Presidential Leadership Scholar spotlight: Maya Enista Smith

Interview With
Maya Enista Smith
Guest Author

2022 Presidential Leadership Scholar Maya Enista Smith, President of Thoughtful Human, shares how greeting cards promote community and discusses sacrifice and hope – the two themes that impacted her the most throughout PLS.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your personal leadership project.  

I’m so proud to be a Presidential Leadership Scholar. I joined the program as part of the first post-pandemic class (so we never made it to Washington, D.C.!).  The course of my life changed significantly through and because of the program. I live in Northern California with my husband, Dave, and our two children, Hunter and Logan. I am sure PLS co-director Mike Hemphill and the team were frustrated each time I filled out a survey that asked about my personal leadership project and I answered that, as soon as I met my classmates, my personal leadership project became knowing them, investing in them, and supporting them. I believe that people are good, and more people together are better, and PLS has been the most transformative and enduring proof of that deeply held belief.

Please give us an update on what you have been working on since completing the Presidential Leadership Scholars program. 

When I joined the program, I was in my 10th year of leading Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, an organization dedicated to eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health and validating the emotions of young people around the world. During my time at PLS, I made the decision to move on from the Executive Director position and was inspired and supported by my incredible classmates. I do a lot of things now, including spending a lot more time with my amazing family, speaking on a range of topics near and dear to my heart, and working with an agent on a book project.  I recently took on the role of President of Thoughtful Human, a sustainable greeting card company known for our emotional resonant cards printed on plantable seed paper. They are distributed online at and in more than 1,100 retailers across the country. I have always believed in the power of invitations that create community and help people feel less alone, and I’m so proud to have the opportunity to do that professionally – thousands of times each day – through the sentiments and resources that we share with the world at Thoughtful Human.  

Which lessons learned during the Presidential Leadership Scholar program have stayed with you the most, and how have you put them into action?  

What a privilege it was to hear and see the things that we got to hear and see through the PLS experience. Two themes that have stayed with me and impacted me in countless ways since my time eating tacos in Texas (and Arkansas) were those of sacrifice and hope.  

When Luci Johnson spoke about her parents, President Lyndon B. Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson, she said something she’s probably said a million times before but which had a profound impact on me as a mother and as a leader: “My parents put me on the team and made me feel far more important than I was,” she said. “I felt belonging and unqualified love.” Then she asked, “Did they spend enough time with me? No, and we all regretted it. We only have 24 hours.”  

The role of hope in politics was also not one I thought of often (beyond Obama), and I loved listening to Paul Begala, former Advisor to President Clinton, call himself “a dealer in hope” and talk about how, as leaders, we can’t stop the inevitable change that will come, and, instead, we have to act as mirrors of hope so that people find reasons to keep going.  

I have so many notebooks of furiously scribbled notes from my time at the modules, and I look back at them often, though I still prefer my PLS classmate Anita Ravi’s incredible stick figure art notes to any other notes. Goodness, Dr. Ravi is a talented, thoughtful human being.  

As the president of an extremely mission-driven company, can you discuss the importance of finding an organization whose values closely align with your own?  

I am a first generation American and I had the privilege of growing up watching my mother rebuild her life after seeking political asylum in the United States. She became a psychoanalyst, and I sat on her lap as a young child when she received her Ph.D. She believed that how you spend your days is how you spend your life, and she was overwhelmed by the choices that this country afforded her – including an obsession with Baskin-Robbins and their array of 31 flavors. Her example inspired me to – at each step of my career – make choices that connected to my purpose, her legacy and our ability to make a difference in the world around us. To be surrounded by people who were driven by their values, to learn about the values of the most powerful leaders in the world, and to explore my own values through PLS was a true gift. That process (and community) helped me land here at Thoughtful Human.  

Talk about the power of greeting cards, notes, and kind words generally. How have you seen communities impacted when people lead with this type of communication, and how can we use these to bridge divides in our country?   

I recently heard someone talk about the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is a belief that tomorrow could be better than today. Hope is the actions that you take in order to make tomorrow better than today. Hope has agency and is embedded in the kind acts we choose for ourselves and the people around us.  

I believe (and see firsthand) that cards aren’t just a transactional, milestone marking to-do item. Cards promote community. To me, cards are hope. Cards that bear witness to unspeakable pain, cards that celebrate unexpected joy, cards that honor the brave truths spoken and cards that make me laugh uncontrollably. I believe that taking the time to write words – to yourself and to the people around you – is a lifesaving measure, an opportunity to leave a legacy in the world and a chance to put a smile on someone’s face.  

Connection isn’t something that’s nice to have, it’s something people need to have. In an increasingly digital world, the act of sharing tangible, thoughtful gestures and kind words holds significant power in fostering connection, hope and empathy.