#LLAInterview: “ I founded my sustainable fashion brand Maya’s Ideas in 2008 at just 8 years old” – Maya Penn, Speaker, coder, artist, activist, animator, filmmaker, and Founder/CEO, Maya’s Ideas


Maya Penn’s profile

Maya Penn is a 20 year old phenom, award-winning founder and CEO of eco-fashion brand Maya’s Ideas, 3 time TED Speaker, artist, global activist, animator, filmmaker, social entrepreneur, coder and Simon & Schuster author. She has been hand chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her youngest Supersoul 100 entrepreneur, change maker, and thought leader. 

Maya was featured in Forbes magazine at 10 years old, and has since been featured in global magazines. In 2016, Maya made history when she was commissioned to produce and animate the opening of the first ever digital report presented to Congress. The report was created to get an American Museum of Women’s History built in Washington. She has given 3 TEDTalks and her latest TEDWomen Talk has gone viral worldwide and is one of TED’s official top 15 TEDWomen Talks of all time. She is known as the youngest female to do two back-to-back official TEDTalks.

Maya was awarded the 2016 Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L. Award, as well as honored at the SCLC Drum Major for Justice Awards. Maya is the winner of the 2013 Black Enterprise Teenpreneur of The Year Award. Magic Johnson chose Maya to be featured in his 32 Under 32 series. Maya has received a commendation from President Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. She was invited to meet and have a private round table discussion with Michelle Obama during the launch of her book Becoming. 

Maya also founded a nonprofit organization called Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet and started an ongoing project to give back to women and girls in Haiti, Senegal, Somalia, and more. Maya’s book You Got This! (Published by Simon & Schuster) is being used in schools around the world as a curriculum to teach youth entrepreneurship, creativity and giving back. Maya is leading the way as a unique voice in every space she enters.


Who is “Maya Penn”

I am a 20 year old award winning CEO, environmental activist, artist, animator, eco-designer, Simon & Schuster author and 3 time TED Speaker. I founded my sustainable fashion brand Maya’s Ideas in 2008 at just 8 years old. I am also a sustainability consultant and I have consulted Fortune 500 companies on sustainable practices. I am also Oprah Winfrey’s youngest Supersoul 100 entrepreneur.

Can you tell us about Eco fashion, what it means and what inspired this line of business?

I’ve always had a passion for art and design, including fashion design. I’ve also always had a passion for nature and eco-friendly living. So when I had an idea to start a fashion line, I was naturally inclined to start doing my own research on the fashion industry and its environmental impacts. What I discovered was the huge negative impact the fashion industry had on the environment, from an over consumption of resources, to toxic dyes running off into water supplies and more. I was shocked that sustainable fashion wasn’t in the mainstream, so when I created my fashion brand, I knew I wanted to make my pieces eco-friendly. I use organic, recycled, and vintage materials in all of my designs. My company is always experimenting and on the cutting edge of sustainability, even utilizing innovative sustainable practices and technologies such as biofabrication and biomimicry.

What has been the Highlight for you since you founded your business?

The biggest highlight for me has been inspiring others. The fact that one idea I had at 8 years old has now transformed into a way for me to not only make a difference for our planet and environment, but also inspire more young future industry leaders and creatives is really a blessing.

3-time TED speaker and an entrepreneur at a young age, what’s your story? How did you get here?

When I started my company Maya’s Ideas, I didn’t start out with seed money, loans, or grants. What I did have was the creativity to make things work. I created my first designs from recycled and vintage fabrics I had around the house and sold them online to customers around the world. All of the money I made from my sales went back into my business. About two years later when I was 10 years old, Forbes Magazine reached out to me because they wanted to feature me and my company in one of their articles. That’s when everything really started to snowball. I was invited to give 3 TEDTalks on sustainability and my company by the time I was 13 and my global TEDWomen Talk went viral worldwide with nearly 2 million views. 

I started my own nonprofit called Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet, where I’ve designed, created and shipped eco-friendly sanitary pads to women and girls in healthcare facilities in Haiti, Senegal, Somalia, and Cameroon. By the time I was 16 I received a commendation from President Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship, and I published a book with Simon & Schuster called “You Got This!” and my book is now being used in schools around the world as a curriculum to teach social entrepreneurship, sustainability and giving back. All of this happened organically, and I think that really speaks to the power of believing in yourself and your ideas, because you don’t know how they can evolve into something bigger that you may have never expected.

How do you stay innovative? And Your Plans as an entrepreneur In Five Years?

Every endeavor and project I take on is both creative, and makes a positive impact for the world. My innovation comes from that intersection of art and social good. As for my plans for the future, I’m excited about new sustainable textiles that I’ve been developing, and I’m doing sustainability consultation for other brands in the fashion industry and beyond. 

I am also an animator and took 3 years of classes at the Savannah College of Art and Design and made history in 2016 during the Obama administration when I was commissioned to create an animated film for the opening of the first ever digital report to congress, which was to get an American museum of Women’s History built in the US in Washington. I have my own production company that is currently producing an animated series and short film about the importance of protecting our environment and ecosystems. I am also writing another book. 

Care to talk about Challenges on your journey and Lessons you’ve learnt?

In the beginning when I started my company in 2008, sustainability and social entrepreneurship was not commonplace. Many of my customers supported my brand simply because they loved my designs aesthetically, but there was still a lot of education to consumers that had to be done. People had no clue that the fashion industry produces more carbon emission than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, or that on average it takes 2,700 liters of water just to make one T-shirt. That’s not even scratching the surface of the ethics issues in the fashion industry. 

Eco-friendly and ethical fashion was a lot to unpack for many consumers, but there has been an intense shift in the right direction since then as more people become aware of these issues. The global eco-fibers market size is expected to reach $69.0 billion by 2025. Fashion has become a huge sector of sustainable living, and sustainability is the future for all industries. Because I continued to persevere, my brand has been on the forefront both environmentally and economically.

Do you have mentors? Who are they and how important is mentorship to you?

My biggest mentor has always been my mom, she’s smart, creative, passionate and has always been the biggest cheerleader of my work and my journey. I’ve now had the opportunity to mentor young female entrepreneurs who are the same age I was when I started my company and it’s been such an amazing experience.

Tips on how you handle when the going gets tough?

It’s important to stay grounded. I take time to meditate, read, paint, or connect with family and friends…taking that moment to refresh yourself helps you to have the clarity and stamina to solve tough problems. Also stay focused on the “why”. Because my company and all the projects I work on have an element of social or environmental good, that keeps me motivated to keep going forward. It’s always easier when you are using your time, energy, and resources to make a positive impact on the world or on your community in some way.

Have you at any point failed at something? How did you handle it?

I think everyone has failed in some way, or has felt like they failed, but I always think it’s important to learn from your experiences good and bad. If you fall down 7 times you get up 8. Gain knowledge from every step and misstep of your journey.

Final words to entrepreneurs who want to go into the beauty industry and women in our community?

Now more than ever it is a time for us to reclaim our power, lift each other up, and speak life into each other. Take advantage of every idea and opportunity you have, and use your time and energy to reach back and support your sisters. We got this.

The Leading Ladies Africa weekly interview series focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to lead@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.



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