“Chase after your dreams, do what scares you”, Liz Elting of The Elizabeth Elting Foundation and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Money isn’t about adding up points, buying more, or comparing what we have to others — it’s a resource. It gives us the power to influence, to effect change, to make the world better than we found it. All of us who have that resource have a moral duty to use it for good — to lift up others, […]

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Money isn’t about adding up points, buying more, or comparing what we have to others — it’s a resource. It gives us the power to influence, to effect change, to make the world better than we found it. All of us who have that resource have a moral duty to use it for good — to lift up others, to help as many people as we can, to create the kind of future we want for our children, a future where everyone can thrive and reach their full potential.

As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is an entrepreneur, business leader, linguaphile, philanthropist, feminist, and mother. After living, studying, and working in five countries across the globe, Liz started TransPerfect out of an NYU dorm room. During her tenure as Co-CEO, she grew TransPerfect into the world’s largest language solutions company, with over 600 million dollars in revenue, 5,000+ employees, 11,000+ clients, and offices in more than 90 cities worldwide. Liz has been recognized as a NOW “Woman of Power & Influence,” American Express’ and Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Woman of the Year,” one of Forbes’ “Richest Self-Made Women,” and is a recipient of the 2019 Charles Waldo Haskins Award for business and public service from NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Well, language has been my passion ever since my undergrad days, but the roots of it go back even further. My family traveled a lot, and I had lived all over the world before I even went to college: the United States, Canada, and Portugal. Once I started my undergraduate studies, I kept traveling, studying abroad in Córdoba, Spain and doing an internship in Caracas, Venezuela, and ended up majoring in Modern Languages. One of my French literature professors, more than anyone else, helped inculcate in me a deep love for language not just as a cultural object, but as a sort of communication technology, a schema devised to foster connection and collaboration. That perspective, coupled with my experiences working internationally, led me to the idea of building a different kind of translation company that wasn’t about document turnaround but actually facilitating communication across cultures, from language and grammar to unspoken assumptions.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My parents, my experiences growing up across the globe, my love of language, my education, and my professors. I remember that I came to Kenneth Lloyd-Jones, my French professor, one day to talk about my plans for studying abroad. I was studying both Spanish and French and thought it would be smart to split my year abroad between both countries. Lloyd-Jones very smartly schooled me in how limiting an idea that was. He told me the culture shock and acclimation process was so huge that I’d spend most of my time before I left for France just adjusting to Spain, and then I’d have to repeat that process all over again once I was in Paris. That meant, he warned me, that I’d be reducing my experience to superficialities. And it was three weeks into Spain that I realized he was right, and that a year abroad needed to be a consistent, deeply-immersed encounter with a culture and community.

Dori Katz, who taught me French and Spanish literature, literature of the Second World War, and translation theory and practice, was an enormous inspiration. A survivor of Nazi Belgium, she was the first woman to be a tenured professor at Trinity. Her example showed me how powerful, how strong, how unlimited a woman could be — and how far I could go if I pushed myself.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

It may sound cliche, but I really have to say my parents. They’re both extraordinary people who raised me to be self-reliant, resilient, prudent, and goal-oriented. And importantly, they raised me, their daughter, with the understanding both that I could do and be anything a man could and that my being a woman meant I’d have to push harder and longer to succeed. My dad always liked to tell me that I shouldn’t depend on a man for financial support because independence is too valuable to give up.

He lived that ideal too. When he was president of Grey Canada, a successful advertising agency, he made sure six out of eight senior vice presidents were women. He knew that women were key to success, especially where marketing is concerned — women make the vast majority of household purchasing decisions — and to this day, says that commitment to women in leadership was the reason Grey Canada succeeded. I have to point out that this was in the eighties and early nineties, when nobody was doing that sort of conscious elevation of women. So, I grew up surrounded by examples of women in charge.

