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Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Laura Connelly & Stellar Villa Decided To Change Our World

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Talent is not created overnight, it’s a process — and the process is full of frustration and hard work. So, learn to fall in love with the process and know that everyone who has ever made it where you hope to be has their process story too.”

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Connelly. Laura is the founder of Stellar Villa, a wall art and home decor company based in Brooklyn, New York. As an artist, Laura is best known for her custom pet portraits. Animals have always been very close to her heart and she has found a way to use her artwork for the betterment of stray, lost and abandoned animals in her community. Laura recently held a fundraiser that raised nearly $12,000 for NYC animal shelters. Since then, she has formed ongoing partnerships with several shelters to continue raising donations, awareness and help place animals in their forever homes.

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?

I was born in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I had a difficult childhood during which I experienced many hardships. The turning point in my life occurred at the age of 14 when I was adopted by a wonderful single mother of two children. Shortly after the adoption was finalized, we all moved to Ireland to start a new life. I couldn’t be more thankful for that change.

I was just starting high school when I arrived in Ireland. Being new to the country, I didn’t have any friends yet and I barely spoke any English. Needless to say, it was a tough transition. Luckily, I met the school’s art teacher who was a great person and we quickly became friends. She provided me with such great guidance and helped me to continue advancing in the field of art.

I’m very thankful for everything I experienced; both the good and the bad. I learned many life lessons and it has shaped me into an independent person and given me the ability to think for myself. I was fortunate enough to meet good, kind, and supportive people along the way.

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

Although I have been drawing for as long as I remember, I’ve only recently come to terms with just how powerful art can be when used as a tool to raise awareness for a cause.

Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak began, I felt the need to do something to make a positive impact. I had a spontaneous idea to offer my custom pet portraits free of charge while accepting donations which would be given to NYC animal shelters. With low expectations, I set an initial fundraising goal of $500. A few weeks later, the fundraiser closed having raised nearly $12,000.

While hosting this fundraiser I learned a lot about the nonprofit animal shelters, the volunteers who work behind the scenes, and about the poor animals that desperately need homes. Everything I learned during this spur of the moment fundraiser helped me develop a long term vision for the impact I wanted to make.

Today, my ultimate goal is to give shelter animals a better life by helping match them with humans and place them in their forever homes. To do this, I plan to continue holding fundraising events and give to shelters so the immediate needs of animals under their care can be met. Second, I am using my art and social media accounts to post drawings of pets currently up for adoption at local shelters on a weekly basis. At the end of the day, I am just one person and therefore I believe the most effective way I can make an impact is to raise awareness. I want the world to know just how many animals need our help and if I can inspire others to join the cause together we can make a real difference.

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

It all started with my love for animals. I have loved animals for as long as I have loved drawing, which is basically my entire life. When I lived in Lithuania we had a lot of street dogs roaming around and even though I was still a child, my heart would break seeing them. Every day during breakfast I would sneak some of my food into a little plastic bag. I carried that bag with me when I walked to school and I fed the dogs along the way. That same passion I felt for helping animals as a child remains with me to this very day.

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?

Surprisingly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic was actually the trigger that pushed me to take action.

As the world started to shut down, my social media was flooded with negativity to an extent that I had never seen before. The fear, anger and frustration was overwhelming. So much so that it began to negatively affect my state of mind as well. Instead of focusing on this negativity, I began brainstorming ways that I could make things better.

On that day I announced on my Instagram page that anyone who reached out to me via direct message with a photograph of their pet would get a free pet portrait, no strings attached. It worked. All of a sudden the surge in negativity I was seeing seemed to do a complete turnaround, transforming into a flood of positive messages and uplifting stories. At the end of the day I was so overwhelmed with the positive impact that my drawings had on people, seemingly making their day just a little bit brighter. I decided I had to do something on a larger scale.

I then remembered reading about local NYC animal shelters facing difficulty during the pandemic since many of their usual donation streams were cut off as people became more cautious with spending. This was my “aha moment.”

I thought to myself, “What if I could help both people and pets at the same time?”

That’s when I decided to continue offering free pet portraits while accepting optional donations that would be sent directly to the animal shelters. I decided against requiring donations, as I knew it was a tough time and with many people out of work, I didn’t want to exclude anyone if they were not able to donate. That’s how my fundraiser was born.

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?

If I’m being completely honest, sometimes you just need to wing it. While some people are very analytical and perform lots of research and planning prior to starting a project, I’m quite the opposite. I’m a very spontaneous person. If it feels right I just jump in and do it because I know I would be more disappointed in myself if I didn’t try at all than if I tried and failed. You can have the greatest ideas in the world but they mean nothing if you don’t execute them. Taking action is, in my mind, the single most important step you can take. Even if you fail you will learn valuable lessons along the way and your chances of success grow exponentially.

I didn’t always have the take action mindset. When I first moved to New York I took a break from art. All of my life I have loved drawing but I allowed people who said that it’s not possible to make a living from art get into my head. Over the next five years I tried to fit in and find my place in the “real” world. I worked at a law firm, a real estate office, and an animal hospital but there was still an empty space inside me that needed to be filled.

Life finally led me back to art and when I built up the courage to quit my job and pursue it full time, things just took off. My only regret was waiting so long to take action and not following my heart. My advice to others is if you have an idea, believe in yourself and just get out there and run with it.

