This post was written by Lauren Wagner.
Shelley Zalis speaks a lot about “heartbeat moments” – those moments in life when passion trumps logic. Sometimes they’re so powerful that you’re compelled to take action. These heartbeat moments have driven Zalis to success in her 30 years as a CEO and startup founder, as well as now being the founder of The Girls’ Lounge.
As an inimitable executive and innovator, Zalis has spent 30 years as the only female CEO in the research industry’s top 25. In 2010, she sold her company OTX (Online Testing Exchange) to Ipsos after she made it into one of the largest and fastest growing research companies in the world. She recently jumped back into entrepreneurship when she launched The Girls’ Lounge, a place for women to connect, discover their confidence, and activate the change they want to see in their lives.
Zalis places special importance on those times when your gut is telling you what you must do, rather than what you should do.
“There’s a cognitive distinction between what your head tells you and what your heart tells you,” says Zalis. “You can change how your head thinks but you can’t control the heartbeat that drives your passion. When passion meets purpose you’re unstoppable.”
As evidence of this, Zalis’ peers have called her the Chief Trouble Maker since she’s spent most of her career breaking rules and creating new ones.
Zalis’ first heartbeat moment occurred in the boardroom at the start of her career when she voiced an idea to conduct market research on the internet instead of by phone. Reporting to men, her boss and all-male team said it wasn’t the right time for this move. But Zalis recognized that she’s always thought differently and tended to deviate from a linear path. Looking around the room, she was the only woman and the only person with divergent ideas. The next day, Zalis quit her job and started OTX.
Following this heartbeat moment was scary but empowering. Founding The Girls’ Lounge has also required Zalis to deploy her passion and resolve.
After Ipsos acquired OTX, Zalis ran global innovation in 83 countries for one of the largest research companies in the world. But she couldn’t deny her heartbeat moment. At an industry conference, Zalis asked four corporate c-level executives to walk around the room with her. These four executives felt an elevated sense of empowerment because they were united, ready to take on the business world. Twenty-four hours later that small group had grown to 50 women, and by the next day it was up to 150. Wherever they went, heads turned to look at these150 power women owning the conference floor. Following that experience, Zalis founded The Girls’ Lounge.
Today, Zalis’ organization is highlighting successful business practices around diversity — ones that Zalis developed over her decades as a CEO, as well as tactics for effective networking among the masses. The Girls’ Lounge is an initiative provided by and for women across multiple industries. Space is reserved at conferences for a Girls’ Lounge where female attendees can drop in to “connect, collaborate and discover their confidence.” It’s been called a “rarified space that we’ve never had before” and will be popping up next year at CES, Davos, SXSW, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and other premier events.
The Girls’ Lounge has three main goals:
- Enable women to connect authentically at conferences and build relationships. It’s not about business deals, but getting to know other women on a personal level.
- Activate the change The Girls’ Lounge members want to see in the world. There’s a lot of conversation about gender diversity, but The Girls’ Lounge is figuring out how women can join together to create a path of change and activate reform for the next generation.
- Connect today’s female leaders with the leaders of tomorrow, and provide them with the confidence and passion to move forward.
Since its inception, The Girls’ Lounge has hosted dozens of events and boasts major partners like NBCUniversal, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Unilever, and iHeartMedia. At conferences, The Girls’ Lounge space plays host to activities that fulfill the organization’s three aims. For example you can get a manicure in the space, since Zalis wants women to be women and not conform to men’s rules. So if you like nail polish, go for it. The Girls’ Lounge encourages women to bring their femininity to the table.
But it’s not all aesthetics. Powerful conversations about how to activate change in the workplace are happening in these safe zones. The Girls’ Lounge is distilling lessons from its dialogue and creating an actionable toolbox for women to use at work. With tangible resources and support women can drive real change around diversity and work/life balance.
The name The Girls’ Lounge comes from the idea of female friendships, who Zalis calls her “girlfriends.” Zalis wants every woman to go into a conference with confidence, knowing that she’ll always have girlfriends there to provide support and a safe haven for authentic conversations.
“Men aren’t ashamed to say, ‘we’re going to drink beer or play golf or video games,” she says. “Women may have different interests. I want to celebrate that their needs are different from men. If men were let into The Girls’ Lounge, it might as well not exist. Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman.”
Zalis believes true diversity is acknowledging and celebrating that we’re all important, equal, and different. The Girls’ Lounge is bringing that idea, and the toolbox to make it reality to corporations around the world.
This article is part of TheToolbox.org's #WomenInFront series, powered by Humanise. Learn more about the initiative at WomenInFront.net, or join the conversation on social media: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.