Maya Malekian & Geneve Lau of ‘empath worldwide’: “Don’t be too quick to write anyone off, but also don’t be afraid to say no”

Don’t be too quick to write anyone off, but also don’t be afraid to say no. There are a lot of people who wanted to help us out and reached out to us but then “ghosted” us, for lack of a better word. Don’t be afraid to network with people and connect with people, but […]

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Don’t be too quick to write anyone off, but also don’t be afraid to say no. There are a lot of people who wanted to help us out and reached out to us but then “ghosted” us, for lack of a better word. Don’t be afraid to network with people and connect with people, but also don’t be afraid to let relationships go if they’re not benefiting you or your organization.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maya Malekian and Geneve Lau.

Maya Malekian — Growing up in a multicultural home of artists, in the entertainment capital of the world, has instrumentally shaped Maya. From recording American Idol audition tapes in her living room at the age of 3 to reporting live from Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial headquarters, life has always been about performing. To quote Shakespeare, “all the world’s a stage.” For Maya, each moment on that stage is artistically and strategically crafted to convey a little more of us and our collective narrative. It is because of this worldview that she decided to reposition her career path from professional dance to public relations and journalism. Through PR opportunities in the entertainment industry and extracurriculars in broadcast journalism, she learned that unapologetically and authentically defining, empowering, and performing our narratives matters. It’s with this mindset that she’s able to produce dynamic and innovative work, champion her team members, and walk into any room with her full self.

Geneve Lau is a Boise transplant who traveled 2,658 miles to Boston, Massachusetts to study Public Relations at Boston University. She has previously worked in integrated marketing at Her Campus Media, digital media at Thropic, and Public Relations at double e public relations. On campus, she welcomes new students as a Dean’s host for the College of Communication. Geneve has a specialty in social media/influencer strategy and copywriting. She enjoys spending time outside hiking, practicing yoga, and reading. Her favorite book finished this summer is Normal People by Sally Rooney (now a Hulu/BBC show!).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Maya: I grew up in a multicultural home of artists. My mom immigrated from Kazakhstan in her 20s and my Armenian dad immigrated to the U.S. from Iran on an arts scholarship granted by the Shah (before the Revolution), which led to two Master’s degrees in fine arts from CalArts. Their journey to the States and pursuit of their personal and professional goals had a huge impact on me. I grew up learning the Armenian language and culture in Armenian school while my mother and I simultaneously learned the English language in school and at home. As an only child, my extended family became my nuclear family. My cousins were my sisters, and I learned from an early age the importance of family. Another value my family instilled upon me was an appreciation for the arts. I learned how to dance (and consequently fell in love with the unique form of expression) before I could even walk. Art continues to be my preferred method of self expression to this day.

Geneve: Before arriving in Boston to study at BU, I was born and raised in Boise, Idaho in a bilingual household. As an only child to two immigrant parents from Guangzhou, China, I was super close with them growing up. I speak fluent Cantonese, although I don’t know how to read or write in Chinese. From when I was an infant until I was 3 years old, I got to travel back to China several times and now for visits in the summer about every five years.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Both: During a time of global uncertainty, an inspired group of young leaders in the communications industry came together to form empath worldwide, the first pro bono communications collective to emerge from the global pandemic. Our mission is to create synergy between creatives and organizations to turn communications aspirations into actions. We are a group of people who overcame and now our goal is to help our clients overcome.

Maya: empath worldwide is using the power of empathy-driven communications to uplift one another as creatives and communicators while empowering small businesses and nonprofits to champion their missions no matter what odds may be stacked against them.

Geneve: One of the key things that stood out to me, personally, in the field of communications and the reason I chose to study it in school in the first place is that I saw the power in being able to serve as a bridge to connect others. The clients we work with are all very mission-driven, and sometimes when there is alignment, we want to be able to connect our clients together either in the form of virtual events, or campaigns, to positively impact both of their communities!

