The Power Thread sat down with Genevieve Piturro, a native New Yorker and founder of the national non-profit Pajama Program. She was a successful television marketing executive until she changed her career and went in an entrepreneurial direction. In 2001, she created the Pajama program, after volunteering at shelters for children in NYC. Now, almost twenty years later, Genevieve’s Pajama Program has delivered more than 6 million new pajamas and bedtime books to children throughout the US. Today, Genevieve is a motivational speaker, consultant, and writer. We sat down with her to learn about how she found her true passion and what she does day-to-day to inspire others to listen to their heart in pursuing their passions to achieve success and meaning in life. Speaking with Genevieve we immediately felt her energy and entrepreneurial spirit.
Genevieve where did you grow up and what were your interests as a child?
I grew up in New York in a town called Yonkers. My dad came on a boat from Italy and my mom was Italian, but born in the US, so we had a very traditional Italian upbringing. There was no question about us going to college. My mom and dad worked hard to save for us to attend school. I always felt like an outsider because I wanted to explore the world as a young adult. I didn’t want to follow the traditional “get married and have kids” path. I grew up wanting to be that career girl, and that’s what I ended up doing. My mom tells a story of putting me in a playpen with bars as a toddler and I would climb over them and escape no matter what she did. Even with the bars up, I would always climb over them. I always wanted to be independent and be out in the world. I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore.
What was your first job after college and how did it set up your career?
I went to Fordham University. I studied communications. I loved TV. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and loved TV. When I went to Fordham they had a big radio station that was student run. I joined and volunteered with some other kids. I was able to interview lots of interesting people about their careers for the radio. I really wanted to pursue radio for my career. I had an interview with a radio station that was quite lengthy, and I later learned they were interviewing my voice. They were piloting a new project called News Phone. People could call at any time and receive the top news headlines. They offered me a position to be there midnight till 8:00am, and I was in charge of re taping my voice with the headlines each hour, so that people could have the headlines by phone when they called in. The radio was owned by a group with productions, so when I left at 8:00am all the television people would be coming in, so I became friendly with them. I told them I would love to end up working in television. Eventually they had an open spot, and I filled it.
What was the biggest lesson you learned in your first job?
Take a chance. I was hired for an entrepreneurial project. It sounded crazy! Working midnight till 8:00am in New York City when I was 22 years old, but I went for it. I had an adventurous spirit. I did love it. It turned my brain upside down with the sleep pattern, but I wanted the adventure. I got to do something that most people would never get to do, and it led to bigger and better things. It was worth taking a chance.
When did you make the transition from your television career to launching your non-profit?
I continued climbing the corporate ladder. I made my way up to VP of Marketing and I traveled all over the world. I thought I had hit the jackpot. I was in my 30s and single because this life was all-consuming. I was eating, drinking, sleeping everything with my job. I thought it was great; I didn’t have time for a husband or kids. At night I would sometimes have these thoughts that I was alone. Until one night I had a voice ask me in my head, “If this is the next 30 years, is this enough?” It was inside my gut. It stopped me, and I thought wow, and it is coming from somewhere in me and it is coming from out there. I really was coming so fast, I have nothing to show for it, I have no legacy, I don’t have children or a husband that cares about me. What am I doing in this world? I’m working and making people richer, and we are having a party. And I am so glad looking back that it hit me so hard. When that happened I realized I didn’t have a family of my own and that I missed having children in my life. I didn’t think that my traditional family with parents was something that I wanted to do. I thought that one way to get kids in my life would be to volunteer at shelters. I started calling police stations and asked to come to shelters and read to the children with some books I bought. It was great. It was so opposite my life to have these children come in. They were afraid. They had been pulled out of some really terrible situations. I was reading to them, and it was almost like meditating together. When they were to go to bed they would get onto futons and couches. I had a flash in my mind of memories of putting on pajamas, eating bedtime cookies, and reading books. What I saw was so wrong. I blurted out and asked if I could bring the pajamas. The next week I brought pajamas for all of the kids. They started putting them on, but one little girl wouldn’t. She watched everyone put them on, and then turned to me and asked, “What are pajamas?” That was the end of my workaholic mindset. This girl’s voice led me to start my non-profit.
What advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?
