Social Impact Heroes: Genevieve Piturro has been delivering pajamas and books to vulnerable children in shelters for the past 20 years
“Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”. 20 years ago I started Pajama Program and although I knew the idea and impetus for it came from my “heart voice” I was scared out of my mind. I was considering jumping off that corporate ladder into…nothingness, and there was a pretty good chance I’d fall flat on my face. Somewhere I heard that phrase, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, and it jolted me into reality — I was always going to be afraid of something so why let it paralyze me every time I tried something new? It resonated with me at that scary time. I realized that phrase came from someone, so I wasn’t alone in feeling fear. If they could “do it anyway” so could I!
As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Genevieve Piturro. Genevieve Piturro was a successful television marketing executive in New York City for 20 years when a little girl’s question changed the course of her life forever — and she jumped off the corporate ladder. She began delivering pajamas and books to children in shelters and in 2001 founded Pajama Program, a non-profit which has been recognized nationwide for both its success and Genevieve’s story. A Yonkers, N.Y. native to immigrant parents, Genevieve received a Bachelor’s of Art Degree from Fordham University. Today she resides with her husband, Demo DiMartile in Irvington, NY. Genevieve has been interviewed on OPRAH, TODAY, GMA, The Early Show, CNN, Fox & Friends, O Magazine, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal and she rang the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell in 2016. She has been the recipient of many local and national awards. An international speaker, consultant and author, Genevieve has made it her mission to inspire men and women across the globe to listen to their heart-voice connection in pursuing their passions to achieve success. Besides the amazing credentials and accolades, Genevieve remains a very remarkable and engaging speaker.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Genevieve! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m using my past 20 year journey as Founder of the national nonprofit Pajama Program to speak and inspire others to find their purpose. I found my purpose “in pajamas” as I say, and I am now supporting others as they harness the courage and confidence they have to embrace their inner voice in a mission I call, “Find YOUR Pajamas.” Over the years I have mentored many nonprofit founders who have asked for guidance, needed answers and even just wanted a sounding board. They all wish to take their organizations to the next level so I’m excited to announce that I’m leading the first Find Your Pajamas Nonprofit Intensive & Pitch Contest in NYC Saturday, Sept 14.
PROJECT: We’re calling all social entrepreneurs, nonprofit founders and those with the idea for a nonprofit to apply to attend this one-day journey through optimizing every point of their nonprofit strategy. Twenty-five chosen attendees will learn how to master the fundraising landscape, build their boards, boost volunteer recruitment and utilize essential marketing tools. There is no fee to apply or register and the application process to enter a nonprofit for one of the 25 spots is LIVE now through August 5th.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of my “Aha” moment with the little girl who was my reason for starting Pajama Program. As I thought about all these years of growing our organization I noticed that my favorite part of these 20 years was sharing our story with people and spreading the word about listening to your inner voice, taking a chance on doing what you love, making a change in your life if you felt — or heard — a calling. I jumped off the corporate ladder and found out that through my ups and downs, struggles and sleepless nights, I could still inspire others because I was still standing! Every day I put one foot in front of the other, asked a lot of questions, and figured out how to do things I’d never done before. My creativity was set free and all because I listened to my Heart-Voice and connected with people…and now I speak to audiences about doing the same thing!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I started speaking to groups after I literally heard a voice in me ask, “If this is the next 30 years of my life, is it enough?” That was my heart-voice speaking to me and I began telling audiences that story. Little did I know people would leave my presentation and ask that question not only to themselves but to their friends and family….and then I’d hear about it from people I didn’t know! I heard that question from my inner voice when I was in my late 30s, so I expected that question to resonate with people who had been in their career for 20 years already like I was, and had become complacent. However — recently I spoke to a group of more than 200 millennials and I was shocked at how many of them were adamant about finding their purpose right now, at the beginning of their careers. They answered my 30 years question with a resounding “NO,” they weren’t staying where they were for financial or traditional reasons. My simple question seemed to light a fire under them to find their passion as soon as possible. I really thought that question would hit home for people ages 35–55 but these young people were definitely motivated to find their purpose in life sooner rather than later.