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

The most interesting story revolves around my fundraiser and the way it changed my thought process.

If you look at my first Instagram post announcing the fundraiser, you would get the sense that I was riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. I didn’t know what to expect from the fundraiser. I was scared that I wouldn’t reach my original goal of raising $500 within two weeks.

I thought to myself, “How embarrassing would it be if I failed to reach my goal?”

The first week of the fundraiser was hard. My posts weren’t reaching many people and I didn’t know if I would be able to deliver the positive impact on people and pets that I set out to. I knew I couldn’t let them down, and so I started thinking about how I could reach more people. Over the course of the next few days, I experienced an internal shift in the way I was thinking. Instead of thinking “What if this doesn’t work,” I would identify the problem and brainstorm specific steps that I could take in order to improve the way I was handling that certain part of my project. I turned my doubt into taking action and I believe this really helped me on this project and will continue to do so in the future.

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?

The saying “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” is missing a crucial component: preparing for the best. I concentrated so much on the worst possible outcome with this fundraiser that I didn’t prepare myself for the best possible outcome. I worried so much about not hitting my initial goal that I never stopped to think about the possibility that this thing could really take off.

Wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what happened. The fundraiser started going viral and I didnt have a plan in place to deal with that. I had hundreds of people messaging me to request a drawing at the same time and I just couldn’t keep up. I ended up working 15 hour days for weeks just to catch up and get everything done. It was unorganized and stressful because I had never planned for success.

This experience taught me instead of just hoping for the best, actually prepare for it.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I was highly inspired by one other artist. We connected a few years back and at that time I was taking a break from art. Many things had discouraged me to pursue art as a career, but it was one thing she had said that connected with me so deeply, I won’t ever forget it.

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Talent is not created overnight, it’s a process — and the process is full of frustration and hard work. So, learn to fall in love with the process and know that everyone who has ever made it where you hope to be has their process story too.”

At the time I was working in the real estate industry and after hearing these words I could never get them out of my head. It was very encouraging to hear that even such a successful artist had once been in my position. Not long after, I quit my job to focus on my art and I’ve never looked back.

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

The best part about my fundraiser is that there were so many people positively impacted. I couldn’t possibly choose just one.

I had so many doctors and nurses reach out to me to get their pets drawn. They told me about the absolute horror they had to face that day as they were working on the frontlines during the COVID-19 crisis. They would go on to tell me how excited they were to receive the finished pet portrait and that it was something to look forward to at the end of their day. I also had children of healthcare workers reach out to me to get portraits created as presents for their parents to help them cope with everything.

There was such a range of wonderful people who reached out to me for a pet portrait during this fundraiser. There were people who had been diagnosed with coronavirus or who had loved ones that had been diagnosed. There were also many people who had recently lost a pet. Of course there were also the NYC pet shelters who were very grateful for the much needed donations.

Although all of these people had different circumstances, they all had one thing in common: they were so thankful to have a special drawing of their pet. Many people cried and so did I. It positively affected so many people from all over the world, myself included. It was a win-win for everyone involved.

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

I think having stricter regulations for puppy mills, for breeders and requiring some form of education for new pet owners would go a long way in helping the situation.

Having a pet is a huge responsibility that requires a lot of time as well as financial resources. Not everyone realizes this and it can and does lead to pets ending up in shelters. Having worked at an animal hospital, I witnessed firsthand just how many people are not prepared to pay for their pet’s medical bills. This is especially true in the event of unexpected illnesses or serious accidents. A lot of people don’t follow up with required treatments because they can’t afford it, and the pet ends up suffering.

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

1. Take action. There is only so much planning you can do. If you always strive to reach perfection you may never even get started. So just take action and go for it. You’ll learn so much more by doing than sitting on the sidelines.

2. Always prepare for the best. I thought so much about my fundraiser project failing that I completely overlooked being set up for success. My inbox was flooded with requests for artwork and if I had simply planned for success I would have been better prepared to handle the situation.

3. Find people who believe in your cause. I promoted my fundraiser on Instagram but working alone, my reach was limited. That’s when I started reaching out to and connecting with others I thought would be passionate about my cause. Since the people I connected with were sincerely interested in what I was doing, they put a lot of effort into helping share my message and that’s when things really took off.

4. Have set rules and deadlines. I made the mistake of not having any rules or deadlines when it came to my fundraiser. As a result there was a lot of confusion. I had people reaching out to me months after the fundraiser was over wanting to participate. When doing something of this nature, be sure to always clearly communicate rules and deadlines.

5. Make time for yourself. This relates back to being prepared for the best possible outcome which in my case was a lot of donations and a lot of portraits that needed to be created. I ended up working sun up to sun down in order to finish all the artwork requests. This left me with no personal time, which was very stressful. Remember to always make time for yourself and to take breaks. You know what they say about all work and no play.

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?

What better way is there to leave your mark on this world than to do something good? If everyone in the world stepped up and worked to make some kind of positive impact, no matter how small, imagine how different things could be. Gandhi said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I love that saying and I hope that we can all act on it.

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. :-)

There are so many people that I admire but if I had to pick just one it would be Pascal Campion. He is an artist based in California and I have been following him on social media for quite some time. Not only do I admire his work, but he has achieved many career milestones similar to the ones I would like to achieve in the near future. It would be so incredible to chat with him and learn more about his journey as an artist!

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on my Instagram at

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



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