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A Top Woman to Know

2 weeks ago / by Melanie Fourie

JP Morgan recognized Neerja Patel not just for her professional achievements, but also her contributions to the community

Neerja Patel
Neerja Patel. Pic courtesy Saunak Shah

Neerja Patel, the founder of Neerja Public Relations, is one of JP Morgan Chase’s 100 Women to KNOW in America Award.

Patel had established her firm to bring together her interests in public relations and in the South Asian population.

She has worked on marketing campaigns for companies such as Lufthansa, at concerts with AR Rahman, and collaborated with Archana Kochhar, Padma Lakshmi, and Vir Das. She has strong ties to the South Asian community in the U.S. and works on behalf of South Asian talent that lacks representation. We spoke with her about her roots, career, and becoming a JP Morgan Chase Award honoree.

Tell us about your formative years.

I was born in Mathura and moved to the U.S. when I was 7. I don’t have a whole lot of memories of growing up there [in India] except for our home. It was by far my favorite place because we lived in a large extended family house, and I was always surrounded by cousins, aunts, and uncles. I loved the holidays we celebrated together. Everything from birthdays to Diwali seemed so festive and full of so much fun, food, and laughter. The thought of India always makes me so nostalgic. Certain sounds, smells, and foods will never escape me, even after all these years.

Who were your role models?

My parents have always been my role models. When we moved from India to the U.S., we didn’t have a lot of money. We moved at the same time my mom’s sister’s family was also immigrating. So all 10 of us moved into my grandma’s house in Minnesota and lived in the basement. From day one, my parents never waited for anything to be handed to them. They started working shortly after we moved into our own apartment, and kept working hard, rising in their careers while raising my sister and me. We moved into our first homes. They supported all the things we did, put us through college, and got us married. They are never ones to sit down, never ones to shy away from hard work, and always keep family values at their core. Even at this age, their drive to work hard and be so resilient amazes me.

What was it like immigrating to the United States? Being passionate about South Asian culture, did you experience culture shock? If so, what were your coping mechanisms?

Like many immigrants, you feel lost and lonely at first. Even though I went to an English-speaking elementary school in India, my English was not very great. I remember my uncle making us watch Sesame Street to learn basic language at the age of 8. Growing up, I was very attached to whatever little Indian culture we could find in Minnesota. My sister and I were the only Indian kids in our school district. While I had made many friends at school, I always felt more at home when immersed in something cultural. Whether it was a play at our temple or Holi and Diwali functions, I made sure I was involved in some way. I joined Bollywood dance groups, performed at shows and festivals, and eventually started choreographing myself and connecting with others with the same passion. I loved staying immersed in our culture through film and music… That must have been my ultimate coping mechanism.

What drew you to public relations?

PR was an accidental career. I always knew I loved South Asian entertainment and media and deeply loved the South Asian culture and community. And I just never knew how I was going to combine those passions and make them into a career. I studied PR and marketing in college. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in my 20s that I finally started to pursue it as something more than a hobby.

After many years in the Indian media community in NYC, hosting TV shows, and interning for various projects, I finally got a full-time job at an Indian television station as a marketing manager. Additionally, I started hosting an on-air show with the station and going on shoots in the evenings and weekends. I absolutely loved the experience. After I had my son, that lifestyle became hard to manage. So I left my job to focus on my family.

Shortly after, a friend who had landed a role on the reboot of 90210 asked me if I would help him share the news with some media contacts. It was the first freelance job I did after being home for some time. I loved reconnecting with all my media friends. The support was overwhelming. That was when I realized that was my ultimate way of combining my passion for media and the community, and I launched Neerja PR.

What have been some highlights of your PR career?

I’ve gotten to work with some very talented people and many amazing brands. I love the work I’ve done with everyone from large corporations to small South Asian businesses, A-list celebrities to up-and-coming talent. It’s hard to pinpoint highlights when the journey has been such an incredible ride. But a couple of my favorite projects have been a multi-layered campaign with Lufthansa Airlines and a sold-out 15,000+ capacity show at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, for Grammy and Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman.

It was surreal to be in that stadium, to feel that energy, and to take it all in knowing that we were a part of making that possible. Currently, we are working on bringing a Diwali Dance Fest to Disney World this October as well as South Asian New York Fashion Week in September.

