness, and chutzpah could be the spark we need. Maybe together, we—women and the men who support us—can eliminate the inequities that hold us all back.

“I have given Shelley a tagline,” says Yaccarino. “Anything’s possible.” DW

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