My mom, too, was such a huge part of my success. She’s brilliant, for one. She was going to be a doctor, but, because the past is another country, my grandfather made it clear to her that you can either be a good mom or a doctor, and that there was really only one acceptable choice. So, instead, she went into education. She had a long and diverse career in education, and after my parents’ divorce, she showed me day in and day out that a woman can make it on her own. To this day — she’s 82 now — she lives alone and is completely self-sufficient. Pre-pandemic, she still regularly made the twelve-hour drive from Toronto to New York City solo, and continues to be active in politics, like she’s always been, working as an organizer for Democrats Abroad. She is always my hero, my best teacher, and the clearest example in my entire life of the kind of woman I have always strived, and in fact still strive, to become.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I have a tough time labeling anything a mistake because every misstep in my life has been a vital opportunity to learn and grow. I’ve always seen mistakes as just part of the process, and if you aren’t making any, chances are you aren’t really challenging yourself. I once took a job I didn’t love and while the experience itself wasn’t rewarding (and I quickly quit), it’s what gave me the final push to start my own company (it taught me that the only way to achieve my goals was to blaze my own path forward).

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Just do it. Chase after your dreams, do what scares you. Starting a business is always going to be risky — this of course is especially true today — but it gives you the power to shape your own destiny in a way very few other things can.

One of my mantras has always been: get out of your comfort zone and keep pushing. Push until you can’t push anymore. Push yourself further than you know how to push yourself. There are reserves of strength in us that only come out when we need them; challenges force us to grow, adversity can fuel greatness, and if we keep moving forward, our setbacks will only make us stronger.

While we find ourselves in very scary and tough times, it holds true that big challenges demand even bigger solutions, and adversity fuels innovation. Get out there and be a part of the solution!

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. It’s a really inspiring story from the founder of Nike, but also a hard and honest look at the reality of growing a business. It might be the most direct and insightful depiction of that experience I’ve ever encountered, and it’s a worthwhile read for everyone who might want to build a company of their own.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

My favorite by far is, “Work today like most people won’t so you can live and give tomorrow like most people can’t.” It’s a statement of ambition and drive, but also of community. It’s a reminder that we can’t just enrich ourselves and leave everyone in the dust because our success is also community success. My business thrived during my twenty-six years there because this is a country with universal, tax-supported public schools, an open system of roads and public transportation, and access to clean water. Nobody goes it alone — that was the point everyone seemed to miss when Obama said “you didn’t build that,” — because nobody can go it alone. So yes, strive, fight, struggle, win, and make your fortune. But you only have that fortune because you live in a community that provides, collectively, a base of support. So I support philanthropy, of course, but also the robust, tax-supported social safety net and infrastructure system our massive economy could easily support if we had the will for it. We succeed and in doing so lift up our communities. Being wealthy should be a responsibility, not a license to do as you please.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Since leaving TransPerfect in 2018, I’ve been primarily focused on philanthropy. The Elizabeth Elting Foundation was originally focused on working to bridge opportunity gaps for marginalized communities, especially women. But when COVID-19 hit, we changed our focus and launched the Halo Fund, a multimillion-dollar initiative to help provide concrete and comprehensive relief to people suffering from the pandemic’s very real human consequences: food and housing instability, widening economic inequality, low access to healthcare, lack of childcare for working parents. That last one is only getting worse, and just this morning I read on CNN about how the pandemic is draining women from the workforce, which I’ve been writing about for months now.

Through Halo, the EEF partnered with the American Heart Association to launch the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund for equitable healthcare and social justice, which means we’re supporting initiatives covering our initial area of focus and then some. The AHA has really stepped up to the plate, marshalling its charitable network and fundraising experience to build a really comprehensive COVID-19 response alongside the Bernard J. Tyson Fund’s work toward supporting locally led solutions to dismantle social and economic barriers to health equity. We’re putting our resources where they can do the most help.

(Shifting to the core focus of our interview now) — This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Because good habits help you live your life the way you want to live it, and bad habits do not. It’s as simple as that. It’s like laying tracks; without them, the train isn’t going anywhere. Good habits, from a career perspective, are the ones that support your goals by facilitating you doing good work in a timely manner. Bad habits are anything getting in the way of that.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

As I mentioned before, good habits are the tracks that get you from where you are to where you want to be. So, they’re vital to every success story, my own included.

My most critical success habit revolves around goal setting. I think it’s really important to routinely think about, evaluate, and write down your goals.

I start out by plotting out my goals — both personal and professional — from long-term and lofty to short-term, concrete, and achievable. I write down what I want to accomplish in ink (there’s something about putting pen to paper that helps set things in motion). I then break down my long-term goals into shorter chunks — where do I need to be 6 months from now to be on track, what do I need to do by the end of this month, this week, this day to get there. Doing this helps me keep my eye on the ball without getting too overwhelmed. You need to know where you want to go, but you also need to know where to step along the way.

