08/04/2014 07:35 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Women in Business Q&A: Liz Kaplow, Founder and CEO of Kaplow Communications

Liz is the founder and CEO of Kaplow Communications, a leading public relations and communications agency that connects brands and products with consumers and influencers through the art of storytelling. She is also the immediate past President of New York Women in Communications for 2013-2014 and an advocate for the advancement of women into leadership roles.

She founded Kaplow Communications in 1991 and has built it into one of the top mid-sized PR agencies in the country. Now a full-service communications company, Kaplow works with category-leading clients including Target, Unilever and Skype. The agency has received many awards and honors, including "Consumer Agency of the Year" by the Holmes Report.

Liz has combined her passion for storytelling with savvy business acumen to become a mentor and leader to her employees and many others. She has been advisor, colleague and friend to CEOs, business leaders and influencers around the globe, and a guide to some of the industry's prominent young practitioners.

As President of NYWICI, Liz has led the organization to focus on two pillars: the advancement of women in the communications field at all stages of their careers; and staying abreast of the changing landscape of the industry. She launched a series of multi-generational panels to share ideas and inspire women at all levels.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Let me begin by explaining how my agency began: it was 1991 and I was working for a terrific PR firm in New York. I had never thought about starting my own agency; in fact, I didn't know a single entrepreneur. My dad, who was my role model, was a 9-to-5 textile executive who had worked for the same company for 30 years!

One day the phone rang and a woman I'd worked with years before asked me to do PR for Monet Jewelry. It wasn't a full time job, but I had two young daughters at the time and wanted more flexibility to balance work and family life. I loved my job at the agency and, had today's technology been available back then, I probably would have stayed and worked from home a couple of days a week. But it wasn't and I couldn't ... and Kaplow the agency was born!

My experience informs my ideas about corporate culture and work environment. I believe women should not be afraid to pursue their goals, but that businesses have a responsibility to create a work environment that encourages long-term career development and helps all employees stay in the game.

It's also made me a strong advocate for the advancement of women into leadership roles - something I have focused on this year as President of New York Women in Communications.

NYWICI is an amazing organization that supports women at every stage of their career and helps keep their skills relevant as the landscape is changing so rapidly.

How has your previous employment experience aided your current?
I fell in love with public relations because, as its core, it's about storytelling and I've been fascinated with language and authentic storytelling since I studied the poet Williams Carlos Williams in college.

Early in my career, I discovered that I was passionate about finding authentic brand stories and sharing them with the world. I learned that's the best way to create an emotional connection between a brand and its consumer.

I believe that, despite all of the changes in the world of communications, authentic storytelling has never been more relevant. It's a belief shared by everyone at Kaplow and is what drive us.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Building a business is not easy, but neither is raising a family. I've been fortunate to have a husband who has been a true 50-50 partner in both. With that said, it's never easy. When our daughters were young there were days that were just overwhelming, with a million parts moving in a million directions.

My experience as a working mother really helps me relate the needs of my employees. That's why, at Kaplow, we strive to create a work environment that lets our employees find the right flow between work and home so they are able to enjoy both agency life and family life.

What have been the highlights and challenges during your tenure as President & CEO of KAPLOW?
• Launching the agency while raising two young children.
• Building a successful agency that continues to grow and thrive after more than two decades.
• Creating long-term partnerships with such world-leading brand partners as Target, Skype, the Avon Foundation, Unilever, Timex, CVS and Laura Mercier.
• Driving consumers to fall in love with brands across diverse categories including beauty, fashion, retail, lifestyle and consumer technology.
• Finding, motivating and keeping smart, talented people - and empowering them to run the business. Knowing when to step in and when to step aside.
• Remaining relevant in our fast-changing communications landscape.
• Earning awards for our programs, but especially the prestigious Consumer Agency of The Year award -- as well as a place on the list of Best Agencies to Work for -- from the Holmes Report in 2011, and winning a Gold Sabre Award in 2013 for Branded Journalism.

It's interesting how many of the challenges and highlights overlap!

What advice can you offer those seeking to establish their own business?
As I said, I'm something of an "accidental entrepreneur." But I've learned a great deal in the process of building my business that is worth sharing:

• First, build a broad network of connections. You will need mentors and sponsors to help you.
• Live and learn in a 360 way. It's important to understand what's happening in the world outside your specific area of focus. You never know where you find inspiration.
• Don't be afraid to say "yes" to something you haven't done before -- even if it's not your core area. It's an opportunity to learn and grow.
• Be resilient. There are times when you will stumble. That's okay; we learn as much from our failures - sometimes more - than we do from our successes. Get back up and start again.
• Work with integrity. Always try to do the right thing and you'll be able to sleep at night.

What do you think is the single biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think dropping out mid-career is the biggest problem for women today. Whether it's because they don't feel they are advancing in the way they wanted, or because they are trying to sort out the work-life cadence - we are losing a lot of highly capable, high potential women at a critical point.

There's a real opportunity here for corporate America to stop the bleeding of all of this talent. We need to create a workplace that offers flexibility in that home-workplace flow AND we need to offer people different career paths. After all, one path isn't right for everyone.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
All the conversation regarding the advancement of women in the workplace is great, and I'm glad we are talking so openly about these issues. But, we must take care not to be overly prescriptive. It's important to remember that women have different paths and priorities at different times in their careers. I agree with Sheryl's call to "lean in" - with the caveat that women should be leaning into the priorities and objectives of their individual choosing, not what someone else thinks they should be.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
There is no question that mentors have played an important role for me and I am grateful for all the relationships I've had over the years in both directions.

I think we learn as much from our mentees as we do from our mentors and wrote an article recently on "How to be a mentor without really trying". It focuses on small things we can do each day to help others by being generous with our ideas and our time.

Living your life by naturally supporting the advancement of others is the very thing that makes you the kind of professional people want to be around...and the rewards are endless.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I'm a big fan of Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard. I learned so much from watching her leadership style. She has an incredible ability to communicate the big idea and then rally the team to make it happen!

As President of New York Women in Communications, how are you making a difference?
My goal this year has been to intensify focus on two critical topics for women in our industry: helping women advance at every stage in their careers, and helping them navigate the changing communications landscape.

NYWICI should be the place where women in the communications fields can build relationships and share ideas about leadership and career issues. This year we launched a series of inspiring multi-generational panels, which bring together thought-leaders from across the industry to talk about issues important to women. The panels have covered topics like getting ahead on your own terms, tackling the career jungle gym, and the all-important subject of negotiation.

In conjunction with the negotiation panel, NYWICI partnered with Marie Claire on a survey exploring women's negotiating practices and beliefs. Its findings point us towards ways we can sharpen and skills and we shared those results in Marie Claire's June issue.

Our industry is changing quickly, and NYWICI has provided programming this year to help members stay abreast of those changes. We've hosted panels on branded content, the future of the print industry and the evolution of broadcast to help members expand their knowledge and stay current.