Say yes to as much as you can. Be adventurous, but find your pajamas. You have to be adventurous because you probably don’t really know what your purpose is. You find your purpose when you take chances and listen to them. You have to find that otherwise you will end up with this voice asking if this is enough. You have to listen to that voice. It’s the nagging voice. It comes back and comes back and comes back. And when you have this feeling that you aren’t going down the right path you have to really examine and pay attention. Because it’s a horrible place to be late in life, to think later in life, is that it? Today so many people are feeling unfulfilled. I hear it all the time. So many people are realizing that so much time has gone by and they have no legacy to feel fulfilled and they are sad and I’m sad. That’s when I wanted to start to speak and make the human connection. We don’t have any place for human connection that we used to. We have technology, but we need human connection and we need to feel that and be in front of each other and care about each other.
What advice would you give to someone trying to make a transition in their career?
Write down 10 things you love to do. It can be reading, visiting your grandmother, Feel the emotional pull of every one of the things on the list. Circle the top 3, and if your career has nothing to do with those three things, then you need to explore those three things once a week. You need to explore that as more than just a passing hobby. You need to see what can you do with animals, what can you do with senior citizens. I really care about children in shelters. That means talking to people and reading about that specific passion. If you let these things pass, your job will suffer, you won’t feel engaged, your employer will feel like you don’t care and you will lose determination at work and in your passion. You need to explore the things you love doing. Spend twice as much time doing the 3 things you love for a few weeks and research how you can make them your career.
Some people are lucky enough that they like their job and love something like piano. Maybe there is a way to marry them and have a sense of fulfillment. And maybe you can play at lunch time at work and have a mini-concert for everyone. Maybe you can have a talk about your interest or hobby. There are so many options to bring your passion into your life more and that will bring people together and it will change and be dynamic.
What is the conference you are organizing for this weekend?
I am hosting an event called Find Your Pajamas. It is an event for non-profit founders. I have been mentoring for 20 years and there are not many resources for entrepreneurs creating non-profits. It is scary to have to raise money all the time. It is scary to realize that if you don’t have a good year, you may not be able to help the people you want to help. The feeling is very personal and something that touches them at a more emotional level. There are basic things non-profit founders need to learn such as creating a board of directors, attracting volunteers, building email marketing. We have chosen 20 founders through applications to come together this Saturday to learn from one another and successful non-profit founders. It will be a full day of sharing and learning.
What is the largest challenge you faced with launching Pajama Program?
In the early stages, before I was as confident, the naysayers were scary because I was surrounded with other corporate climbers. They thought I was crazy and they made me think I was crazy. As a result, I questioned myself. You have to find someone that tells you, you aren’t crazy and you’re making the right choice and that the universe is your partner. There are people that come into your life, people just aren’t normal. I met a man and when I said to him, “I’m thinking about leaving my career to do this.” The first thing he said was, “Go for it.” The naysayers were shooed away with my mom and this man who I eventually fell in love with. They supported my idea and passion. I wish I could say the nay sayers didn’t get in my brain, but they did, and they made it easy to question myself. There was also the financial piece because that was scary. I was alone and I needed an income. Your relationships can suffer. As exciting as it is for your spouse or your partner, there are times that they feel alone because I wasn’t really present. And he was understanding, but it was hard. I was taking every opportunity to take advantage of my work and I was neglecting him. It’s a challenge for entrepreneurs to not neglect the people around them, but it’s important to keep this in mind and find a balance.
Did your prior experience in television help with your non-profit launch?
Yes because I was in marketing, it did help. I know short and sweet. I knew if I found the right words and the right stories that if I wanted to convey, that it would be a good story. I tell everyone that no matter what you do, you have to have a story. I was able to convey a story, short and sweet, to find the right way to convey the feeling that you want the person to get. It’s true for everyone, a nonprofit, you have to have a mission statement that will touch someone’s heart.
What does it mean for you to be powerful?
I think to be able to share such a profound story that was so personal and to find out that it connects people and I think that’s very powerful. I think we can all do that, but we don’t. I think to find something personal, and when we have that, that is powerful. We need to share those stories, because it’s not the power of one, it’s the power of one another. The secret to the power of one is the power of one another.
What else would you tell others at the start of their career?
I urge people to really think as early on as possible, to not wait to incorporate what you really love in your life because time goes so fast. Start thinking, start moving, do it now, listen to that heart voice, and find your pajamas.
You don’t have to have any kind of background to change course. You have to be brave, and jump, and then you learn how to swim, and you can. You can swim, and if you do it later, you will be 10 years older. Listen to the voice in your head. Don’t wait. You are stronger than you think, and you are braver than you feel, and you don’t know it until you test it.
Visit www.GenevievePiturro.com to learn more about her work.