HomeDream ChasersMaya Doneva: Learn how to love yourself!

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Venelin Dobrev


Venelin loves telling stories that make you smile.

Maya Doneva: Learn how to love yourself!

I met Maya a couple of years ago when they were setting up “The Social Teahouse” in Varna. She is truly an engine for social change. I love her energy and passion to make the world a better place. A Dream Chaser in the true meaning of the word!

Introduce yourself to the readers

My name is Maya, I am a mother of 3 children, 1 dog, and many last-minute decisions. I am 37 and I have spent most of my adult life in policy-making, organisational consultancy, and community building- mainly focused on the social systems in Eastern Europe which are severely damaged to this day by the Soviet heritage of the region. I have been involved in a few large-scale initiatives where I had a key role as founder, board member, CEO, or director, and my experience in leadership and governance led me to Brussels in 2021, where I currently live.

I consider myself to be an adventurous person and I enjoy a lot that my professional choices have helped me understand many cultures, countries, and contexts. Only within the last few years, I have collaborated in different capacities with partnerships in the field of social change and human rights in Ukraine, the Middle East, and over 20 EU countries. Lately, I have been more involved in green topics and the political change we need to make as a society for a cleaner, more ethical, and fair future. My personal interests are all over the place – from metalcore bands and feminism to Mario Kart, value-based leadership, and baking cakes.

You have been working on something that contributes to social change for your whole career. What inspired you to get into the social sector in the first place?

We are a product of our environment and I don’t believe that anything is just an accident – so are my choices. I have a deep lack of tolerance for injustice and inequality – far before I understood and knew about the existence of the UN conventions and all similar documents. When I was growing up I wanted to be a war correspondent for the Bulgarian national TV and to show the world what war was doing to children and how sad they were.

I grew up with the coverage of the war in Chechnya each evening on my TV. My oldest son grew up with the coverage of the refugee crisis in Syria and my 5 year old already knows about the war in Ukraine. Unfortunately, all generations see their wars, but in my head back then I thought that if I make a very good report from the place people were having the war – the rest of the world would understand and stop it. I understand now how naive that was, but for many years my journalistic dreams were there and they were very concrete.

So I had my bachelor’s in communications, only to realise when I graduated that what I wanted to do was not related to media, but related to human rights and policy making. I don’t want to showcase the grief of children in war and cover the international conflicts, I want to prevent them from ever happening. Reading and exploring human rights and the civil movement eventually, I found some problems I wanted to solve myself and that is how I got involved in The Social Teahouse network which supports children raised without family care, Karin dom therapy center where kids with disabilities and their families receive support, National youth forum of Bulgaria where I was doing youth empowerment trainings, EASPD where our advocacy work was supporting over 20,000 social services providers all over Europe and many more.

You have been involved as a leader in the creation and development of many great organizations but at some point, you always had to move on to the next bigger challenge. Was it hard “letting go” of something you created and what steps did you take to make sure that what you worked on will endure?

I can give you a dualistic answer- an answer with an emotional and a professional part. The emotional part is that I don’t let go for a while- I suffer for not being in the Teahouse, in the National youth forum, in Karin dom, in EASPD, and try to help in any possible way I can, even if I don’t work there anymore. I think about the people I had to leave and the things that I wanted to achieve and complete together with them, all the things that need to be reformed, and all the procedures that need to be shaped to reflect the values of the organisation. Leadership makes me dream and even if I move on to a “bigger” dream the previous one does not disappear. I am lucky to have met wonderful people within all the organisations I have worked at and those relations stay- regardless of change of management. The professional answer is so much shorter – of course, things move on, life goes on and there are no irreplaceable people. But all of the things I had to let go have a place in my heart and help me explore fully each next chapter.

When it comes to chasing your dream, how is it for a person to be surrounded by the right people?

Chasing dreams sounds very romantic but the daily life of a dreamer is exhausting :)) It is crucial to be surrounded by people who want to grow and who want to make the world a better place. It took some courage for me to be that bold and honest and say – yes, I want to change the world and I will. For a while, it sounded even to me too egocentric and over-confident. After working side by side with great leaders I discovered that many experience this and that is a good sign. Fear and lack of confidence can bloom into bravery and motivation with the right motivation and the right environment. But whatever your environment is – your inner dialogue is what can bring you down or make you walk in the sunshine.

What are the biggest challenges you had to face so far and what are the biggest lessons you learned from them?

 The biggest challenge for sure is the responsibility I have to my family and being a good parent to my children. The only place you are truly irreplaceable is actually at home- even the toughest CEO jobs will find the “next rockstar” in a couple of months. Even the most challenging political gap can be filled with a less skilled political advisor and each management position will eventually be matched with the right candidate. But there is no one who can replace you in the conversation with your son about his math test, or the time you can share growing ( or eventually killing) tomatoes. I have learned that the hard way as I easily dive in too deep in all professional roles and there was a time when I was systematically doing 70+ hours working a week.

There was a time for three consecutive years when I took no annual leave and it felt great until it didn’t. I am very demanding as a manager and my toughest criticism and my highest expectations always were directed at myself. If I was awake, I was at work and of course, if you are in the human rights field you can easily motivate yourself into workaholism and burnout. And that is what I did. It took a lot for me to understand that and to have a healthy dynamic with myself. To overcome this I got help from a therapist, a coach, who worked mainly with women in leadership, and another HR specialist who helped me create and keep my boundaries clear. But it is still difficult sometimes, I will not lie.

What is the biggest source of inspiration for you? 

Inspiration works in different ways. I am inspired by people – I always try to see the best in everyone and 99% of the time that has proven to be a good idea. I love hearing the stories of people and witnessing their growth and how they change the systems around them- through their stories and through their lives.

What do you wish to share with the people who are just starting to follow their dreams?

Find the place within you that brings you warmth and learn how to best share it with the world. Dreams come and go, but wherever you go and whatever dream you carry – the common denominator is you. YOU will be everywhere YOU go, so try to learn how to best love yourself and how to best share yourself with the world.


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