By Candice Wagener | Photography by Hillary Schave
Lydia Zeller didn’t set out on an executive path, but her career journey led there. The Madison native is CEO of Flyte, a Minneapolis-based healthcare company which developed a groundbreaking, fast, convenient, over-the-counter treatment for bladder leaks with continence rates comparable to surgery. She is a shining example of how mentorship can bring unexpected and appreciated opportunities.
Living in San Francisco while her ex-husband attended graduate school at Stanford, Zeller found a secretarial position at a wealth management firm “to pay the bills” and found her first mentor.
“One of the partners was the first person in my career who saw me as a person rather than a skill set,” says Zeller.
Eventually, the partner decided to build her own firm, and asked Zeller to become partner and handle the operations side of the business. Zeller had no formal training in operations or finance, but she embodied determination and grit, and figured out how to be successful; as a result, the firm grew rapidly.
It’s a theme Zeller wholeheartedly promotes: Leaders need to look beyond a resume and intuit people’s capabilities in applying determination and grit, ability for continual growth and core competencies.
Zeller gave birth to twins in 1997, and the family moved back to Madison in 1998. She stepped away from 60-hour work weeks, choosing to do consulting in SEC regulatory management while homeschooling her daughters.
In December 2012, she started volunteering at Kiio, a health care technology startup, and encountered another mentor. The founder knew she was highly capable and asked her to help with financial operations, among other things. She was hired in 2013.
“You wear a million hats in a startup,” says Zeller. “There is no lack of things to do. If you are a determined person with passion and grit, and the ability to think outside the box — and see big and dream big and vision big and see opportunities in unexpected places and then get things done — you’re going to advance.”
As the company grew, so did Zeller’s responsibilities. Eventually, she led product strategy, sales and marketing. She was promoted to CEO in 2020, and was the only woman on the executive team.
Although she hired women during her tenure, she has never considered her gender a disadvantage. “I would never want to be hired because I’m a woman. You’re always looking for the best person for the job. I’ve hired fantastic women as well as fantastic men. As leaders we need to be cognizant of opportunity gaps, how we’re building relationships, sourcing opportunities, and doing so in a way that we’re going to attract diversity across the board,” explains Zeller.
Kiio was sold in 2021 and Zeller joined Flyte in April 2022, working remotely. She values the incredibly supportive entrepreneurial community here in Madison as well as the entire team at Flyte. “Being a CEO is kind of a lonely position,” says Zeller. “Having fellow CEOs and people you can speak with candidly is hugely valuable. We learn from people at all levels in our organizations.”
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
“Give deep thought to decisions regarding your career, but don’t worry too much about ‘shutting the door’ on other opportunities. Don’t make the assumption that the job you take is predetermining some kind of lifelong path. You can make forks at your path throughout your life, go into entirely new areas, discover entirely new passions. Opportunity is out there.”
And, trust yourself. “Understand risk, but take appropriate risk. Not ever putting yourself out there is probably the biggest risk you can take … recognize your strengths and your superpowers and own them.”
Read more from our “What Women Want at Work” feature here.