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Maya: During my time at Boston University as public relations and journalism major, I recall the concept of empathy being a common thread among great storytelling. Whether through case studies, news stories, or research articles, I learned how communications rooted in empathy can profoundly resonate and move audiences. I knew upon graduating I wanted to pursue a path that would enable me to tell stories that focused more on the listener than the storyteller.

Geneve: I’ve always been super passionate about the design thinking approach to problem solving since prior to college, and I think at empath we take a super unique approach to working with our clients. The basis of design thinking is empathy. Before the first day of client work, we make it a priority at empath to truly understand our clients and deliver them personalized service based on their wants and needs. Through our unique intake process, we audit our clients’ work and find what makes them special, what makes them tick, and what makes them come alive. This is what I’m passionate about. I want to use our practical skills to influence the meaning of their work with empath and beyond.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Maya: I’ll never forget that “Aha Moment”. I was sitting in my highschool bedroom feeling frustrated and energized following a webinar by PR Council’s Agency-Ready Certificate Program. (The program was made for students and recent grads to learn more about the public relations field at a time when internships and jobs were limited due to the pandemic.) I was feeling anxious because I had just graduated a year early and was extremely excited to enter the job market and snag that “big girl job”. Alas, that opportunity wasn’t there and I had to shift gears and get busy. After the webinar, which had thousands of students around the world tuned in, I realized I wasn’t the only one. We all had to shift gears and, to my fascination, we were all still hungry to learn and grow. So then I thought to myself, here’s the perfect opportunity to build a community. A community of individuals who don’t just want to hone in on their PR skills, but they also want to make a difference in the world. They want to use their skills and passions for good. Then I thought, who could we partner with to make the most impact within our communities? Immediately, small businesses and nonprofits came to mind.

Geneve: When Maya reached out to me with her idea to start a pro bono collective of freelance volunteer communicators to help small businesses and nonprofits during a time like the pandemic, I knew that I had to say yes. Design thinking has always been one of those things that I didn’t get to work on as much since entering college, and so as soon as we started reaching out to our core leadership team that we were recruiting, it became clear that our model would be highly based on empathy, and really getting to know these communicators and the small businesses and nonprofits that we wanted to help. Our name–which at first came after we began to recruit our eam–could not be more fitting.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Geneve: Mentorship meetings were a huge help to us in the beginning phases of empath. We met with so many of our professors, people like Kim Sample and Margi Booth who we listened to in the PR Council Agency-Ready Certification webinars, and even people who were our age but complete trailblazers (Cruz Rendon from Class of 2020 Agency and Paula Chirinos, a stellar (“peer”, I guess you could say?) student who was in both the PRC program and WPP’s program. One thing to note is that it’s important to take detailed notes from these meetings, and rather than listen very intently and follow guidance from just one specific person, pick up on patterns that are repeated across all of the conversations you have.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Maya: Through empath worldwide, we’ve been able to connect with students, recent graduates and entry-level professionals from around the world that we would have never crossed path with otherwise. It’s been so amazing to see the community that we can build in a virtual space in just a few months. A team member once shared how empath worldwide helped her see that purpose and community does have a place in the communications field and, as an entry-level professional, you can be more than just a cog on a wheel.

Geneve: We have had the most amazing opportunities to connect with people that we never would have crossed paths with otherwise. For example, Kim Sample from PRC connected us with Vincent Bragg, the founder and CEO of ConCreates, a creative network entirely staffed by current and formerly incarcerated individuals. We had an enlightening conversation about grassroots impact which has really helped us fine tune our goals as an organization.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Geneve: When we first started, we wanted to have as many big wins as possible. We were really focused on our success as an organization and had so many ideas that we wanted to follow through with, but we quickly realized that we can’t bite off more than we could swallow, and most importantly, making sure that we were following our mission and values each step of the way. Also, speaking from personal experience, I am a person who loves to be uber organized and when we first started, we had a million and one templates for all things and ran into a little analysis paralysis with everything. Most of it just comes with seeing what actually works and putting it into practice.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Maya: Our client Aery is a prime example of how our organization brought some really amazing experiences for both our client and Creatives. Aery is an augmented reality app that allows you to view and appreciate art, whenever and wherever. We helped them with media relations for their upcoming project at the Manchester-New England airport. The talented team of Creatives came together to assemble press kits, press lists and pitches to amplify the mission and purpose of the airport project. One of our Creatives, Cassidy Molino, suggested that we target podcasts in our pitching process as they emerge as an important platform for storytelling. This insight allowed us to expand Aery’s reach and lock in an appearance on New Hampshire Business Review’s podcast. Our client greatly appreciated the team’s innovative approach to media relations.

