When one of the biggest pop stars on the planet invites you to help young people build a kinder world, you say, “Yes!” That’s exactly what happened when Lady Gaga tapped Northern California mom Maya Smith to help create Born This Way Foundation six years ago. Today, she is the foundation’s executive director.
Stemming from Lady Gaga’s own experiences of being persecuted and labeled “weird” as a child and young adult because of her spirited ways, the mission of Born This Way Foundation focuses on empowering young people to “…create a kinder, braver world” and being a source of mental health support. This simple yet profound mission is one Maya eagerly embraced when the opportunity came her way — she was eight months pregnant with her first child and wanted to do everything in her power to create a compassionate world for him.
Soon, that goal of pursuing and sharing kindness embodied Maya’s life.
Early Influences and Career
As the child of Romanian immigrants, Maya’s childhood differed from that of her New Jersey neighbors in the late 80s and early 90s. Sacrificing everything for democracy, Maya’s parents left their respective journalism and architecture careers behind to work whatever jobs they could to get by in America. Slowly Maya watched her parents rebuild their lives. Her mom started out cleaning houses but eventually went back to school to become a psychoanalyst. From her, Maya learned the important role mental health plays in our overall health.
One of the most significant events to influence her life’s work was her first day of college: September 11, 2001. On that dreadful day, Maya felt the universe telling her something, like perhaps she should reconsider her major in communications and instead concentrate on making the world a better, safer, more kindhearted place.
“From an early age I felt so lucky, not because I had more than anyone else, I actually had much less,” she says. “It was just that I knew there was a choice that was made to give me a better life…I knew I was on a path towards civic engagement and democracy.”
After college, Maya worked with Rock the Vote on voter registration. Next, she joined Mobilize.org (now Project Mobilize), a non-profit working with millennials to identify societal challenges unique to their generation — like reintegrating returning military veterans into society and tackling inequity in college graduation rates — and fund their solutions through grants.
“Too often young people are talked at or not offered an opportunity to tell their own stories and solve their own problems,” she says. “They are not resourced properly.”
Working at Project Mobilize showed Maya how to give people their own voice.
Six years later, Maya left Project Mobilize when she and her husband moved to the west coast. Not long after, an old colleague at Viacom called — she had a client who wanted to start a foundation focused on young people. That client was Lady Gaga.
Bringing Lady Gaga’s Vision to Life
Maya soon met with Cynthia Germanotta, Lady Gaga’s mom and foundation co-founder, about the vision for the foundation. She wanted to help to build a kinder, braver world, one that pushed back against bullying. When Maya asked what they wanted the foundation to do, Cynthia explained they wanted to act with young people — not just for them — to really understand what they needed and address those issues together.
Lady Gaga talks openly about how her strong family helped her through a challenging childhood. As her success grew, she shared stories of her experiences being bullied and teased on stage — like the one about the hater who started a Facebook page called something like Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga’s given name) You Will Never Be Famous. Young people began coming to her concerts to hear her speak as much as to hear her sing.
“She felt that if she was to survive her life, she would make sure young people wouldn’t just survive but thrive,” says Maya. “She didn’t understand why kids aren’t kinder to each other and wanted to give them the resources they needed to be braver.”
As executive director of Born This Way, Maya leverages evidence-based programming and partnerships to work with young people to build kinder communities and improve mental health resources. One recent example is the Be Kind 21 campaign, which Maya initiated as she prepared her son for the transition to kindergarten.
As she processed her natural maternal concerns around how her son would make friends or handle conflict, she came up with this simple idea: knowing that 21 days form a habit, could young kids create habits around kindness to influence the classroom culture?
Her son’s school launched the program at the beginning of the school year. Each student wrote down a different act of kindness to do each day for 21 days, like sitting on the Buddy Bench or saying “hi” to a new student.
When Maya shared the idea at Born This Way, the staff loved it and quickly suggested they use the foundation’s platform to turn it into a national program. What started at Springhill Elementary in Lafayette, California with 39 teachers and 400+ students and their families turned into 440,000 people expressing 8 million acts of kindness.
In addition to promoting kindness among young people, Maya is passionate about the importance of mental health to overall health. Not only did her mom’s career as a mental health professional influence her, but her family also experienced personal tragedy when her father-in-law died by suicide almost 10 years ago. “If I could spare or explain or support a family that is going through what we went through, it will have been worth it,” Maya says.
The Mental Health First Aid program is one way the foundation supports mental health awareness. A partnership with the National Council of Behavioral Health, the program teaches young people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental health crises and substance use challenges. More than one million people across the United States have been trained in the program thus far.
Maya explains the challenge working in the mental health space: “I won’t actually know the people I save.I will only know about the people that I don’t save. It’s a really weird and hard metric to have…you have to believe so much in this work.”
She adds: “The goal is to just hear about tragedies less, because the communities are kinder, because they’re more inclusive, because we’re connecting people to resources, because mental health is something that’s talked about starting in first grade,” she says. “I just think it’s really urgent. I just want young people to understand how necessary they are to the world. “
Kindness at Home
Maya doesn’t just work in the kindness arena — she embodies it at home as well. As a mom of two kids, ages three and six, Maya tells the story of her young son’s question to her after a busy month traveling back and forth to New York City for work: “Does only New York need kindness?”
She realized her kids heard her talk about kindness, but that she often left the house to do her kindness work. That’s when she and her family became more involved in community service work locally through organizations like Give Together, White Pony Express, Jewish Family and Community Services, and Mindful Littles. In addition to hands-on volunteering, every quarter, Maya’s family meets to talk about where to donate money from their philanthropic family fund. Her three-year-old daughter, Logan, is always worried about the puppies, so SPCA or ARF generally make the cut.
Most recently, Maya taught her son Hunter important lesson in sharing when she planned his 6th birthday party with Daymaker, an organization that pairs your child with CASA or foster children who share the same birthday. Instead of bringing a present for Hunter, his guests brought gifts for a Daymaker client to enjoy.
Maya explained the valuable message to her son, who wasn’t exactly thrilled about giving up his presents: “You have more than you will ever need, and you’re not better than these kids…you’re lucky. Our world isn’t fair. I don’t love you anymore than these kids’ moms love them. Don’t worry, your family will buy you presents.”
Maya believes it’s our job to reduce inequity and increase access to opportunity for all young people and she’s raising her kids to believe the same.
From Born This Way to Mindful Littles
Maya champions the incredible work Mindful Littles does in the community, especially in opening dialogue around kindness with kids, parents and families. She sees the two organizations on a spectrum: Mindful Littles focuses on younger children and Born This Way works with them as they get older. Talking to kids about mental wellness while they’re young and educating parents on how to help their children is crucial, she says.
“As a parent, you may wonder why you would tell your kids you’re suffering or depressed, but it’s only through that openness that your kid would tell you the same thing, “she says. “How do we create safe spaces for parents to have conversations around kindness and mental health?”
Maya reminds us, “Kids have kindness in them; they are born with it. Somehow along the way, they lose it, so if we could just focus on young people and focus on kids and keep that kindness, friendship, idealism, we will all be better for it.”
The compassion Maya embodies in both her professional and personal life make her a shining example of how one person can, in fact, change the world.
If you or someone you know struggles with mental wellness, please visit Born This Way to get help now.