2021 Honoree

Tracey Zhen

CEO, Zipcar

“… diversity is good for the business, it’s good for shareholders, it’s good for investors, it’s good for corporate culture…”

In your opinion, what qualities make a Power Woman?

When I think about the power women in my life, it’s my mother and my grandmother. It is also the girlfriends and the woman that I have surrounded myself with on a day-to-day basis. Some of the qualities that come out from them are authenticity, integrity, and confidence

Do you believe that there is any specific role for women to play in covid 19 pandemic and do you believe that the process of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights and emphasizes the natural resilience women actually have?

So, at first, I think the pandemic has impacted everyone around the world, regardless of your gender. I think this means lots of studies and articles that show that COVID has had a more aggressive impact on women and, I’m not sure you’ve come across this, but there is a great article about impact on women in general and it said that women are 39% of the workforce but they accounted for 54% of the job losses.

One reason for that is because the pandemic has really increased the burden of unpaid labor, which historically has disproportionately been carried out by women. So, in some ways COVID has impacted women in more profound ways than men which is a bit sad, but not surprising. Now when I think about the women I know who had to make tough choices during COVID between the career and balancing healthcare, caring for loved ones and their own mental health. It’s been a rough ride for everyone, but I think that you know I wouldn’t say we’re still in the pandemic. We’ve been through sort of the toughest part of it and it’s amazing how they’ve all risen to the occasion. They’ve all found a way to make it work. And it’s really an evidence of resilience and grit and being able to juggle many many balls and still keep them self sane. So, I do think the natural resilience to your point has really been put to the test during the pandemic for women in particular.

If you see it in your day-to-day interactions with your fellow families and friends, then you kind of see how this data is very real.

With all the different issues one could focus on, how do you balance your efforts in pursuit of gender equality? Do you feel that it should be more of a global approach or do you have very specific passionate issues that you would want it highlighted around?

I certainly think that equality is a global issue and it’s really around the access to resources and opportunity, but I think for me the most tangible and measurable impact is that, as a woman leader leading an organization, a technology organization, I think paid equity is the most important. We know that women make $.83 on the dollar of men in general, so I think as leaders we have to be very intentional and deliberate about equity and we can do that. For example, at Zipcar, we’ve done a role-by-role paid equity analysis because we wanted to make sure that for every single role we have within the organization, which are all varied roles, we think about the type of organization that we have. We have people that are mechanics working on the vehicles. We have people that are software engineers that work in marketing.

It’s a very diverse set of roles within the organization and we’ve gone by role and measured if they are equitable in terms of pay. And, we were actually seeing that women were doing far better than men, but were very comparable, which is a pleasant surprise. So, I think as leaders we need to make sure that we have some order and if you don’t, then you can do something about it. Also, as a woman leader I think, as an organization, we can ask “how do we support our women employees in a more holistic way?” So, we have an employee resource group, we call it ‘Drive Her’, which I think is quite fun.

We really think about advancing women, not just in terms of inclusivity in the workplace, but also embracing and celebrating all of the demographics in different cultural lifestyles that women have. For example, we send a group of women on a leadership course for the year and we have them come back and tell us what they’ve learned. I love these moments. I sat in on the most recent one and we had men joining these monthly meetings. They talk about the space, but also about what they’ve learned about themselves and what they’ve learned about the woman manager and their leadership style, which is fantastic. Seeing the support we get for men attending Drive Her events is amazing. Actually, next month we are speaking about financial wellness, which is nothing specific about the workplace, but it’s also really important when we think about how some people don’t have access to resources. So, I think as women, and for us as a leadership team, it’s one part of our broader diversity leadership. These are just some examples of ways we can make sure that we are continuing to support women: one is pay and the second is supporting a woman and the current development throughout the organization.

You just have to do the work, be able to measure and just think about it, and you have to have women. I don’t take any credit for driving her organization, this is all led by employees that are passionate about driving a more inclusive workplace.

But, also just helping each other out. I think about how important it is to have friends at work and this is exactly what we’re trying to create—a social network of like-minded people. In this case, it happens to be women.

Yeah, I do think that the engagement between men and women and our employee resource group speaks volumes to our culture as an organization and I think part of it is that we are very intentional about celebrating diversity and we share our paid equitable stats across the company, so it wasn’t just for the exercise. I think it’s also really important to create a culture of transparency, even if you are not doing well. We will be the first to admit that we don’t have enough women engineers in the organization, which is not a surprise. We will admit that and do something about that, but I think it’s really about transparency and being open. I think that also really creates a culture of engagement and trust.