Furthermore, working with Aery, also brought an amazing opportunity for our Creatives. Upon completion of our partnership, Aery shared with us that the Manchester airport was looking for a recent graduate to fill their entry-level marketing position. We immediately shared this opportunity to the team, and the client was able to connect the interested Creative (who happened to be Cassidy!) with the recruitment team at the airport and moreover shared a glowing recommendation for Cassidy that supported her efforts to land the opportunity. This was a full circle engagement that amplified our mission to turn aspirations for both our Creatives and the organizations we partner with.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Maya: I believe the communications industry has evolved to see the value in purpose-driven communications, especially in the past few years. I would love to see more of that emphasis at every level of an organization. Strategists, creatives, researchers and all members of the creatives process should prioritize purpose just as much as the bottom-line. Our society is looking for organizations that can “walk the walk” and that can only be accomplished when every stakeholder has buy-in on the value of purpose. I also believe that the communications industry should continue to champion and amplify the next generation of purpose-driven leaders who are hungry and ready to make the change they want to see in the world. (Just take a look at social media for reference.) They’re walking the walk and ready to engage in even the most difficult conversations. So, give them a seat at the table and see the great waves they’ll make!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Maya AND Geneve:

  1. Prepare for your plans to not always go as planned. For example, we were really focused on becoming an entity, but quickly realized that the requirements for our options would prohibit us from doing what we sought to do and thar by abiding by our values, we were able to find success this way.
  2. Don’t be too quick to write anyone off, but also don’t be afraid to say no. There are a lot of people who wanted to help us out and reached out to us but then “ghosted” us, for lack of a better word. Don’t be afraid to network with people and connect with people, but also don’t be afraid to let relationships go if they’re not benefiting you or your organization.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. We hear this one a lot but seriously not enough. Failure is key to success. Without it, we’ll never unlock our true potential and push ourselves to be better and do better.
  4. Have fun and be you! There’s really no need to always be serious. Being quirky, lighthearted and bold is a strength not a weakness. The world is craving for authenticity and could use a little laughter or wild idea every now and then,
  5. Choose empathy. When you’re at your worst, choose empathy. When you’re at your best, choose empathy. Great relationships and stories are made when we choose to listen and to understand.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Maya: The world needs young community people because as cheesy as it may sound, we are the world and we are the future. Everything we do in this world leaves a lasting impact, but it’s important to target your efforts towards making a positive impact because that how we make the world and ourselves better.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Maya: I would love to sit down and chat with Bozoma Saint John. Her career journey and “hustler mentality” is so admirable. I first learned about her through Endeavor’s Summer Series program where she talked about how to unleash your inner badass. I always refer back to my notes from that webinar where she pushed us to be bold and courageous and never settle for less.

Geneve: I think that meeting Barri Rafferty would be the coolest experience. I really want to learn more about her career journey, as she’s worked on so many different client accounts, from Bausch & Lomb with Cone Communications (also purpose-driven!) to the more B2B world with Burson-Marsteller to beauty clients at Lippe Taylor, and most recently moving over to Wells Fargo after her role at Ketchum. Also she is a fellow Terrier!

How can our readers follow you online?

We encourage anyone interested in learning more about the work we do to follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook @empathworldwide or take a look at our website,

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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