By Emma Vallelunga
SYRACUSE – Pam Brunet has put her heart and soul into Central New York. The executive director of Leadership Greater Syracuse has connected thousands of people to their passion through years of hard work, advocacy and philanthropy on her mission to make Syracuse a better place one leader at a time.
Brunet said her career path has led her exactly where she needs to be. After earning her associate’s degree in journalism from SUNY Morrisville in 1983 and her bachelor’s degree in public relations and journalism from Utica College two years later, she worked for Dairylea Milk Cooperative, now known as Dairy Farmers of America. As communications manager, she wrote newsletters and organized special events for farmers in the Syracuse area. It was that job where Brunet learned one of her most important career values — you have to love what you do.
“I met a lot of wonderful people who believed wholeheartedly in their field,” Brunet said. “It was really cool to see people who worked very hard and got a lot of reward, so it was a good lesson for me early on.”
In 1993, Brunet worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb in East Syracuse as a community relations manager. She supported the company’s scientists and engineers, managed a charitable-giving budget and served as the liaison between them and other local communities. That career formed a foundation in her passion for giving back.
“That was when I discovered Leadership Greater Syracuse,” she said.
Leadership Greater Syracuse is a nonprofit, civic engagement training organization that works to connect local leaders and community members through collaboration and leadership skills in order to make a difference in the Syracuse area.
BMS helped Brunet pay for her tuition to LGS, and she graduated from its Flagship Program in 1998. While continuing to work for BMS, she also served on the board of directors for Hope for Bereaved in Syracuse. But she always remembered everything LGS taught her.
“Just like a lot of graduates, I felt at the time I knew a lot about the community, but [LGS] opened my eyes so much more wide to other things,” she said.
After 17 years at BMS, her position was no longer needed. Brunet realized she needed a job that allowed her to use her communication skills while still serving her community. LGS was her first choice, but without a position open, she was out of work for over a year until she was offered a position with the Upstate Foundation in 2012. The university had just purchased the community campus, so part of Brunet’s job as director of development was focused on communicating with existing donors for the project during that transition period. That was when she learned the art of fundraising.
“I really learned the other side,” she said. “When I was at Bristol, I was giving away the money. I had a large charitable-giving budget, but when I jumped over to the Upstate Foundation, I was working with a top-notch leadership team that taught me how to be a great fundraiser.”
Six months later, the executive director of LGS resigned, and after being nominated to the board through her work with Hope for Bereaved, Brunet finally secured her dream job.
“I’ll never forget sitting in those interviews at LGS because I knew in my heart it was absolutely where I needed to be,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need to have this job. How do I convince these people that this is who I am?’”
Brunet is still passionate about LGS eight years later. In the organization’s 31 years, she said she believes LGS has remained relevant to the community because of its focus on diversity and its ability to bring people from all walks of life together for a common goal.
“We have [people] who rescue donkeys. We have people who run for office,” she said. “Through our programs, we are putting diverse people together who are dramatically different in many ways, and it’s pretty cool to see what they do with these relationships. All of [the programs] are about inspiring people to make a difference in the community, and for me, it’s truly about connecting them to their passion.”
In many ways, Brunet gets to be a part of every class of LGS, and her excitement never gets old.
“When I get to introduce or meet the class, and I see them together for the first time, they are an unopened present to our community, and I’m like a little girl on Christmas Eve who comes down the stairs and looks at the presents and says, ‘What could be in those packages?’”
Program Director Robin Macaluso has worked with Brunet since she became executive director. While their personalities are different, they complement one another well in order to balance LGS and its mission. Macaluso said Brunet’s dedication, energy, passion, positivity and enthusiasm for LGS is evident in her work ethic.
“We’re able to fill in the gaps for each other,” Macaluso said. “She’s great at communicating and being in the spotlight. Even when we do interviews with candidates, you could feel the energy that she has just talking about LGS. Anytime she talks about LGS to somebody, you can hear it in her voice.”
LGS’s Flagship Program is a year-long experience open to any individual by application. Candidates are selected based on an inclusive process that creates a class reflective of the CNY community. Once applicants complete an interview process and pay for tuition, the time commitment includes one two-day overnight retreat in January and 10 monthly classes until graduation in December. Gathering about 50 people over the course of a year was a staple for LGS — until COVID-19 became a new challenge the class of 2020 had to overcome.
“COVID came upon us, and obviously we had to start doing things very differently,” Brunet said. “At the board level, we had a lot of conversations and looked at a lot of different options, but we decided to forge ahead.”
The 2020 class completed its year with a few postponed class days and many virtual ones and has decided to postpone graduation until this summer. For 2021, LGS made changes, like accepting a smaller number of students, applying for and being granted a PPE loan and creating assignments where classmates could meet one another outside of class in smaller groups. The current class has organized its schedule to meet both virtual and hybrid since they began in January.
“It wasn’t perfect when we started, but thankfully we’ve evolved, and thankfully we’re in a much better spot now,” Brunet said.
From Hartford, Conn. and Chicago, Ill., to Washington D.C. and Little Rock, Ark., other Leadership Greater organizations have the same goals as LGS. But Brunet believes CNY has a strong passion for giving back like no other community, and no one is more excited to see what it has to offer than her.
“We do have so much going right in our community, and we do have a lot of serious concerns, but the people who are attracted to us are the people that say, ‘This is a great place to work, this is a great place to live, we have our problems, but I want to be a part of solving those problems,’” Brunet said. “I’m always excited when we start a new class because people connect in ways I never [could’ve] imagined.”