Do you feel that it is important that it almost becomes or should I become illegal that you should not be able to ask somebody what their previous salary was? Should it be something that should be thought about more on a national and nationwide basis, asking what people’s previous salary is?

I think so. I think it’s good practice. I live in Massachusetts and we are also one of the states that has the ban. I think more and more states and local governments are increasingly adopting this ban where you’re not allowed to ask about salary history. I think it’s good because, when you think about it, it’s basically forcing someone to say what their worth is financially. I think that the conversation should really be about if you are a good fit for the role and what the role is worth, regardless of your gender. And, you should just be paid. Do you know what the market rate is for whatever role that you’re applying for?

So, I do think it’s a good process and we have to do that in Massachusetts. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s changed in any way—it’s not like you have to say who wins and who loses, but I don’t think anyone’s lost because of the change, so I really do support the ban and I hope more states continue. Right now I think it’s about 22 states, so we have a long way to go.

I’m based in Boston and we’re not allowed to ask. This has been the case for a long time. I think Massachusetts was one of the earlier states that was being progressive about the ban and we just said okay. We just ask, “what’s your expected compensation?” It’s a very different question from what they were on.

Was there ever an encounter that you had where you had somebody block your growth or because of your gender?

I’ve been thinking about this particular block, which sounds very intentional and elaborate, but I think as a woman, sometimes, there’s been blocks, but I think it’s unconscious. I was invited to a management retreat many years ago and it was lovely. I spent a few days strategic planning and team building in the mountains at a beautiful resort. The team building event was golf and it turned out I was the only woman on the team who did not play golf. Not that I think it was a block per se, but I think no one really took the time to consider whether golf was an inclusive activity or not while they were planning this event.

I guess at the time I did feel like, “oh what am I gonna do while all the boys are out playing golf?” But, I think it’s unconscious things like that which often prohibit women because they’re not in the room. They’re not on the golf course right when the conversations and connections are built. So, I do feel it’s really important that as you think about things that may seem very inconsequential, it’s important to be inclusive. Frankly, I don’t think it would happen today like I mentioned a few years ago. I think more and more organizations are educated about unconscious bias.

But, we still have a ways to go.

There are many studies that support the idea that a female presents in a boardroom increases the bottom line and creates a healthy work environment. What can we do to continue to support and enhance the presence of women in high profile positions? What do you feel is the extra we can go to really enhance and promote that space?

I think there’s two things: one I think is regulation, which I think the U.S. has slowly come around to embracing more diversity on boards. So, in European countries there is a minimum number of women required to be on boards and, as you probably know, California has put a regulation in place in the last three years that requires public companies to have women on their boards. I think even in that three-year span they’ve seen the number of women on boards increase. So, regulation is certainly one approach that’s proven to work and more public companies are being held accountable for their diversity goals. I think that will continue, but obviously it’s good to see Corporate America finally waking up, but we have a long way to go because we’re benchmarking what’s happening in Europe as having a much larger representation of women. The second thing that works is really around women in the workplace and what we can do to be more supportive.

I mention LeanIn.org has an annual woman in the workplace report and I find it fascinating and helpful with McKenzie. What they’ve really shown is while there has been improvement and representation of women in leadership roles, women are so behind men in promotions, not surprisingly, and when you we look at the career progression pipeline, we see that women are falling behind much earlier in their careers than men and it’s really that first step when they become a manager. So, by the time you reach the C suite it’s obviously too late because I think the C suite staff is about 22% women and the rest are men. You have to make sure you’re supporting women earlier in their careers. For us I mentioned earlier because we’re really investing in development and training for our women managers to make sure that we set them up for broader and career progression early in their careers. I think that if you have regulations in place and you continue to invest in women early in their careers, then we will have a bigger pipeline of women to be in the C suite.

Board positions and C suite. That’s where you’ve got to look.

Do you feel that it’s as easily accessible for women because I know there are a lot of CEOs now that I talk to you are always looking for trying to get access to where the board room opportunities are coming into play.

Yeah, I think part of it is that the board themselves has to be more open in terms of where they are recruiting from because when you think about their network, historically it was CEO Joe who would call CEO Joe’s friends and they all look very similar to CEO Joe.

So, I think now with some of what’s happening in California, but also the research shows that diversity is good for the business, it’s good for shareholders, it’s good for investors, it’s good for corporate culture. I think finally they’re waking up to think okay I’ll look outside of my network and I think that there are so many qualified women that are ready. And, we’re really focused on tech companies within Massachusetts and we focus on innovation and diversity in our local economy. Every year we have a board buddy Boot Camp and we have an amazing lineup of speakers talk about how to prepare yourself to be on a board. It’s really targeted towards the diverse candidate. So women, people of color, so on so forth. It’s really about driving that.

