5 Intriguing Association Leaders: Maya Enista

By: Summer Faust

Many association professionals are going above and beyond in their work, but here are five leaders who are setting the bar with innovative initiatives and goals that will better their organizations and their communities.

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":

The Pioneer

Maya Enista, 26
CEO, Mobilize.org, Washington, DC
Worked in nonprofits for almost nine years.

There's a Romanian saying that roughly translates to "it's written on your forehead." It's used when talking about a person's fate, says Maya Enista. Enista, CEO of Mobilize.org—a small-staff organization of millennials committed to encouraging civic engagement among millennials—says her fate was politics and democracy, an important part of her life from early on. "My parents immigrated to this country from Romania … and I had a deep appreciation for the rights and opportunities that I was afforded here, even as a child."

Enista's nonprofit career started nine years ago at Rock the Vote, where she registered more than 30,000 young voters. Now after five years at Mobilize.org, the millennial leader is pioneering the way for other young professionals entering leadership roles in both nonprofits and their communities.

"My job, most simply put, is to create leaders that are better than I am, both inside Mobilize.org and within my generation. That's overwhelming, both on a day-to-day basis and when I reflect on the larger goal," says Enista. "Our team is proud that we're an experiment in that millennial-led innovation that we support and foster, and it's a constant learning process."

Associations Now: As a young professional executive director, what are some of the misconceptions that you've encountered about millennials in leadership roles?

Maya Enista: There are so many; I don't even want to say them, because that might give them merit to anyone who reads this. I will say: They are not true.

My generation is on track to be the most civically engaged generation in history, and as witnessed by both the 2008 presidential election and our work in communities across the country, this generation believes in our ability, collectively and individually, to improve the world around us. Additionally, multitasking is possible—whether it's healthy, a totally different story—and our aptitude for technology allows us to build bridges in ways that were never dreamt possible and define communities in a broader sense. Technology is empowering my generation and all of our citizens.

What are some of the strengths of the millennial workforce that nonprofits should be utilizing, whether they are on staff or within membership?

I once heard the phrase "We're a ROWE workplace" and I've appropriated it. … ROWE stands for a Results-Only Work Environment, which is what I've tried to build here at Mobilize.org. If everyone were to be honest with themselves, they'd recognize that maybe they're not a morning person, or maybe they do their best work sitting in a comfortable oversized red arm chair—like me—and the ability to create the environment in which you work best and allow your employees to do the same is critical to the success of a nonprofit. For some reason that has become tagged a millennial trait and is referred to negatively, as if we're entitled or don't want to conform or listen to authority. I believe it's a matter of confidence and self-awareness and the traditional barriers that technology is breaking down.

Give your millennials the opportunity to tell you how and where they work best; work together to set clear expectations, and give up control of your "brand"—we're going to tweet about it, Facebook about it, blog about it … and it's a good thing.

What are some of the ways that your staff is able to engage a large community with limited resources, and what have you learned about the group dynamics of your nonprofit during your leadership role?

I think the most important thing is that we don't view ourselves as a small-staff organization with limited resources. We have eight full-time employees and three part-time employees. … I also would never say that we have limited resources—we have a talented, passionate, hard-working team of millennials who have access online and offline to thousands of their peers and dozens of our partner organizations, and we prioritize our communication with the larger civic-engagement community.

We are what I, or any staff member, says we are. ... If I view my work as a challenge to bring more resources, more clarity, and more success to Mobilize.org, then we all will. It's the same problem, framed differently, and for a long time I underestimated the impact of how I choose to frame problems to the people on my team, but I've realized that through building an environment of authentic collaboration and accountability, the results of a small team … can impact thousands more than I could have ever imagined.

Online Extra: Extended Interview With Maya Enista

One of the biggest issues that my organization is facing right now is: We're at the beginning of a strategic-planning process that is so exciting and yet, because there have been so many changes over the past year, will require an immense amount of concentration, commitment and strategic thought. In January 2010, Mobilize.org acquired the staff, programming, and assets of one of our partner organizations, GenerationEngage, and while it's been a seamless integration and the partnership has increased our staff and funding significantly, this strategic-planning process will test the mission and vision alignment of old and new members of our staff, board, and stakeholders.

My plan to tackle it is: We've been working reactively for a significant amount of time; reactive to funding proposals, partnership opportunities, media requests, etc. and I think this strategic-planning process will allow our team to think proactively about what success looks like for Mobilize.org and what this team can accomplish together. After our next Democracy 2.0 Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina, our team will be spending a lot of time answering the important, proactive questions about the impact and success of our work. So that's my plan; ask questions and give ourselves the time and space to think about them and answer them.

One of the best parts of my job is: The people, both inside of Mobilize.org and in the larger field. I am constantly inspired by the talent, passion, and the hard work of my colleagues. I am surrounded by people who are far smarter than I am, and make me want to learn more, work harder, do better.

I'm most proud of: I am most proud of our work with Democracy 2.0. Since October 4, 2007 I've been working to build Democracy 2.0, a concept that began as a campaign for the network of Mobilize.org and has turned into a movement that empowers millennials to build the democracy that we want to inherit. It is the work that I am most proud of, and paradoxically, it is the work that I have had the least to contribute to. I view my abilities as a leader through the lens of what I am able to encourage and inspire other people to build, create, solve and dream.

Three years ago, 1,181 millennials responded to a survey that asked them the following:

  • What's working and what's not working within our democracy?
  • What are the unique characteristics that define us as a generation, and which ones are essential in creating the change that we want to see?

Forty-seven respondents were randomly selected to come to Washington, DC, for a day-long summit, utilizing interactive keypad voting technology to ensure transparency, accountability, and voice, and they were asked to sift through the results, theme them, and create a document that spoke to our collective vision. It was a long day, beginning at 8 a.m. in a room in the Rayburn Building, and by 6 p.m., I was well aware of the potential for abusing my participant's time and I stood up in front of the room and said, "Thank you so much for all of your hard work. My staff can take your thoughts and go from here." The answer I was met with was a resounding "we aren't done yet," so we invited the participants back to our crammed office space, ordered them pizza and then the Mobilize.org staff sat in our offices, responded to emails and played solitaire.

At four minutes past midnight, a participant came to my office and said "We're ready for you," and I gathered my staff and we walked into the conference room. The remaining participants took turns, each reading a line from what they called the Democracy 2.0 Declaration. Whether it was because of how tired we were, or how much pizza I ate, I cried as I listened to these people I had just met that morning, describe the intangible thing that I had been working towards for so many years—building Democracy 2.0. Three years later, we have a growing network of millennials who are committed to building that reality they dared to dream, and it's my privilege to work for and with them, every day.

The best piece of advice I ever received was: My mom told me that if I'm lucky enough to find a job that I love, I'll never work a day in my life. Loving what you do, and the people you do it with, really makes all the difference in the world.

My best advice to give is: I must say the "my mom once said" advice at least once a week, so that's in heavy rotation right now, but I also share a piece of advice that I heard recently from one of the people I admire most, Darell Hammond of KaBoom. He told me that in order to continually improve his leadership ability and contribution to KaBoom, he spends 95 percent of his time on the five percent of things he's not good at. I'm not sure there's anything he can't do well, but the idea that you're constantly challenging yourself and not doing what's easiest or what you do best is an important lesson to learn.

Summer Faust is project editor at ASAE. Email: [email protected]

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":