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first decided to make my speaking reel, I knew I had to have professional videographers at my speaking engagements taking the video. No more “do it yourself” tripods or asking audience members to take video of me on their phones! I went to great lengths finding the best local videographers and balancing and re-balancing my budget to afford the cost because I felt it was necessary to produce the best sample reel I could. Several of my presentations were (and still are) keynotes at meal events. awards dinners, breakfasts, and luncheon ceremonies. I’ll never forget the first time I hired a videographer and spent money I didn’t have on the best one in the area…Even though my speech came after the meal was technically finished, the noise and visual from the servers clearing made it look like I was speaking in a bustling restaurant kitchen! To make matters worse, I wandered around the room when I spoke to get closer to my audience and make eye contact with as many people as I could. You can’t imagine how disappointed and embarrassed I was to view the video with my mentors as they watched me swerve to avoid crashing into the waiters, trip over fallen silverware and duck to avoid high trays being carried into the kitchen! Thankfully we all had a good laugh over it…and I know better now!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
There is tremendous career pain and emptiness in so many of us. The U.S. self-improvement market was worth $9.9 billion in 2016. It is forecast to post 5.6% average yearly gains from 2016 to 2022, when the market should be worth $13.2 billion. The market is growing because society is looking to be inspired. In a July 2018 employment study, it was reported that 74% of Americans had quit their jobs to pursue their passions. Finance, hospitality and retail were the least satisfying careers and were left behind for passionate and meaningful careers in education, technology and the arts. In addition, millennials are obsessed with seeking constant self-improvement. They are willing to spend twice the amount of money per month on life coaching, new fitness classes, meal plans, therapy and apps focused on wellbeing than other generations before them. I’m speaking to both men and women, millennials to Gen Xers who read books for inspiration in their everyday lives and are looking for real-life stories and inspiration from real-live people they can relate to, talk to and count on for support.
Nonprofit founders today are truly changing the world and I am personally so grateful for them. I know how much sleep they lose, how much stress they’re managing and how long their days are — I’ve been there! I also know the passion they carry, the joys of their successes big and small, and the heart swells they feel when they get a “YES!”
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was by impacted this cause?
Mary Beth and I have been circling each other in our careers for years. We’ve attended seminars together, sometimes found ourselves at the same industry functions and even some social events, and we’ve always encouraged one another when the going got tough. Over the last year as I have been speaking and writing about Finding YOUR Pajamas, Mary Beth had confided in me that she was thinking about her “pajamas” — she realized she hadn’t yet found her purpose and was going to work every day asking herself my question, “If this is the next 30 years, is this enough?” Two weeks ago Mary Beth messaged me on social media inviting me to lunch with the words, “I’ve found my pajamas and I can’t wait to tell you!” We had lunch last week and she was so excited about her new job, she almost couldn’t sit still as she told me all about it…and neither could I!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Communities can offer “career day” for everyone — not just for college students. Maybe they call it, “change your career day!”
- Perhaps society can encourage companies to support their employees in the hobbies they enjoy, the pastimes that give their employees real joy and ignite their passions. If our true passions are encouraged to breathe and grow, we are more inclined to feel good about all aspects of our lives. It’s great to see companies offering volunteer opportunities to their employees as that is definitely fulfilling for many of us. Maybe there is a way to expand that to other areas their employees are interested in.
- More and more, we/society are learning that financial compensation alone isn’t enough to keep employees motivated after a few years at a job. We need to recognize this and find more creative ways to keep employees happy and invested in the company that employs them.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
- Leaders pay it forward. We have assembled an incredible group of nonprofit experts for our September 14th Nonprofit Intensive & Pitch Contest. We all agree it’s time now to give back to founders who are eager to take their organization to the next level, grow the support they need to serve more, and surround themselves with those of us who want to share our successes and our mistakes in order to do more and be better at it than we were.
- Leaders keep their door open, always and no matter what.Leaders always remain accessible to others who seek their support and advice because they know what it’s like to have to ask for help — it’s not always easy but there is no shame in it.
