Marketing Diversity & Inclusion Ad Club

Ad Club award-winner Shelley Zalis: ‘When purpose meets passion, you’re unstoppable’


By Webb Wright | Reporter

May 31, 2023 | 11 min read

In an interview with The Drum, the entrepreneur – winner of this year’s ‘Industry legend’ award from the Ad Club – opens up about living life without regrets, “heartbeat moments,” forging your own path and finding your passion.


Shelley Zalis is the winner of this year's "Industry Legend" award from the Ad Club. / Ad Club

Since 1959, the Advertising Club of New York (colloquially known as the Ad Club) has annually recognized five marketing professionals who are “active in furthering industry standards, creative excellence, and responsibility in areas of social concern,” according to the trade organization’s website. This year’s ‘Industry Legend’ award – the pinnacle of the award ceremony – is being awarded to Shelley Zalis, a market research veteran and entrepreneur who for over two decades has strived to increase the influence of women in the workplace.

Most recently, in 2015, Zalis founded the Female Quotient (FQ), an organization that gathers women together at Equality Lounges at key conferences like Davos and South by Southwest; these evolved out of a similar initiative called the Ipsos Girls’ Lounge, which Zalis previously launched through OTX, another company that she founded in 2000. The Female Quotient also offers advisory services, per its website, to “help companies identify where they have equality gaps and offer recommendations on how to close them.”

The Drum recently caught up with Zalis to find out what has driven her to deviate from the status quo and break past barriers throughout her career.

What kinds of pursuits or practices do you prioritize in order to imbue your day-to-day work with a sense of meaning?

I always say, ‘When purpose meets passion, you’re unstoppable.’ When you love what you do, it’s called passion; when you don’t, it’s called stress. My father passed away five years ago, and he really taught me to have a no-regret policy, which has become a guiding principle for me. I never want to look back in life and say, ‘Shoulda woulda coulda,’ and I never want to miss the moments that matter. He really instilled those values in me and taught me to live life with meaning and importance. And that’s why I do what I do. I really want to leave a legacy of change while I’m alive. That’s how I’ve always lived my life: I think forward, and I say, ‘Will I regret that decision?’ And if the answer is yes, then I won’t do it. So I will never, ever miss moments that matter. And my kids know that too. I’ve always told them, ‘Tell me what is important to you, and I will never miss those moments.’ And that’s what I say to all of my employees, my friends, everyone: ‘Think forward, and don’t regret decisions.’ No one in your work life will ever remember a meeting that you missed or a work trip that you didn’t take, but the people in your life will always remember those important moments that you were there for.

The word “equality” has been buzzword-ified to some degree. Brands often pay lip service to the importance of equality, without following up with any kind of concrete action. I’m curious about what equality means to you, and how that concept has informed and inspired your work and led to the founding of the Female Quotient.

I went from the business of market research to the business of equality. Equal is equal, to me – 80 cents on the dollar is not equal. I have never understood why women have had imposter syndrome or never felt that they were good enough. So I created something called the Female Quotient, and [what that phrase means is that] when you add more women to any equation, there’s a return on equality. First came IQ – the intelligence quotient – then came EQ – the emotional quotient – then came FQ – the Female Quotient. And that’s how the name came about. First came IQ then can meet Q now came FQ. And that’s how that came about. Everyone talks about ‘the boys’ club,’ and so I created ‘the [Ipsos] Girls’ Lounge.’

At one point, I was selling candy in my lounges for 80 cents to women and a dollar to men, just to show how ridiculous the pay gap is. White women are making 80 cents on the dollar, Black women 64 cents on the dollar, Latina women 53 cents on the dollar.

The World Economic Forum showed that it’s going to take another 132 years to close the gender gap. To put that in perspective: It took only 25 years to create the internet. It took 10 years to put people on the moon. It took one year to create a vaccine for Covid-19. Why would it take another 132 years to close the gender gap? How silly is that? We have the data. Why should it take 132 years to figure out how to pay Sally the same as Peter? Why should it take 132 years to figure out how to put women in leadership or how to diversify boards? It’s so silly.

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You seem to be describing a harmful and pervasive cultural mindset that’s at the core of the gender pay gap. What steps have you and the Female Quotient been taking to alter that mindset?

The Female Quotient is all about having conscious conversations, making people aware of where we are and where we need to go, and then creating solutions for change. It’s actually not very complicated. It’s just about creating a new equality playbook because the rules of the workplace were written over one hundred years ago by men. Women just weren’t in the workplace then, but now we are. So we need to design a new workplace that works for everyone. And that’s the mission of the Female Quotient: We’re designing a new, modern workplace that will work for everyone.

Can you tell me about an early experience from your career that has shaped you intellectually and professionally? Why was that experience so impactful, and what did it teach you?

One was when I pioneered online research. I’m the mother of that invention – I migrated research from offline to online. When I had that idea in 2000, I was told by [then] bosses that it wasn’t the right time, because there was nobody online. I remember going to the Chief research officer at Procter & Gamble and asking him if I could come and talk to the company about moving research online. And of course, he told me, ‘Next week.’ When I went to my bosses to say, ‘We’re going next week to talk to [P&G], they said, ‘Well, OK, Paul, John and Ringo will go.’ And I said, ‘But what about me?’ And they said, ‘Well, it’s a boys’ club, and that’s the right group to go.’ It was at that moment that I realized that I need to be my own boss. I’m going to be in charge. Why am I letting other people make decisions for me? That was one of my heartbeat moments. And of course, I left and started my own company. I’m not going to wait for other people to tell me when the right time is; the right time is when you make it the right time. And had I waited, I would not be where I am today. That was my first moment of truth — my first moment of owning my voice and believing in myself.

Tell me a little bit about your nickname.

I became known as ‘Chief troublemaker’; I had to break all the rules that made no sense and create my own because the rules of the workplace didn’t work for me. So when I started my company, OTX, I created the ‘uncorporate rules,’ which were reimagined versions of the rules that didn’t work for me in the corporate world.

There are two types of people: people who see the status quo, and people who can see what’s possible. Being the latter takes courage and bravery, [because] you’ve got to create something that doesn’t exist. But when the rules don’t work for you, you’ve got to create something new.

Are there any words of advice that you’d want to offer to young people – and especially to young women — who are looking for meaningful work?

Follow your heart, be yourself, stand up, stand out and stand together. You have one life, so live it to the fullest. Find your passion, because it pays itself back. And you never want to look back with regrets.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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