Women in Business: Filomena Fanelli, CEO/Founder, Impact PR & Communications, Ltd

05/01/2015 11:35 am ET | Updated May 01, 2016

Filomena Fanelli is the CEO and founder of Impact PR & Communications, a boutique, strategic public relations firm based in Poughkeepsie, New York. A 16-year industry veteran with an affinity for helping tell her clients' stories -- and she firmly believes every single one of them has one -- Fanelli has been recognized for her professional achievements and community involvement. Most recently, she was named a 2015 "40 Under 40" by the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce for her leadership. An expert in her field, Fanelli has been profiled in The Poughkeepsie Journal and The Distracted Executive's Influencer Series; quoted in CEO Blog Nation and CityBizList, among other publications; and has presented on public relations on behalf of Dutchess Tourism.

Called a publicity hound, a title she happily embraces, she serves as the firm's chief strategist, working with a diverse array of large and small businesses. During her career, she has represented William Raveis New York City, MAST Construction Services, Hornig Capital Partners, Gold's Gym Dutchess County, Atco Properties, Belz Enterprises, Faith Hope Consolo and Grubb & Ellis, to name a few. Fanelli got her start at one of New York City's most prominent public relations firms, Rubenstein Associates, where her "can do attitude" helped her quickly rise through the ranks to become a vice president, before freelancing and, most recently, taking the entrepreneurial plunge.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up hearing two messages, one from my father, who was also an entrepreneur, and one from my mother, who was a social worker. They were, respectively, "you can do anything you set your mind to" and "love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe." I took both of those to heart. I've always believed that the only limits I had were the ones I put on myself. However, I knew if I set out to pursue something, no matter what it was, I'd have to surround myself with great people and not be afraid to work very, very hard.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Impact PR & Communications?
My leadership style today is the sum of every job experience I've had to date, from working at a supermarket customer service desk to being a vice president at a top public relations agency. Each taught me something valuable about being the kind of worker I wanted to be -- and the kind of person I'd want to work for.

One important lesson I learned, which helped shape my approach to business (and to life), was one I stumbled upon while working at a department store in my late teens and early twenties. The retailer offered each employee a small commission if they got a customer to apply for a store credit card. Many others saw it as a tiny reward that wasn't worth much effort; I saw a huge opportunity. I quickly honed in on this tactic as a way to rack up revenue and looked at the cumulative effect rather than the individual reward. It paid off handsomely and I wound up creating my own position within the store. I've taken that learning with me at every position I've held since, including as the owner of my own business. To this day, looking at the bigger payoff -- rather than the immediate work -- drives me to work harder.

However, I'd be remiss if I didn't share how my public relations positions influenced my current role at Impact PR & Communications. One of the places I learned the most at was Rubenstein Associates, a public relations firm in New York City where I got my start in the industry. When I was hired as an assistant, I was told by a person in human resources, "This is a non-promotable position. Your duties are to file, phone and fax." However, my deep interest in public relations and quest to learn, and take on whatever was before me, proved that person wrong. Within 10 months I was promoted and I continued to work my way up the ranks to vice president. I learned every single aspect of the job, from the most mundane tasks to more complex ones. It was a gift. As a result of that grounds up experience, I am able to jump in and handle any team member's task on a moment's notice. It also gave me a unique perspective, allowing me to view a project or assignment in a way that I would never have been able to had I not personally experienced each of those roles.

Last, but certainly not least, I learned a great deal from freelancing for another New York-based public relations firm, The Boreland Group. The CEO of the company, Jennefer Witter, taught me more than just how to run accounts and be an incredible publicist -- she taught me the business side of the business. No firm can be successful without that.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Impact PR & Communications?
The highlights and challenges have been one and the same. My company has experienced rapid growth in its first year, which is of course a good thing for any entrepreneur. Referrals, repeat business and a growing client roster are all desirable, and confirmation of the market need, but with that comes a need to pivot, change and hone in that much faster on your business model to remain successful.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in public relations?
Public relations is an excellent career choice. Today's challenging, competitive business landscape means there's an increased need for those with communications expertise and that's an area where a woman's intuitive nature can be an enormous asset. Though it is a high-pressure field and requires a tough skin, there is an ability to consult and freelance, which works well for those looking to achieve the coveted work-life balance.

Early and aspiring public relations professionals will learn much more on the job than they will in any classroom. Assisting with the day-to-day work and watching an experienced practitioner advise clients and put public relations tactics into practice will give them the real world skills they need to be strong, confident and competent professionals.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
You become who you surround yourself with. I am fortunate to have a smart, civic-minded "inner circle" that I can always count on for positivity and honest feedback, along with stellar business advice. They keep me grounded.

Similarly, I work for clients who my team can be proud of and who treat us with the respect we deserve. I wouldn't have it any other way. As my husband's grandfather once said, "You can't fly like an eagle if you're surrounded by turkeys."

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
That's something I'm still trying to achieve due to the demands of running a young business and raising a young family, all at the same time. Having a supportive spouse does make it a bit easier, so I'm grateful for that.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Being a woman is not an issue, it's an asset. We can learn plenty from our male counterparts while still embracing our femininity and unique strengths.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I would not be where I am today without a series of incredible mentors, both male and female. I fondly recall a boss who took the time to help show me the ropes and bought me two books on public relations when I was just starting out. There are countless others who have imparted knowledge along the way, given selflessly and are still just an email or phone call away. I strive to do the same, serving as a mentor for those that follow behind me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire the everyday leaders and entrepreneurs and call them my "business crushes." To me, they are just as worthy of respect as the most accomplished Fortune 500 CEOs and celebrities -- and I can learn just as much from them. It's not about how many people you manage or your total revenues, but about how you conduct yourself and the impression you leave behind. I particularly respect leaders who use their resources to give back to others. To me, that is the embodiment of success.

What do you want Impact PR & Communications to accomplish in the next year?
My goals for the next 12 months are straightforward. I believe that the client you have in front of you is just as important as the one that lies ahead. I look forward to growing our existing relationships and expanding our book of business organically from there. Also, because I realize that a great company is never about one person, I am excited about growing out the roles of the talented people I work with. They are valuable to me -- and to our clients.