Maya Penn: A genius multi-hyphenate with a vision

This 21-year-old phenomenon has achieved what many would take decades to. And she is nowhere near done.


Image credits: Kristoffer Heacox, CC BY-NC 3.0

Udbhavi Balakrishna

CEO, Entrepreneur, Artist, Animator, Environmentalist, Girls Rights Activist, Designer, Coder, Author, Philanthropist - the list does not end with 21-year-old wunderkind Maya Penn. Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, she is known for her award-winning sustainable fashion brand Maya’s Ideas, among other things.

For Maya, art has always been a subject of fascination, and central to her projects.

Speaking at an official TEDWomen conference in 2013, Maya traced her journey to her childhood, when she started drawing at the age of 3. Because she was so influenced by art, she wanted to incorporate it into everything she did. Thus, she began designing clothing from pieces of fabric she found around her house.

When young Maya learnt that she could marry her love for art and design with sustainable ideas and share it with others as a business, Maya’s Ideas, a handcrafted environmentally-sustainable clothing and accessories brand, was born in 2008. She had decided early on that 10-20% of the profits that she would make would go to global and local charities and environmental organisations. All this at just eight years old!

Though many brands have been turning to sustainable producing and marketing methods now, Maya believes her company has stayed ahead of the curve. She has always advocated reusing and recycling old, vintage and bio-based materials such as cotton, hemp and bamboo to make her clothing and accessories.

This is not all. When she was 4, Maya learnt from her father how to take apart a computer and put it back together, sparking her love for technology. At 10, she even built her website for Maya’s Ideas. She also created and produced The Pollinator, a short film about bees and other pollinators to highlight their impact on the world. A clip of the film, along with a clip of Malicious Dishes - Maya’s first animated short series - premiered in the same TED talk.

Recognising the need to give back to society and the environment, in 2011, Maya founded her non-profit Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet, a forward-looking organisation fighting for humanitarian and environmental justice.

She understood at a young age what many of us would take (and have taken) a long time to comprehend: environmental issues are human rights issues. This is because, as much as they impact us all, these issues impact marginalised communities and future generations the most, who need support for their emotional and mental wellbeing. Understanding this, her organisation also focuses on raising awareness about mental health issues stemming from climate anxiety.

One of Maya’s many goals, besides working towards a greener and sustainable future, is to get more girls involved in male-dominated careers like technology and innovation. To this end, her non-profit is also looking to launch an initiative to provide micro-seed grants to young female entrepreneurs who want to start their own businesses.

Maya also started an ongoing initiative ‘The Pad Project’ in 2013 to provide eco-friendly sanitary napkins for menstruators in developing countries in need. She partnered with two Georgia-based organisations MedShare and Youth Action Without Borders to deliver these sustainable and washable pads to menstruators in Senegal, Somalia, Cameroon and Haiti.

In an interview with CBS This Morning in 2016, Maya said it was important to encourage young girls “to follow their passion, be change-makers and be creative thinkers. They can do anything if they believe in themselves.”

Image credits: Ryan Lash/Flickr, CC BY-NC 3.0

The same year, she was commissioned by the Obama administration to animate the opening of the first-ever digital report presented to the Congress, which was done so that an American Museum of Women’s History could be built in Washington.

Her experiences and lessons in entrepreneurship, turning passion into action and converting creativity into a way of giving back to society have been covered in her book You Got This! The book has been used as part of curricula in schools around the world to teach youth about entrepreneurship and giving back for social good.

Since the pandemic, her non-profit organisation has been working to provide masks made from recycled materials, personal care items and food to those living in Atlanta’s homeless shelters.

Her fight for environmental justice, sustainability and humanitarian work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2013, Maya won the Black Enterprise Teenpreneur of The Year Award. In 2016, Maya was awarded the Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L. Award and honoured at the SCLC Drum Major for Justice Awards. She also received a commendation from then-President Barack Obama for her ‘outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship.’

Maya was also named Oprah Winfrey’s youngest Super Soul 100 entrepreneur, change-maker and thought leader in 2016. She is the youngest woman to deliver two back-to-back TED talks. Her 2013 TEDWomen Talk has been ranked as one of the top 15 TEDWomen talks of all time. She has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, Ebony, TIME, NPR, VICE and WIRED, among other popular publications.

Now 21, Maya has worn many hats in her 12 years as an entrepreneur, while working to build a sustainable world, one that is equal and fair for all. As a happy by-product, she has inspired (and continues to inspire) so many people, young and old, through her creative ventures.

She is, truly, a prodigy with a vision.

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