Italian-American Profiles of Success: Samantha DiGennaro

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Ciao Pittsburgh_1By Daniel Casciato

3rd Generation Italian Helps Tell Other People’s Stories

Ciao Pittsburgh continues its series on profiling Italian-Americans across the country. This week, we are featuring Manhattan resident, Samantha DiGennaro (who goes by “Sam”) founder and owner of a public-relations agency in New York City that helps CEOs and their companies define their brands in a public forum. The agency gets executives and their organizations written about and interviewed in online, print and broadcast outlets, as well as through social media channels.

Sam’s parents were both the first college-educated members of their respective families—they were both teachers. And her father, besides being a teacher and school administrator, was a small business owner.  During the summers, he ran a day camp that he founded in the New York area.  All of Sam’s relatives have an exceptionally strong work ethic, and she always had an entrepreneurial spirit in her. She had her first job at age 10, delivering the New York Post when it was just $1.65 a week.

Sam took some time to tell us a little more about what she does for a living, her Italian heritage, some of her favorite hobbies and her favorite Italian traditions.

CP: What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Sam: The most rewarding aspect of my career is helping raw talent realize its potential. We have a broad age range among the 35 employees of my company, and mentoring and teaching people at all levels to truly learn, grow and develop their skills is really gratifying.
CP: Where are you from and where do you currently live?
Sam: I live within a short walk of my office in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. Rockaway Beach, in the New York City borough of Queens is where I grew up. We lived in Belle Harbor, a small peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean, which was devastated in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. When I was a kid, the neighborhood was comprised of primarily Irish and Jewish families. Ours was one of the few Italian families in the area.

CP: Can you tell us about your Italian heritage?
Sam: My sister, brother and I are third-generation Italian-American. Our great grandparents were from Italy. On my mom’s side they’re from the north, in Parma. My father’s family came from Naples and Sicily. While we still enjoy some Italian traditions such as cooking and big family gatherings, we’re also very Americanized. When my great-grandparents came here, their goal was to assimilate and present themselves as Americans. Like many immigrants, they lost some of their identity.  I’d love to reclaim some of my wonderful Italian heritage.

CP: What are some of your favorite Italian traditions and why?
Sam: One of my favorite Italian traditions is right around the corner: Having a big Christmas-eve dinner that includes lobster tails Fra diavolo and a huge assortment of antipasto. I also love a good glass of Montepulciano red wine.  I’ve vacationed in Italy many times and can never get enough of Italian art, food, wine and culture. I love the Renaissance art in Florence, fashion in Milan, vino in Chianti, olive oil throughout Tuscany, the food in Rome, and the beach on the Amalfi coast. I don’t even speak Italian and neither do my parents but I’ve always thought the lingua franca of Italy is joy!

CP: What does being Italian mean to you?
Sam: Italy is a beautiful country with a rich culture. Italian people are warm and family oriented. I’m proud of that as well as the art and cuisine. Here in the U.S. there are some very negative representations of Italian people in which they’re portrayed as mafia dons and uneducated beach girls. But as with any country and culture, there are so many different types of people. I’m proud that my parents were educators and exposed my sister, brother and me to the huge world around us as well as the richness of our ancestry.

CP: What accomplishments in life are you most proud of?
Sam: Starting and growing a successful business and building a team of happy dedicated people. Since 2006, when DiGennaro Communications launched, we’ve expanded our client roster to include blue-chip companies such as Xerox, Ringling Bros., Microsoft, Pandora and Live Nation. I’m also proud that my business was opened with core values such as honesty, integrity and dedication to the larger community. You know how some companies like to brag that they work hard and play hard? Well we do, too, but I also like to tell people that we work hard and work fun. Our office has a loose, fun vibe.

CP: What are some of your favorite hobbies?
Sam: I love adventure travel, particularly in foreign countries and cultures. I have a passion for art–from Renaissance to impressionism to abstract expressionism. I love the theater, especially modern drama by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. You might catch me reading European Romantic poetry by Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Coleridge. And I love painting, which I studied as an undergrad Art & Design major at the University of Chicago and through graduate classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Visual arts are a real area of interest, including photography and print making.  Even though I listen to a lot of classic rock like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, people who know me wouldn’t be surprised to find me channeling my Italian heritage through Puccini and Verdi on my playlist.

CP: What are some key learnings you’ve experienced in your business?
Sam: First, never give up on your goals and dreams. Always stay focused on the objective at hand. Second, don’t be afraid to say no and set boundaries when the demands on your time become too much. And finally, recognize the importance of building a strong company culture where people enjoy coming to work. Our office is one where people support each other, are collegial and have each other’s backs in a crisis. I also communicate the importance of treating all clients,employees and each other with dignity and respect.

CP: What would you do differently in your (business) strategy moving forward?
Sam: If I had it to do all over again, I would separate my emotions from some of my past business decisions. On a personal level, I’m getting better at closing down situations that aren’t working out as soon as they’re identified. To date, though, I’m pretty pleased with how things have turned out for me both professionally and personally. I’m living an enriching, fulfilling, soulful life.

CP: What advice would you like to share with other entrepreneurs and small business owners?
Sam: As Thoreau said,Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”  And be prepared to work really hard–and sometimes really long– to get there.

CP: What else would you like our readers to know about you?
Sam: I may be a New Yorker but I’ve walked past the Franco Harris statue at Pittsburgh International many times and even got into an argument about it with my younger brother when I was 13 and he was 8. Because I had just finished reading “Gone With the Wind,” I insisted the football player’s name was “Frank O’Hara” (like Scarlett). My dad had to arbitrate. It was embarrassing to be put in my place by my kid brother.  A better memory for me is my company’s working relationship with a wonderful ad agency in Pittsburgh called Brunner. We’re very proud of Brunner and its many accomplishments.

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