“A career revamp,” Irene Contreras starts new journey with Jefferson University Hospitals
After 3 years with the City, the Venezuelan journalist and communications specialist joins Jefferson as the new Senior Director of News and Media Relations.
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When Irene Contreras first arrived in Philadelphia from Venezuela in 2014, she never envisioned following onto the career path and journey she has.
A journalist in her native country, she and her husband emigrated from the South American country with nothing but each other and four suitcases.
Impacted by the political situation there, the two of them made the decision to leave their families and everything else behind to begin a new life in a new country.
“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” said Contreras during a recent interview with AL DÍA.
However, seeing the diversity and welcoming nature of Philadelphia helped her make that successful transition to the United States, as she yearned to learn the English language and become a part of the American workforce.
In July 2022, Contreras was named the new Senior Director of News and Media Relations for Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.
“I have the huge responsibility to lead their media use and media strategy and the external content, which includes social media,” said Contreras.
She begins this new chapter after three years working at the City in a variety of roles, most recently as Deputy Communications Director at the Mayor’s Office of Communications.
As she reflects on the journey she has had since arriving to the US, she can’t help but feel grateful for those who have helped her along the way.
Those individuals are the ones who have inspired her to do the same, and give back to others.
Finding Her Way in a New Country
Upon her arrival to Philadelphia, one of Contreras’ biggest challenges was learning the English language.
Unable yet to work in her career field as she waited for her green card application to get approved, her first job in Philly was at a deli, making sandwiches.
“It was my first customer experience here in the US, and I learned a lot about not only people, but it also allowed me to speak and learn and practice simple things that were necessary,” she said.
Once she was able to work in her field, Contreras became the multimedia producer for Tierra Colombiana and Mixto, owned by Ecuadorian restaurateur Jorge Mosquera.
At the time, both restaurants had already been established in the city as staples of the Latin American restaurant scene. However, both lacked a strong social media presence.
“I worked with them for a couple of years, and we launched new websites and both restaurants grew on its social media platforms,” said Contreras.
With her input, the two restaurants were able to expand its digital visibility and help engage both existing and new customers.
“It was a great experience because I had access to a great network of people,” Contreras noted.
While she loved her time working there, in the field she enjoyed, she felt there was just something missing.
A Life-Changing Discovery
Perhaps the most critical breakthrough in Contreras’ early years in the United States was discovering The Welcoming Center.
It was that organization that helped her rebuild her résumé with a more American-style template, and above all, provided her the guidance she needed to successfully navigate the US job seeking process and corporate America.
“The lack of guidance was affecting my possibilities of landing a job in my field,” said Contreras.
Through the Welcoming Center’s six-month-long International Professionals Program (IPP), she was able to build the necessary skills to immerse herself into the workforce.
Contreras’ next job opportunity was as communications consultant with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.
She noted that around that time is when she felt her career truly started.
“My real field is public relations and internal and external communications,” said Contreras. “And with the Chamber, I had the opportunity to advise leadership on hot topic issues, I had the opportunity to write press releases [and] to contact media.”
The impact working with the Chamber didn’t stop there, however.
“I can say that I started a very good relationship with media working with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and in a way that allowed me to understand how diverse and how rich the Latino community is in Philadelphia,” she continued.
The City’s Trusted Communicator
In 2019, Contreras saw a job opening with the City of Philadelphia, which was looking for a Director of Communications.
The ideal candidate was someone who had experience working with media and knowledge of the dynamics of the city.
Contreras decided to apply, entering a long process with multiple interviews. She was largely aided and prepared by the practice she was able to obtain with The Welcoming Center.
The goal of the person entrusted with the role was to devise a plan to effectively reach, engage and inform Philly residents about the upcoming 2020 US Census and its importance.
Contreras was hired, and began a three-year tenure with the City.
Within six months, she was promoted to Deputy Communications Director at the Mayor’s Office, tasked with ensuring all of the City’s messages were delivered effectively across all its media platforms. Aided by her bilingualism, she was a key catalyst for ensuring the Spanish-speaking community in the city received vital information.
Working at the City taught Contreras a valuable lesson about diversity and inclusion — particularly inclusivity.
“Inclusion is not only saying, ‘hey, I have these materials that are translated in x amount of languages,’” she said. “The real intuition is making sure that people understand what these materials are saying.”
When it came to messaging about the 2020 Census, the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic or the vaccine rollout, the effectiveness of messaging was critically important.
In her role, Contreras also worked alongside the Office of Public Engagement and the Office of Immigrant Affairs, serving as a big advocate for ensuring the messaging was also translated and available in Spanish, French, Chinese, Mandarin, Portuguese and many of the other languages spoken by city residents.
Throughout her journey in the states, Contreras can’t help but feel lucky to have had the number of mentors she has had, always ready to provide her with guidance and advice along the way.
She was especially influenced by Deana Gamble, Joanna Otero-Cruz and Peter Gonzales, to name a few.
“I’m blessed that I have had all these key people by my side,” she said.
The Latest Chapter, and An Overarching Goal
Contreras says that the big part of her journey and success has been due to her willingness and openness to experience new things.
As she has transitioned to her newest career journey with Jefferson Hospitals, she notes that it’s much different than what she has been accustomed to.
Jefferson is a health system with over 30,000 employees, and Contreras is tasked with supporting the internal communications, marketing and overall news strategy for the large enterprise.
“It’s fascinating, but my commitment remains the same,” said Contreras. “If we are going to be inclusive, we need to make sure that people feel included.”
Particularly as a health organization focused on improving people’s life, understanding what is being said by nurses, physicians, practitioners and other faculty, is of the utmost importance.
Contreras believes she has a responsibility to the Latino community, and immigrant community — both communities tied to her own identity.
“My responsibility is to make sure that all people that come to this city feel included,” she said. “And open doors and pave the way for other immigrant professionals in the city.”
This goal ties back to the reason Contreras first decided to pursue a career in journalism in her native country.
Always asking questions, she also loved to learn, inform and share the truth.
“I wanted to become a journalist to tell stories, tell the truth and support people and support communities,” she said.
Those goals have followed her throughout her entire journey.
As someone who has had to make the difficult transition to a new country, she understands there are many others in the city who are currently navigating a similar situation — trying to find their way.
Her advice for those individuals, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to knock on doors,” she said. “Speak up, and show all your potential.”
She also advises others to network as often as possible, and be unafraid to actively seek feedback.
Throughout her journey since arriving to Philadelphia, Contreras feels she has had the opportunity to reinvent herself and grow into the career professional she is today.
However, she hasn’t lost sight of the many steps it took to reach the point she is at today.