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New at the top: Debra Cabral

I wish I could say that as a young girl I knew what I wanted to be professionally. I didn’t. In fact, I’ve always admired people who knew their career aspirations at a young age because they could really focus and be the best at it.

What got me ahead all my life was doing the best I could at what I did. And as I got older, it became important to also love what I do, because that’s when you get really good at it.

I grew up in a family with parents who showed me that taking care of people is a priority. So I thought I wanted to be in criminal justice or social work but many social workers at the time told me to go into business because you can affect change better if you’re on the management side.

So I went to business school. A previous internship at the Massachusetts State House connected me to an internship in the District under former speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill.

It was on Capitol Hill where I fell in love with public affairs.

This was in the early ‘80s when it was a tough time politically. President Jimmy Carter lost the election and a lot of Democrats lost their seats in the House.

But I saw how every debate on Capitol Hill was one that impacts people’s lives greatly. And I saw how important it was to use communications to shape a message, issue and policy.

During that internship, I worked really hard to do a good job because I had a deep concern and respect for the institution of the Congress and I wanted to do right by it. I ended up with a full-time job for seven years.

Since then I’ve worked for a number of clients, including nonprofits, doing public affairs in health care, energy and financial services.

Serving as a partner in a government relations firm that was heavier on the lobbying side solidified my desire for the public relations side.

I found that I am a communications person.

I put myself through some training, got more involved in communications and got a job at a small, woman-owned public affairs firm doing a lot of focus group work, marketing and grass-roots work.

I eventually transitioned to another firm but the difference was that it was a start-up. I enjoy that entrepreneurial environment where you could be creative and make impactful decisions for the company. I helped grow the firm from seven people to 60 until it was sold.

When I learned about Story Partners, I loved the marriage between its experienced senior people and really bright junior people who understand digital and social media.

As president,I want this company to be a growing public affairs firm that is respected and recognized for its work in digital and social media.

I may not have known that I would arrive at this point in my career but everyone finds their way as they go along. It’s never too late to find your path.

—Interview with Vanessa Small

Debra Cabral Position: Chief executive of Story Partners, a public affairs agency headquartered in the District. Career highlights: Executive vice president, Porter Novelli; general manager and managing director of public affairs, Financial Dynamics (now FTI Consulting); executive vice president and chief operating officer, Dittus Communications. Age: 55 Education: BA, University of Massachusetts; MBA, the George Washington University. Personal: Lives in Alexandria with husband John Oppedisano.

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