While 14-year-old Maya Penn may not be an official millennial, she’s already adopted the entrepreneurial mindset that sets millennials apart from their predecessors. “I think young people are realizing you can create opportunities for yourself. You find something you love and turn it into business.” Penn should know: the high-school sophomore turned her love of fashion and her passion for the environment into an eco-friendly clothing line, Maya’s Ideas, when she was only eight years old.
“I was always drawing designs in my sketchbook,” says Penn, who is CEO of Maya’s Ideas. “I then started looking for fabrics around the house. I asked my mom to teach me how to sew and I started making my own designs. I wanted a fun creative outlet.” Penn launched her company with a line of headbands made out of ribbons and eye-catching embellishments. The line has since grown to include accessories like scarves, hats and bags. “Everything is made with love, environmentally safe products and materials like recycled fabrics and non-toxic paint,” she stresses.
Designer is only one of the titles Maya Penn claims. The Atlanta native is also an animator, coder, author and philanthropist!
“Animation is my first love. I started animating with my first flipbook when I was 3. I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon,” Penn reveals. Second to animation, her other love has been technology since her father showed her how to take apart a computer and put it back together when she was 4. “I thought it was so cool to see how a computer worked. It opened me up to technology.”
At 10 years old, Penn was introduced to coding when she took it upon herself to learn how to design her first website for Maya’s Ideas. “I think it’s important for young women of color, even if it’s not gonna be your thing, to take the time to learn about different stem fields,” says Penn. “Technology is ruling the world and more than ever people need to have that skill. Young people have more access to learn now too. Coding is hard to learn. It’s like learning another language so it takes time to master it, but it is very valuable.”
No matter what Penn is involved in, she always makes sure to incorporate a philanthropy aspect to her endeavors. She donates 10 to 20 percent of her profits to not-for-profit organizations and she’s also established her own, Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet.
With such an impressive résumé at such a young age, it’s no surprise her accomplishments have garnered her lots of attention and praise. Penn was enlisted to speak on being a female entrepreneur at her first TED talk for TEDWomen 2013. Her TED Talk has more than a million views on the TED website.
“I was so nervous. I was shaking in my boots, or whatever type of shoes I was wearing that day,” she says with a laugh. If she was nervous, it was hard to detect. Penn was eloquent and captivating. She debuted a clip of her first animation short, Malicious Dishes. The animated series revolves around the world of viruses. “My computer had a virus on it. I had the idea of what if viruses had their own lives in the computer, went on adventures and had a place to meet up,” says Penn, who’s currently working on the pilot.
Positive feedback from people around the world came flooding in shortly after her talk. “People have told me it inspired them to start their own companies and follow their passion. It’s pretty amazing. The oldest person was 75 and the youngest was 8,” says Penn.
She’s since participated in two additional TED talks.
What’s next for Maya Penn? In between thinking about college, spending time with her family and friends and working on Malicious Dishes, her not-for-profit and her accessory line, she’s working on creating biodegradable sanitary pads for girls in developing countries. After learning a few years ago that some girls can’t go to school on their monthly cycle because they have no sanitary pads, Penn made it her business to find a solution.
“I tell young people that you have the power to make the world a better place. You can make a difference, and it doesn’t matter how old you are.”—Alexandra Phanor-Faury