It’s also a great way to keep perspective and build confidence because you can see how far you’ve come — it’s easy to lose track of that if you aren’t making a habit of recording your journey along the way.

This practice was especially important early on in my career. I’d set goals for new clients, opening new offices, growing my team. And we’d even sit down and do this with clients — developing annual goals and determining what needed to be done to meet them — to make sure we were providing the best possible service and always pushing ourselves to be greater.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

Honestly, the answer is the same in both cases: time and practice. It’s all ultimately maintenance or nothing. The way I see it, good habits come from the application of deliberate practice, while bad habits come when that process stops.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness, performance, and focus?

For me, the ultimate habit for wellness, performance, and focus is mindfulness. It’s a simple word that contains multitudes. I find that so much of what gets in the way of doing our best work and living our best lives is an inability to remain in the moment. It blocks up everything. So you need to focus on where you are and what you’re doing. The question is how. So let’s look at it practically. We have emails coming in at all hours and a culture of productivity that tells us to take care of things as soon as they arise. But all that does is turn us into anxious messes waiting for the next problem to pop up in our inbox, and it robs us of any sense of accomplishment or completion. That’s especially true these days when so many of us are working from home, which means we’re literally always “in the office.” What I want to suggest, then, is the simple act of doing the thing you’re doing, and not ten other things.

Multitasking and productivity culture has robbed us of our rest by insisting we have to optimize and quantify our work and our lives like an assembly line. But we aren’t machines, and this approach never works out. We need our rest, and we can’t do that when we reflexively pop back into work-mode with every ding of our phones.

With that in mind, I’m a big believer in blocking off both time and space.

Compartmentalizing my work time and my work life gives me more opportunities to be with friends and family, but it goes further than that. I try to avoid checking my email more than three times a day so I’m no longer at the beck and call of everyone who happens to have my address, and when I am in work mode, I’m in a quiet, distraction-free place. The end result is I’m able to do positive, focused work that leaves me feeling accomplished when I finally close my laptop. Whatever crops up between then and the next morning will still be there when I wake up.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Developing these kinds of habits isn’t complicated or particularly difficult work. It can be boring and tedious, but it is straightforward and simple. It’s just about committing to small practices that generate results over time. In short, you develop habits by building them into your regular routine. It takes continual maintenance and diligence, but there isn’t much to it more than that.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

I’m not sure flow is something we can game like that, but that’s not to say I think it’s some sort of magical state we have no control over. Flow is the result, like everything else I’ve been talking about, of deliberate practice and discipline. Doing the work of building up your skill and applying it to things that matter to you can predispose you to flow states. It’s like baseball. The pitcher throws the ball, and the batter doesn’t have time to do conscious analysis of what the ball is doing or how fast it’s coming. He has less than half a second to make a determination as to whether to swing and where. To achieve that, he has to practice his batting more or less every day to the point where his brain knows how to read a ball automatically. At that point, he just lets those ingrained skills, those habits, that excellence and expertise, take the reins. When everything’s firing the way it should, he connects. That’s flow. It’s the muscle memory of the human brain and it’s cultivated through practice.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The only reason you should have to look in someone else’s bowl is to make sure they have enough to eat.

Money isn’t about adding up points, buying more, or comparing what we have to others — it’s a resource. It gives us the power to influence, to effect change, to make the world better than we found it. All of us who have that resource have a moral duty to use it for good — to lift up others, to help as many people as we can, to create the kind of future we want for our children, a future where everyone can thrive and reach their full potential.

After all, what’s the point of success and wealth if we don’t do anything with it? It shouldn’t be the goal, it’s the means to achieving our collective goals. It’s not supposed to be rich versus poor, but rich and poor together versus the problems facing us. The only way we move forward is together.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Kim Ng, general manager of the Miami Marlins. I’m a huge fan of baseball — I was even an usherette for the Blue Jays four summers straight when I was in college. She’s the first woman to ever reach the position of GM, and I’d love to just sit down and talk baseball with her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @lizelting and on my website, lizelting.com. You can follow my foundation on Instagram @elizabetheltingfoundation and elizabetheltingfoundation.com.

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