What were some of the challenges, if any, of starting your own PR firm?

My biggest challenge was having people believe that I was providing value. I started Neerja PR over 13 years ago, when there weren’t many South Asian publicists around. People didn’t necessarily understand what you did or why your services were important. So, I spent a lot of time working with clients and the media to make them understand why streamlining the process was worth it.

I didn’t give up. I continued to centralize things for my clients, provide good stories for the media, strengthen my relationships with journalists and editors, and deliver results that were a win for everyone. Now when I hear words like PR maven, “pioneer, and “self-made” describing me, I’m always so touched by the people who have not only recognized but supported this journey.

What is a day in your life like?

I’m a mom, so every morning starts with getting the kids out the door for school. Then, if possible, I try to get some sort of quick workout in most mornings before starting my workday. Work is usually filled with calls and emails. That is the unglamourous side of PR. Currently, I’m juggling a daughter in soccer and softball, and a son in golf and pre-football season. So, if I’m not at an event in the city in the evening, it’s a lot of driving to and from activities. My husband and I are going through revolving doors in our house. If he’s just coming home, I have to leave for some event or dinner in Manhattan. But the days I’m home, we try to have dinner together and binge on something on Netflix.

Who are your biggest supporters?

Work has been really busy this year, and travel has picked up a lot. So much of PR life involves tying up your evenings and weekends, which isn’t ideal for family life. My husband is an excellent dad and partner and has really stepped up when I’m absent. I’m fortunate to have my in-laws just 10 minutes away. They are always willing to help with the kids. I couldn’t survive without my sister. Even though she lives in Minnesota, we speak multiple times a day about the most basic things. She helps me stay grounded. While she can’t provide physical support, her emotional support is something I couldn’t function without.

Having a good work-life balance is pretty important. How do you accomplish this?

Spending time with my family and friends. I try to squeeze in date night with my husband whenever we can, even if it’s nothing fancy but a quick bite at a local favorite restaurant. When the kids are around, our conversations revolve around them. So I love being able to step away – just the two of us – and laugh, talk, and enjoy a glass of wine. I also love watching my kids play sports. I try to go see my daughter’s softball games any chance I get. She’s an amazing athlete. Watching her play makes me so happy and proud. My son plays golf, a sport I don’t really love, but I’m building up my weak mommy heart to prepare to watch him when football season starts!

What does that feel like, being nominated by JP Morgan Chase as one of 100 Women to Know in America?

Initially, I didn’t make much of it. I held on to the news for over a month before I told anyone. But when I started sharing it with friends and family and on social media with my wider network, the love and support were so touching and overwhelming. I realized I had accomplished something I’d been working for years – which is to have women of color celebrated on mainstream platforms.

The award was presented by JP Morgan Chase along with Know Women. It recognized and showcased the most influential, accomplished, and honorable women in our society. My favorite part was that women weren’t just honored for being successful professionals or the size or value of their company, but also for the impact they are making in their communities. Being recognized and honored for my work and involvement in the Indian community, among so many amazing women, was truly meaningful. I hope the award inspires more women of color to break barriers, do good, be proud of who they are, and keep pursuing their passions.

How do you stay motivated?

I try to take things one day at a time. I get overwhelmed easily. So trying to prioritize things keeps me sane. I also try to stay healthy by getting plenty of rest, eating healthy, and taking mental breaks when needed. On a professional note, I always tell my clients that if you look good, then I look good. Seeing my clients succeed and grow their brands and entrepreneurial identities fuels me.

I get motivated when I see campaigns we have created, partnerships we have developed, and results and recognition for my clients. One of the best things I love about my work is that I’m a people connector. Seeing business partnerships that often turn into friendships flourish gives me so much joy!

Do you have any nuggets of wisdom for other businesswomen?

Entrepreneurship is not easy. There is no formula for overnight success. Stay focused, be patient, and believe in what you’re doing. Don’t worry about the competition; there is room for everyone. And nothing exudes more confidence than your ability to have grit and learn from failures. So, if things don’t work the first time or even the second time, learn from those moments and keep going. Hard work pays off!

For collaboration, connect with Neerja on Instagram or via her website.