Lisa Shufro

Lisa Shufro

“I realized that climbing the ladder isn’t nearly as important as putting it on the right wall. My wall is to inspire the community around me to live the lives they really want.” – Lisa Shufro

Originally captivating audiences as a classical violinist, Lisa Shufro has always pursued many worlds – succeeding most when she stands bridging the arts to the sciences. As the Magical Awesomeness Catalyst for the Downtown Project, Lisa works with Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, to transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world.

WZ: When you first launched into the professional world, what career paths were you considering and how did you end up where you are?

I would call my career a patchwork – and proof that a plan isn’t always the best plan. I started out as a freelance classical violinist. Music was the most beautiful thing I knew, but it was hard way to pay back my student loans. So, I decided to go into marketing and make a corporate salary while learning skills that would help me revitalize the American audience for classical music. An entrepreneur founded the company I selected and I quickly learned that the skills of being a musician were very similar to being a project manager. Except that it paid much better! You started with a concept and had to orchestrate a team of players to deliver it by “show time.” I loved the creative process of it – and I loved that working outside music made me hungry to play it when I got off work.

I continued to lead the launch of new businesses, crisscrossing industries as diverse as giant Internet retailers, local grocery stores, Chinese students learning English, casinos, and medical prescription adherence platforms. The strain of the office job and the hours of performing on the side caused me to develop severe chronic pain in my neck and shoulders. I was not yet 30 and found I was unable to walk, sit, or stand comfortably. There was no structural damage – it was all poor posture and bad habits I’d learned from sitting (and stressing) all the time.

Eventually, I discovered a method that enabled me to learn new patterns of movement and within a few months was able to move without any medical intervention. I decided to become a teacher and attended 4 years of school to become a certified Feldenkrais teacher. In order to understand how people learn bad habits and how they can improve themselves, we had to study a lot of anatomy, biomechanics, neuroplasticity, and psychology. I had intended to leave corporate world and become a full-time teacher but, shortly after I got my Feldenkrais certification, I was offered a position with TEDMED. Oddly enough, my background in the arts, innovative start-ups, and biomechanics was the perfect confluence of skills for building programming for a multi-disciplinary health and medical community.

While there, I found out about Turntable Health and the Downtown Project in Las Vegas by starting a conversation with Tony Hsieh. I thought his grand experiment in creating the right environment and culture for innovation was an important perspective to bring to thought leaders in health. He invited me to visit and I went to attempt to court him into speaking. But he turned it around on me, asking, “So when are you moving out here?”

If science and medicine was the last career I thought I’d end up in, Las Vegas was the LAST city I thought I’d live in. I had what I call my “Good Will Hunting” moment. I could have happily stayed where I was, but as I saw Downtown Las Vegas coming to life and the challenges they are facing with health, education, culture and entrepreneurship, I felt something stir deep in my gut.

I realized, “I gotta go see about a city.”

WZ: How do you invest in developing leadership and confidence among other women?

One of my favorite coaches once told me that there are two types of women in the workforce: Women who extend the ladder for those following them, and women who pull the ladder up after themselves. I want my actions to show that there’s never a question that I’m in the first category! It’s as much the attitude I project towards other women, as anything I say or do.

One conversation that often comes up in my talks with other women is the conflict of work/life balance. I don’t believe it’s realistic to aspire to it – in fact, I think it’s damaging to feel like a failure when we aren’t balanced. In my experience, women are more likely to feel bad about themselves when they fail to achieve unreasonable goals than they are to question the integrity of those goals. It can set up a nasty spiral of feeling inadequate, or worse – not feeling at all and just turning into a machine.

I try very hard to help the women I work with to reframe the concept of work/life balance. In short – I don’t think there is any such thing as work/life balance anymore. It’s compartmentalized, and that’s just not realistic. When I’m in my house, I’m still thinking about how to serve my community – to make them healthier, smarter, and more capable. When I’m in a business meeting, I’m still drawing on my experiences as a musician. And both things make me happy. That’s balance for me. Balance between happy and less happy, no matter what I’m paying attention to.  When I think like this, my capacity changes, my energy changes, my priorities change – and my impact on and compassion for others changes too.

WZ: What person motivates your imagination and dreams?

My teacher, Mia Segal. She is a master teacher, a spry and wry lady and is still teaching internationally her late 80’s. She wears colorful socks, gets up and down from the floor as lightly as a child. Her face is a constant mix of delight and curiosity.

When you’re in Mia’s presence, she sees you as your best self — and you begin to act as that person. It’s an incredibly powerful thing to be so fully accepted, to be seen as fully capable (if not fully realized). You suddenly feel that you are never more than a mindset away from feeling whole and acting authentically. In a culture that often values activity over value, it’s an important reminder that the simple act of observation truly changes behavior. I “goslinged” after Mia – meeting her helped me realize that I wanted to have that same effect on the people in my life. And now my official job title with the Downtown Project is Magical Awesomeness Catalyst.

WZ: How do you pursue creatively flexing your leadership talents?

Ironically, distributing leadership throughout the organization and not being the leader flexes it. This year, both Zappos and the Downtown Project are rolling out a new management model called Holacracy. In essence, the role of leaders in this model is to generate autonomy and self-organization as deeply and broadly as possible. In Holacracy, there are no “managers” or “approval hierarchy,” in the traditional sense. The Zappos/Downtown Project rollout is the largest in the world, and we are just at the beginning of the process. Technology (like the internet) have made decentralized authority the standard in hundreds of industries – from cable TV to custom M&Ms. It seems inevitable that a model of decentralized authority would eventually make it to the workplace itself. It’s an absolutely fascinating experiment, and one that can have broad ramifications both inside and outside of health.

WZ: What do you do to stay inspired?

Three months ago I walked away from a great job, picked up my life, and moved from metro New York to Downtown Las Vegas. My community is attempting to reinvent cities by building an infrastructure of great people doing work they love. We’re creating an environment that gives people the space and support to take care of themselves, grow, and innovate. We want to make Las Vegas the happiest, healthiest, and smartest city in the world to live.

There’s no blueprint for this approach – only the human network we’re building and the mindset we’re bringing. No one knows if it will work, and that’s inspiring to me. Tony Hsieh, the founder of the Downtown Project, literally wrote the book on how personal happiness leads to profits. I believe that changing the relationship to yourself, and the relationships you encourage in your life, is the foundation for changing any incumbent system.

I’m not suggesting that my path or my philosophy is right for anyone else. But in making the leap, I realized that climbing the ladder isn’t nearly as important as putting it on the right wall. My wall is to inspire the community around me to live the lives they really want. I spend most of my days wondering how the heck to accomplish that. I’m not trying to be good at what I already know. Learning keeps life vibrant and new.


Disruptive Women in Health Care proudly recognizes Lisa Shufro as one of its 2014 Women to Watch. 

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