- Leaders believe “It’s a big tent, let’s fill it.” I heard Bryan Cranston interviewed about playing the same real-life character Woody Harrelson was also playing at a different venue. He was asked by the interviewer if it was awkward for either of them as news came out about their identical roles. He said that Woody told him, It’s a big tent, let’s fill it, and he agreed. So do I. This philosophy goes beyond Cranston-Harrelson playing the same part without one feeling threatened by the other. There’s room for everyone who wants to help, contribute to the solution, or add something to a situation to make it better. There’s no competition when people are on the same side, doing their best to complement each other to reach the collective desired result.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Share the disappointments as loudly as you share the successes. When we succeed we announce it loud and clear from the rooftops but when we fail, we keep it to ourselves, gong over and over in our minds what we did wrong. By keeping what we perceive as the embarrassing stuff inside, we continue to punish ourselves which stifles our freedom and creativity. By letting it go and sharing the pain, we dilute its power and find, to our constant amazement, that we are not alone — we have lots of friends, colleagues, mentors and leaders who understand exactly how we’re feeling and what we need to do next because they too, have been there.Example: I have purposefully sought out the leaders who talk openly about their failures and fears so I can share mine. As I write my book, I am buoyed by authors’ stories about how many times they heard NO before they got their YES! My favorite? Chicken Soup for the Soul authors and how their book was rejected by 144 publishers before they got a contract!
- Don’t depend on strangers to tell your story. When I started Pajama Program I thought I needed objective professionals to teach me how to tell my story to attract donors. When I would speak to people to tell them about the children we saw, or when I would write them a letter telling them about our work giving children pajamas and books for a loving, comforting bedtime, I would often receive the financial support we needed to continue. When I realized we needed more funding, I thought perhaps professionals could tell our story better. I remember one of the finest professional grant writers I met at that time told me “No one can tell anyone else’s story quite like you can tell you own. Tell your story as chapter 1 and we’ll be here to help you write chapter 2.”
- The people in your current circle may turn to naysayers if you suddenly change the course of your life — and you may lose some friends. I took for granted that my closest friends would cheer me on, or at the very least, understand when I told them “I’m leaving my job because I found my purpose, I’m going to provide pajamas and books to children who need them!” I know that sounded odd to my co-climbers on the corporate ladder, but I was excited and ready to take on the world. When several of them made it clear they thought I was a fool to leave all I had gained by working 24/7 at a job that was leaving me empty, I felt rejected and sad. How could my friends turn on me like that? Why weren’t they the first ones to say, “We’ll help, what can we do?” It took me a while to understand that their world was fulfilling to them, it was all they had ever wanted and still wanted. We didn’t have much in common anymore. My circle of friends has changed dramatically and although I miss some of them, I am in the best circle for me now.
- Don’t spend time trying to make everything perfect. I realized, after a couple of years agonizing over every word I wrote and losing sleep over every detail of the Pajama Program layout I sketched at a desk, I was losing time — and missing the point. I had to get my message across, yes, but if I put half the energy I exerted into commas and phrases into getting out there and meeting more people and simply using my emotions to fuel my words, I wouldn’t have been frying my brain! I would have been free and unencumbered, able to convey my message easily because it was coming straight from my heart. Sometimes when you wing it, you get it perfect!
- Learn as much about technology as you can. It never occurred to me 20 years ago how behind I’d be if I put off learning about all the new gadgets and apps! Now I find myself trying to catch up and struggling.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
“Find YOUR P.A. J.A. M. A. S!”
Remember PAJAMAS when you know it’s time to explore something new:
P … Pretending things are right when they feel wrong, IS wrong!
A … ASK lots of questions of yourself and others
J … JUMP in and start splashing around
A … ACTION — take the first step
M … MAKE the commitment
A … ALWAYS believe in the partnership of yourself and the universe
S … SPEAK to everyone who will listen!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”
20 years ago I started Pajama Program and although I knew the idea and impetus for it came from my “heart voice” I was scared out of my mind. I was considering jumping off that corporate ladder into…nothingness, and there was a pretty good chance I’d fall flat on my face. Somewhere I heard that phrase, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, and it jolted me into reality — I was always going to be afraid of something so why let it paralyze me every time I tried something new? It resonated with me at that scary time. I realized that phrase came from someone, so I wasn’t alone in feeling fear. If they could “do it anyway” so could I!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
That’s an easy one for me! Oprah Winfrey. I am so grateful to have been a guest on her show several years ago. Now, I’d love to thank her for all the amazing things that have happened since that show which enabled Pajama Program to help more children. Oprah has been an example to me of what we can do when we align ourselves with the universe, find our purpose and use it to help others. I wouldn’t be able to help people Find THEIR Pajamas now if she hadn’t given me that gift of encouragement years ago.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much!