Priscilla O'Reilly
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Priscilla O'Reilly

Director, Public Relations, Grand Circle Corporation

As a company that prides itself on building a culture of leaders, it's only natural that Grand Circle employs many associates who go above and beyond in terms of moral character. It takes a special character, however, to have an energy and passion that is so steadfast, so resolute, it has become synonymous with company culture.

At Grand Circle's Boston headquarters, one such character is Priscilla O'Reilly, Director of Public Relations. As a 17-year company veteran, Priscilla has seen Grand Circle through the very best and worst of times—always with a positive attitude and a smile.

From family to philanthropy

Priscilla grew up in New York City with four brothers and sisters—each of them born just one year apart. "Our mother died when we were all under five years old," says Priscilla, "so we were raised by our father and a series of caregivers until he remarried eight years later." A sixth sibling then followed, instilling a dream in Priscilla to someday have a large family—with three of her six children being adopted. That she was already dreaming of giving a better life to less fortunate children is a testament to her father' influence: "He has always been very compassionate towards others, and he taught us to treat people with kindness and respect."

Before starting her own family, though, came her education and career—which, for Priscilla, meant experiencing many new cultures. During college, she spent a semester studying at the University of London. After graduation, she devoted herself to two years of volunteer work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps—first at a mission school in an Eskimo village in St. Mary's, Alaska, and then at a shelter in Great Falls, Montana. "I worked with abused women and their children," says Priscilla, "most of whom came from an Indian reservation nearby." Through it all, she embraced the exposure to cultures unlike her own. "I liked the differences," she says. "It was interesting and challenging." When it was finally time to start earning a paycheck, Priscilla's penchant for philanthropy still shined through, bringing her first to a shelter for the mentally ill in Boston, and later to the Department of Elder Affairs for the state of Massachusetts.

Getting herself "out there"

In 1992, Priscilla was working for a public relations firm in Cambridge. And while she wasn't exactly thrilled with her own role in the company, the firm had one client that piqued her interest. "They were doing some really interesting work with Grand Circle Corporation," Priscilla says. "And while I wasn't even working on that side of the business, it was the only thing going on that appealed to me." She remembered this well when she heard that Alan Lewis wanted to stop using an outside firm and bring the company's public relations function in-house—and she was delighted when a coworker recommended her.

While most decisions tend to move fast at Grand Circle, the decision to hire Priscilla took an excruciating six months. "I was so happy when I finally got the job," she says. "I was almost giddy! I was practically whistling at work. I had to force myself to tone it down."
It was during the course of her many interviews that she first met Alan and Harriet. "I liked Harriet's energy and warmth right way," Priscilla remembers. "She's extremely insightful and very funny—two qualities that really appeal to me." Alan made a different impression. "I was intimidated at first, because he was talking about moral courage and scaling mountains," she laughs. "But I was also really intrigued and admiring of someone who was so open and out there … because at the time, I was neither."

It didn't take long for Priscilla to learn to get "out there"—both literally and figuratively. "Alan and Harriet have given me so many opportunities these past 17 years," she says. "I've traveled to Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Botswana, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, all over Europe … and there may be others. So many!" And while the opportunities to see the world were certainly unforgettable, they weren't the most important to Priscilla. "The opportunities for personal growth I've experienced at Grand Circle have been even more valuable," she says.

The biggest risk, the greatest reward

Just as her time at Grand Circle has taught Priscilla to make the most of every opportunity, it has also taught her how to take risks—because sometimes life's greatest opportunities are born from risky situations. This is especially true in the travel industry, where any world event can significantly change the tide of business and reacting quickly is key. "Alan and Harriet always look at what's possible," Priscilla says. "I used to be averse to risk, but now I'm much more open—I see possibilities versus barriers."

While taking risks has certainly helped Priscilla professionally, it has had the most profound impact on her personally: in 2003 and 2008, she adopted her two daughters—Lee, 8, and Annie, 3—from Vietnam. "I honestly don't think I would have had the courage to adopt my girls as a single mother if I hadn't had so many character building experiences at Grand Circle," she says. "I certainly couldn't have if I weren't accustomed to a certain degree of risk-taking and thriving in change, or if Alan and Harriet and the company had not been so supportive."

"The heart and soul of Grand Circle."

And whenever Priscilla receives support, she supports another in return. She has never forgotten her deeply held commitment to philanthropy—and in 1994, she helped share her passion for giving back with her fellow associates by becoming one of the first members of a community service team at Grand Circle. To this day, the company is actively involved in a number of service events around Boston, with 95% of associates participating in at least one each year.

In 2005, Priscilla was honored with the Excellence in Community Service Award, in recognition of her personal commitment to making Grand Circle, the city of Boston, and the world a better place. In keeping with the spirit of the award, Priscilla donated her prize money—as well as an additional sum out of her own pocket—to the Welfare Center of Thai Nguyen Province in Vietnam, from which her daughter Lee was adopted.

We think Harriet said it best when presenting Priscilla with her award back in 2005: "Priscilla is the heart and soul of Grand Circle." And while Priscilla brushes off the idea with characteristic humility, she'd be hard pressed to find a single associate who wouldn't call her a true "gutsy leader." One thing's for certain: the building—or the company—wouldn't be the same without her.

Featured in our December 2010 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.