After 20 years in marketing and advertising, Mary Lou Quinlan decided to become a translator: She teaches retailers how to speak the language of women. 

“There isn’t a major marketer that doesn’t depend on women for success,” says Quinlan, CEO of New York City-based Just Ask a Woman. In her work for clients such as General Motors, Lifetime Television, and Johnson & Johnson, Quinlan emcees talk show-style focus groups in which women talk about everything from buying habits to exploitative advertising. The firm also creates “DocuDiaries,” in-depth studies of women at work and home. The results help Quinlan’s clients create new products or reposition old ones, with women’s needs in mind.     

When a financial services company hired Quinlan, she asked women about their experiences with money, starting with her own to establish trust. “We talked about the roles money plays, which led to conversations about how they want to be approached about money,” Quinlan says.

Despite surveys showing that women influence about 80 percent of consumer decisions, Quinlan says some industries still don’t get it. “Technology is nowhere. They’re just seeing who can out-gizmo the next guy.”