I’m always floored by the caliber and quality of people that I meet in this Boot Camp every year. I just think that there’s so many qualified candidates out there. I think the board field just needs to be more open minded to what’s available than what’s just on their own at work.

I’m on a board of an organization called Mass TLC in Massachusetts and about to take a Konomi in Massachusetts and really supporting the growth and innovation, but I think we also focus on diversity quite a bit within the tech economy locally.

We have an annual or semi annual event now that we’ve gone virtual, a Boot Camp that we do, and it’s exactly what your question is about, which is geared towards helping diverse candidates get on boards. We are teaching them how to network and more, so I think that also helps.

Was there a defining moment or experience in life that lead you to where you are today? And can you share what that was?

I think there’ve been a few, but I had an opportunity to move abroad so I ended up living in London for about six years of my life, which was wonderful. I’ve been very close with my family. I grew up in New York, I’ve been in New York, my family’s been there for a long time and for me moving to London was a very personal experience, but also from a career development standpoint it really opened my eyes to the world. I worked in an environment where I was surrounded by people and English was not the predominant language in the office, which was fantastic, right? Exposure to different people and cultures and the opportunity to travel—it really kind of opens your mind and gives you a new perspective on people. On different backgrounds and how to communicate with people.

How do you fit in within this melting pot culture? I think for me it kind of really transformed my life and my perspective. I think it’s made me a better leader in some ways because you have to be flexible in how you work and communicate. So, for me I feel very fortunate to have been given that opportunity in London. It still feels very much like a second home to me.

I love London. I love London so much. I think I spent my late 20s there and when you’re that age living in London it’s such a wonderful experience. I still have very good friends that are there.

Can I ask you another very personal question in which if I could ask you to share one of the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?

It wasn’t really advice, I’ve had lots of bits of advice, but I think it was sort of a conversation that I was having in a difficult moment with someone I used to work for. I was trying to explain why things weren’t on track for some reason and I was like “There was this and this and it’s this,” and it kind of sparked a moment in my head when he said, “Well, why didn’t you ask for help?” It was early in my career, but one of the best pieces of advice that I could give people is really about asking for help and how important it is to maintain balance in your life.

It helps in many ways, it helps to be like, “Oh I can spend two hours and figure this out on my own or I can call this person who’s done this before and it will take them five minutes to explain it to me.” But, I think it’s really about being able to be humble and vulnerable and say, “Look, I don’t have all the answers and I’m going to be able to lean on the people around me and ask for help. So, I think that’s probably one of the best pieces of advice. Even in a heated conversation I got with my manager at the time I always shared that. It’s not something that you think about because I think ambitious people are always like, “Oh I’ll figure this out on my own.” I was just like that. I would just work the crazy hours. But now, I’m like, “Oh that’s really not the most effective way to get things done.”

What is your favorite book?

I read mostly non-fiction, but I think I want to give you an answer that inspection because it’s actually my favorite author. I’ve read most of his books and it’s a Japanese author who you’ll probably know. It’s Haruki Murakami and I love his books because he’s an incredible storyteller and he is great about character development and when I read his books it’s this combination of whimsical and mystical, but also very normal and flawed in some ways, so it’s very much an engaging and entertaining read. It’s very different from what I typically read, which is more business oriented books. So, that’s what I enjoy.

what do you value most in friends?

I think their humor and their honesty. I’ve known my close friends since we were children and we still keep in touch to this day. We all met in junior high school and I think it’s great for them to have a group of people that will keep you honest no matter where you are. We don’t live in the same place, but I have that network.

Which trait are you most uncomfortable with in yourself?

I’m kind of introverted and a bit shy, so sometimes it’s hard to be a leader. I’ve had to get used to public speaking and events, which is not really my natural comfort zone, but I do think it’s important to be able to share my voice and it’s something that I’m always trying to get comfortable with, so for me it’s lovely to be on television. Most people get so crazy about it, but for me it’s like, “Oh, okay. It’s just something that I have to learn to get comfortable with.” So, it’s just funny and it’s something you have to continue to work on, which I do.

What do you consider is an overrated virtue?

I couldn’t really think of that really. I think we don’t. I don’t think any virtue is really overrated. I think each person is different and I think some people value certain virtues more than others. For example, I’m very impatient. I get it for my dad. He’s very impatient. So, for me I always value patience in other people more because I wish I could be like that. I’m also a New Yorker, so I walk really fast and I don’t think of that question because I think everybody’s got different types of qualities and virtues, but I don’t think any are really overrated. I just think some are more necessary than others, for example. I personally value patience because I’m not very patient.

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