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Women in Business Q&A: Shelley Zalis, Founder of The Girls' Lounge

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Shelley has gone against the grain most of her career, starting in 2000 when she left the corporate world to pioneer online research. Shelley created OTX (Online Testing Exchange), which in just nine years became one of the largest and fastest growing research companies in the world. The OTX story is one about creating new rules to redefine work/life balance, taking risks and inspiring a culture to thrive in a modern market. Shelley, and her 'wild ideas', officially changed the game. Under Shelley's vision and leadership as CEO and Chairmom she raised her OTX family with many of the same values she was brought up with. As the first female chief executive ranked in the research industry's top 25, she has brought emotion and passion to the boardroom and has devoted herself to becoming a mentor and friend to women and leaders in her industry. Her most recent creation is the Ipsos Girls' Lounge, a go-to destination for women at industry conferences to put their feet up, let their guard down, network and do business. The Girls' Lounge supports and mentors women to stand out with their unique leadership powers and transform corporate culture... together.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Today, I'm giving back as a leader what I could never take as I was rising the ranks. I am creating the new rules for corporate culture that are the reverse of the ones that never made sense to me.

How has your previous employment experience aided you with creating The Girls' Lounge?
I had many 'aha' moments where I had to find my own voice. I always knew I had a very different perspective than most men or even senior level executives at the table -- but, of course, it was much easier to be a 'yes' person and follow the leader even if I didn't believe in the direction. It took courage to stand out with my opinion, even if not popular, but I had to follow my heart. Turns out, I was right! I would never have pioneered online research if I didn't believe in myself. I started my own company so that I could be right and lead a company inspired by people, balance, transparency, collaboration and being bold. I wasn't afraid to take risks but it required being brave and different.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at The Girls' Lounge? What about the challenges of growing OTX?
The highlight has been connecting over 2000 women on an international scale -- amazing, intelligent and inspiring women who are game-changers, mentors and leaders of cultural change. As The Girls' Lounge grows, the goal is for it to remain an authentic place for all women to network in business. It is not a place based on seniority or companies being represented; I want it to continue being a place for all girls' girls to help each other.

With growing OTX, the main challenge often was getting people to believe in me. When I wanted to do online research, there was a very limited demographic online -- wealthy old men with broadband connection. I was constantly told to wait for the right moment but I wanted to create the right moment. My challenge has always been waiting for people to decide what to do but I've always been ready to do it. I need instant gratification. If I believe we need to do something, I am ready to roll up my sleeves and take the first step.

Tell us about your appearance at the THRIVE Conference and how you hope your presentation impacted upon the audience.
Arianna Huffington's message was completely on point that life is not just about money and power -- you have to invest in yourself. You have to put 'self' into self-confidence. In that, you need to focus on what you need for yourself and not harbor on what others think you need. A quote that I love and repeated on stage at THRIVE that really resonated and is so true is "if you work hard and don't enjoy what you're doing, it's called stress; if you work hard and enjoy what you're doing, it's called passion".

You're the CEO of the Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange -- how does your work here impact upon your other interests?
I actually love what I do! I find inspiration in my work, my co-partners, creating solutions to hard challenges or transforming the impossible to possible. I have a passion for creating new ways of doing things that have never been done before and then making them sticky. That really keeps me going!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
What is balance? It isn't 50/50. It shouldn't be a choice of work or life, and you shouldn't put your life on hold. Life doesn't wait, it is continuous. Work should just be a part of life; not the other way around. Always think forward and ask yourself if you'll have regrets for things -- if the answer is yes, don't do it. Also, remember that there's always a solution. For example, if a corporation won't institutionalize rules that help you (such as time allowances to ensure you don't miss your kids' events), work with your coworkers to find solutions -- you're usually all in the same boat!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's not a gender issue, it's a caregiver issue and caregivers are predominantly women. We start at 50/50 (regarding gender balance in the workplace) but as we rise through the ranks, women fall out because of the difficulty of balancing work and home life responsibilities. This is a caregiver issue and we need to create cultural transformation so we can get women in the workplace -- not just because they're women but because they bring added value and dimension to leadership. Successful leader traits include nurturing, caring and supporting -- all of which are also caregiver traits. Companies need to examine what leadership skills matter and then work to get the right leaders in those roles - women.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Many female mentors have taught me the art of balancing life and relationships. I wouldn't sacrifice my life for my work and I think conformity is part of our problem. Leaders today need to transform the culture, not conform to the culture. So many rules don't make sense but nobody has challenged them and this needs to change.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Sheryl Sandberg for leaning in, Anne-Marie Slaughter for balance and Arianna Huffington for the third metric. These inspirational female leaders speak to some of the biggest issues for women, which include confidence and balance.

What do you want The Girls' Lounge to accomplish in the next year?
I want to continue moving from conversation to activation, and keep helping women along the continuum from insecurity to confidence. I'd like to help transform corporate culture from rigidity to generosity. I want to increase the girls' network and, of course, bring femininity to corporate culture!