“When you have more than you need, you have to share it, right? It’s such a huge responsibility and privilege to make the world a better place.”
Any time Maya Enista Smith speaks, it’s as if even the strangers in her area know it’s important to listen. Between conversations about food (she claims to eat sushi at least five times a week), stories about her year of writing 564 thank you cards (which she also tracked in a spreadsheet as a “study on gratitude”), and plenty of laughs, she disperses anecdotes about her upbringing and the way she incorporates kindness into every aspect of her life. As a fully devoted mother, wife, and public servant, Maya is impacting lives internationally in more ways than can be mentioned.
I met Maya back in November of 2017 when Born This Way Foundation came to the Midwest to work at their Indianapolis Channel Kindness sponsored event. It took less than a minute of knowing her before I understood that she is a powerful force for kindness, and she became my hero. I had the opportunity to interview her to share her story with all of the Channel Kindness readers, and the opportunity couldn’t have been more exciting.
Her position as Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation is unique in so many ways.
“The opportunity to use the fact that the world is Lady Gaga’s oyster to do my job is incredible,” Maya said. “She (Lady Gaga) has told us to use her legacy and partnerships to build a kinder and braver world.”
And that’s exactly what Maya is doing. She has also spoken about the joys of working for and with a mother-and-daughter team and the familial strength that fosters the foundation.
“They understand the importance of being together,” she said. “There will never be a day when I will be told that my commitment to my family is not a top priority, and that’s one thing that makes my job so special.”
Right now, Maya finds kindness, generosity, and love showing up in almost every moment of her life and always at her dinner table by asking her family members to share a way they were kind to someone that day. She shared a story about one particular evening when she didn’t feel she had anything to contribute as her answer, so her son gathered some of his books she could donate in order to have a kind moment for the day.
“If we could think of kindness as a habit like working out or brushing our teeth, everything would be better,” she said. “Kindness is a way to take care of yourself and each other.”
As someone whose profession is being kind and talking to others about being kind, Maya continues to create and foster this culture of kindness at work and at home.
“There’s a big difference between talking about kindness and actually supporting the people around you,” she said. “I never want to be the type of person who just talks about it and doesn’t make those active decisions. For me, this looks like helping people in my community and being kind by giving with a sense of social justice. (At home,) kindness is learned through being loved and cared for, being adored. It begins with what you do and do not see in your family at an early age. The power of kindness is almost as strong as the absence of kindness – you learn in both of those.”
And of course, I had to ask about her inspirations (because any heroes of my hero are heroes of mine).
Dave, Maya’s husband, is first.
“He is destined to live a life of service to the world,” she said. “When I met him, I’d never met someone that just exists to help others flourish. He’s such an inspiration. My mom is second. It took a great deal of bravery and belief in the fact that she would be met with kindness when she left everything she had in Romania to come here, and that bravery was rewarded with endless kindness here. Glennon Doyle Melton is third. We spent a day together sharing kindness while Born This Way Foundation was on tour in Miami. I’m so impressed with what authenticity and vulnerability that she livers her personal and professional lives. She’s just this intersectional badass that I adore.”
When asked about what’s next for her, Maya only saw a continuation of where she is now.
“I never thought in my life that I would find something that fits too perfectly with who I want to be, what I want to do, and allows me to pay the bills,” she said. “I can’t imagine finding an opportunity as incredible as the one I have right now. I really can’t imagine, professionally, doing anything else than building kind communities and using kindness to transform the world.”
As much as I love Maya and the inspiration she gives me on a daily basis, her impact reaches far beyond myself.
Digital Manager Mitu Yilma, one of the newest team members of Born This Way said, “Maya embodies the work that we do. She cares so deeply about young people and wellness. She’s also full of energy, a sushi aficionado, and a very funny human. Not to reiterate Born This Way’s mission statement, but I really believe Maya is making the world a kinder and braver place that recognizes the critical importance of prioritizing wellness.”
Like Mitu, Program Associate and Junior Editor Aysha Mahmood has also only worked at Born This Way for a couple of months; yet, she emphasized the profound impact Maya has already made in her life.
“Before I joined Born This Way, I thought of kindness as something I could only give to other people,” Aysha said. “But Maya constantly reminds me, and all young people, that being kind to yourself is just as important. She reminds us to self-care, to take care of our mental health, and to take a moment to breathe. She always tells people how important they are and how much they’re needed in this world, and I know hearing this has reminded so many young people of their value because hearing her words never fails to remind me.”
Those who have worked with her longer also spoke of her compassionate and empathetic nature.
“When Maya asks you how your day is, she means it. She genuinely wants to know,” Born This Way’s Program Manager Alex Aide said. “If you have something to celebrate, she will celebrate with you. If you tell her about a problem you’re having, you can almost see the wheels start to turn in her eyes as you’re talking so she can try to offer a real solution, validation, or a way she can help. She has had days where she starts out taking her kids to school, by the afternoon she’s on a plane, and by the evening she’s in a meeting with the Dalai Lama. She shows up to each of those events with a coffee in her steady hand. She’s truly the definition of a pro.”
He continued, “Maya hears you. So many people working in the youth space project what youth want or need without truly asking them. Not only does Maya make sure that young people know that their voices are vital to this world — she makes sure that they are amplified and heard by as many people as possible.”
Communications and Outreach Associate Shadille Estepan also shared what she admires about Maya.
“I admire that Maya doesn’t just talk about kindness, she finds creative ways to incorporate kind values in every other part of her life,” she said. “Be it at home, in her community, or on the plane ride to her next meeting — Maya shows the world that being kind is simple and that no act of kindness is too small. She taught me that anyone could take the time to be thoughtful and kind to others.”
Born This Way’s Deputy Executive Director Rachel Martin, who has worked with Maya the longest, describes Maya as someone she looks up to.
“There’s so much talk about how to balance the personal and professional – especially (annoyingly) for women – but I am so glad to have Maya as a role model for a right way to do it,” Rachel said. “She commits 100% to her work and 100% to her family, it’s not an either/or. She takes her work home with her in the best way, making kindness and compassion not just a day job but values she is raising her family with. And, at the same time, she brings her full self – as a mom, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor – to work with her, and let’s that inform what kind of professional she is.”
And there are more people who could talk about her impact than I will ever know. Maya is a perfect model of a kindness ambassador in everything she does and she takes it very seriously.
There aren’t many people in this world that understand the levity and importance of kindness quite like she does, and it’s her action and understanding of that idea that continues to inspire each person she encounters to be just a bit more kind. Maya truly put it best —“The impossible feeling of building a kinder and braver world is the privilege of a lifetime.”