A Fine Balance

That relationship between family and hard work carried Gersh through college and law school, which she attended with financial help from her twin sister, Laura, who chose a career in telemarketing over college.

Now president/COO of Oxygen, Gersh directs sales and business operations for the only independently owned women's cable network.

From Startup To Startup

After graduating from Rutgers Law School, Gersh embarked on a career as a litigator in 1984, joining the venerable New York firm Debevoise & Plimpton. She left two years later to join a small startup firm before breaking off with a few others to found Friedman Kaplan & Seiler LLP.

Over the next decade, Gersh helped build the firm to more than 40 attorneys.

In 1995, Gersh got a call from cable pioneer Gerry Laybourne. An old friend of Gersh's first husband, Laybourne asked her for help in renegotiating her contract as president of Nickelodeon.

Despite Gersh's relative inexperience with media law, she and Laybourne negotiated what turned out to be one of the industry's most high-profile departures, sending Laybourne from Nick to Walt Disney Co. as president of Disney-ABC Cable Networks.

The deal transformed Gersh overnight into a media power lawyer and led to work with other industry players while she remained at the firm.

But in 1998, Laybourne came to her with a more radical proposition: leave the firm and help her start a cable network for young women.

Gersh had two young daughters at the time and no plans to leave her job.

“The opportunity to explore a whole other career at 39 years old was really exciting,” she says. “I said, 'I'll certainly help you with figuring out your exit from Disney, but I really don't know anything about running a cable network. I don't even know what a sub is.'

“It's short for subscriber,” she recalls Laybourne's explaining, “and we need a lot of them.”

Sharing an office with Laybourne, Gersh quickly got up to speed on the cable industry by attending the network's early meetings.

Before long, she was cutting deals with affiliates and advertisers that put Oxygen on a fast track to growth.

Now in more than 70 million homes and nearly fully distributed—no small feat with operators hard-pressed to offer bandwidth—the network is attracting advertisers in new categories like technology and took in more than $100 million in ad sales this year.

Laybourne praises Gersh's “negotiation skills, fearlessness and understanding of what our partners need.”

Working Alongside Family Again

Gersh's devotion to family and hard work continues to inform her career. She remains close to her twin sister, whom she calls “the most important person in my life.”

And she is once again working alongside her family: her daughters (ages 10 and 16) and stepdaughters (19 and 21) have pitched in at Oxygen's marketing, public relations and online departments, and they regularly weigh in on programs like recent hits The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency and The Bad Girls Club.

“If you are hard-working and you have a family, Oxygen is a great place to work,” Gersh says. “To me, work-life balance is making sure all those things work together, and one way to do that is to have them work with you and understand what you do.”

Long before she co-founded Oxygen Media, Lisa Gersh knew the importance of balancing work and family. When business was slow at her parents' fabric store in Bergen County, N.J., Gersh pitched in by teaching needlepoint. “It was a pretty difficult time for my parents,” she recalls. “I just decided I would put my nose down and get a job, and in a lot of ways, it was a very formative experience for me.”