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Liz Elting: “Deal with distraction”

I don’t know that I have advice to offer women as much as advice to offer business leaders, which is simply to recognize the situation we’re in right now and stop expecting people to work the same way they worked at the office, because it’s not going to happen. Allowances have to be made for […]

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I don’t know that I have advice to offer women as much as advice to offer business leaders, which is simply to recognize the situation we’re in right now and stop expecting people to work the same way they worked at the office, because it’s not going to happen. Allowances have to be made for people with children, people dealing with illness and loss, and a reduced focus on hours worked in favor of results delivered; if the work is getting done, and it’s getting done right and on time, why should you care when your team is seated at their desks?


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 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.

The critical work of the future is breaking down the barriers that hold back women and marginalized people and advancing true equality for all. With an eye toward that future, the Elizabeth Elting Foundation is committed to promoting progressive and feminist efforts to eradicate systemic barriers, promote public health and education, achieve workplace equality, rise beyond the glass ceiling, and open the doors to economic independence for those society has far too often shut out.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

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 French and Spanish. 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.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

Our first big client was a company called Cyprus Minerals. It doesn’t exist anymore — there was a merger, and then an acquisition, and then another acquisition, so it’s several layers down at this point. We had been operating at that point for less than six months, and we were still working out of NYU grad student housing, something we were eager to not make public. This was the nineties, when working from home was still very new and very weird, and we were kids in our twenties. The place was small and far from glamorous — we had a roach problem and a cat zooming around everywhere. So we really needed a big project to get us into our own office space.

So Cyprus shows up with this one, teeny-tiny job: just translating a single technical document from English into Russian. We sourced a competent translator with familiarity with the field, and they were impressed. It turned out that it was a test job, one that we passed, so they hired us again for a much bigger project. This thing was a monster, a massive document with so much field-specific language that assumed a high level of specific expertise on the part of the reader. We scoured our sources and eventually landed on a wildest-dreams translator: a geology PhD who had actually worked in the specific mines the document was concerning. And he wanted to do the job in our “office,” which, again, was a dorm room with roaches and a hyperactive cat. Not that he told us, however. No, he just showed up. Strolled into the building, right past security, and up the elevator to knock on our door. He sat down at our rickety kitchen table with a little portable typewriter, and over the next few hours hammered out a piece of work so good it bought us our very first office. So thankfully, that was our last dorm room job.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will 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 is partnering 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.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? 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 the 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 trip 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.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

I have two high school kids, and they’re going nuts. They want to see their friends, or travel, or just go and do something, anything, to break the monotony. But like the rest of us, they’re stuck at home, and for a household of people who have always had very active outside lives, this is certainly a lot of family togetherness. Too much, if I’m being honest. We can’t safely see other people (and this is New York City, where we have the lowest infection rate in the country precisely because we’re following those rules) and kids need other people in their lives.

On top of that, they absolutely loathe remote learning. It’s not engaging them the way they need to be engaged and they get headaches from staring at their screens literally the entire day when once upon a time they’d have breaks, they’d get out, they’d have fun. And I feel for them. I miss my friends and my extended family.

Balancing home life and work life means dealing with distraction. The kids are bored and frustrated and — as anyone who has ever lived with teenage boys can attest to — constantly somehow everywhere at once. Teenagers have a lot going on in their heads, and I want to be able to support them, but I also have work that needs doing. So it can be a real challenge to carve out a productive work environment.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I put a big focus, as far as my kids are concerned, with making sure of two things: first, that they are respecting each other’s space and that we’re respecting theirs; and second, that they get out of the apartment (carefully) and move. We have a good-sized home so we’re able to spread out a bit more than the bulk of Manhattanites, but even that has its limits. I walk at least five miles a day myself, but I can’t make them do anything they aren’t going to do. The best I can do is encourage.

Personally, I call my mom every day, and try to make sure I’m reaching out to two or three friends and family members every afternoon to keep that connection strong. And I’ve taken up cooking and baking to master a new skill, something I’ve gotten really passionate about. Apparently it’s been a whole huge thing on social media this year, stuff about breadmaking especially, but I don’t spend a lot of time on social so I’m feeling out my own direction.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

Isolation is a beast, and it takes its toll on everyone in time, and it frays relationships. That means I’m always having to be aware of and support my own mental health as well as that of the people I work with. If they aren’t okay — and I mean, who is anymore — they can’t do the work, so it’s really in everyone’s best interest to respect this hardship we’ve all been going through these last five months and lead with compassion.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I put a big priority on face-to-face contact wherever possible. In practice, that means a lot of Zoom meetings, but our infection rate is so low that socially-distanced in-person meetings out of doors are also doable. Whatever it takes to reduce your sense of isolation is critical. I also really try to communicate the importance of mental healthcare to manage loneliness and stress.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

Boundaries, first and foremost. There has to be a way to compartmentalize your time so that when you’re at work, you’re at work, and when you’re not, you’re not. I’m grateful my children are high school age, because it means that they require less monitoring and day-to-day care, and my husband is home too, so he shares that burden. But it’s a real challenge even then, and I really worry about the impact this is having on women across the country who still overwhelmingly bear the burden of primary childcare.

I don’t know that I have advice to offer women as much as advice to offer business leaders, which is simply to recognize the situation we’re in right now and stop expecting people to work the same way they worked at the office, because it’s not going to happen. Allowances have to be made for people with children, people dealing with illness and loss, and a reduced focus on hours worked in favor of results delivered; if the work is getting done, and it’s getting done right and on time, why should you care when your team is seated at their desks?

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

Like I mentioned above, I think respecting spaces is a big one. Sometimes, people just need to get away from their family or housemates, and in the close quarters living of Manhattan, that’s incredibly difficult, although that’s where headphones and tablet computers come in. Aside from that, keeping your home tidy will help reduce distractions. Picking up new hobbies is a great way to feel productive and stay mentally stimulated. And I use a lot of scented candles and incense alongside soothing music to create a serene atmosphere around me. It helps!


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