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Student entrepreneur refuses to limit her list of titles, skills

By Julie Randles
April 1, 2017
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Maya Penn learned all about labels when she moved into a new neighborhood at the tender age of 8. She thought she was rocking her natural hairstyle – but to her new friends, not so much.

“Fortunately, I knew how to immediately squash those feelings by remembering my mother’s loving words,” she writes on her blog. In short, she needed confidence in her own magic as an African American, as a girl, as a student.

So Penn has created her own labels: eco-fashion designer, children’s book author, artist, animator, coder, public speaker, entrepreneur, philanthropist and environmentalist. And this Atlanta-based teen has done it all before her 17th birthday.

She started by crafting ribbon headbands from fabric lying around the house and parlayed the praise and a $200 budget from Mom for supplies into an online business called Maya’s Ideas. She learned to sew to expand her product line, using eco-friendly materials to create scarves (Samuel L. Jackson bought one), hats and jewelry, and now even sells upcycled and vintage clothing, including coats, skirts and vintage party dresses.

She began making six figures by the time she was 13, and is now scaling her business into the multi-million dollar realm, mainly because Penn operates her business from her own website rather than a shopping site – a website she built totally from scratch at age 10 by teaching herself html coding. Today, she also speaks Python, Javascript and other languages, the better to code for her animation series about pollinators – featuring bees, butterflies and hummingbirds as superheroes, of course.

So it's no surprise Penn was asked to participate in Google's Made With Code initiative, and she then took her involvement deeper. She started her own nonprofit, Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet, in 2011 and uses that platform not only to promote environmentalism but to host her own girls coding workshops.

Worn out yet? Penn isn’t. Young women in developing countries have Penn to thank for 5,000 eco-friendly sanitary pads that she created and distributes through MedShare.

Using a $1,000 seed funding grant from The Pollination Project, she wrote and illustrated Lucy and Sammy Save the Environment and Wild Rhymes, then printed both children’s titles on recycled paper. The experience convinced her to say “yes” to sitting on the organization’s grantmaking advisory board so she can give back to other youth-centered environmental projects. She is also the author of You Got This: Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path and Change Your World, a book that inspires youth to make their dreams a reality.
But just to make sure she’s giving enough back to the community, Maya Penn donates 10 to 20 percent of her company’s profits to Atlanta-area and global charities.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, this fear that whatever we do is too small to matter,” she has told reporters. “You don’t have to have a ton of confidence to do everything you want to do. Go ahead and be afraid. Change will definitely come.”

You have many entrepreneurial efforts underway. What advice do you have for other young entrepreneurs?

Start an idea book – a journal where you can write down all of your ideas for your business. Whether it be a small thought that crosses your mind or the next big idea, it’s important to have it written down. Even if it doesn’t seem important, it may be very useful in the future.

Do a lot of research about what you want to do and what field you’re passionate about and want to pursue. Also, when you start, don’t get discouraged if something goes wrong, or you make a mistake or things are going slower than you expected. It’s actually good for things to go wrong in a business because every experience, good or bad, is a learning experience and it helps you and your business grow because you gain knowledge from trial and error.

For many adults, public speaking is their biggest fear. You’ve already given three TED Talks. What’s the secret to a great talk? 

Be prepared. If you are given time to prepare and practice your talk, use all of that time to the fullest.

The biggest worry most people have is making a mistake in front of their audience. Mistakes are not the end of the world; you’d be surprised how easily people dismiss or ignore a goof up if you just correct yourself or keep moving on.

Also, depending on the situation, talking about something you’re passionate about can help things come more easily.

Finally, for me, the biggest key to confidence – this ap-plies to more than just public speaking – is not being afraid of being afraid. Sometimes, focusing on trying to get rid of
your fear can cause more stress and distraction. I still get to-tally nervous when I speak in public. It’s not about pushing away the fear, it’s about not letting the fear be the focal point.

You’ve said you started your first business “out of curiosity.” How did being curious shape your learning and what you chose to study?

Following your sense of curiosity often leads to gaining knowledge, trying new things and making discoveries. I had a passion for both fashion design and giving back, and I wanted to share that passion with others in a meaningful way. So I asked a curious yet bold question: What would it be like to start my own fashion business?

That question lead to the founding of Maya’s Ideas and discovering the world of entrepreneurship, among other things, at just 8 years old.

How did being home-schooled influence your sense of curiosity?

Home-schooling has given my parents the opportunity to incorporate many of my passions, such as coding, animation, entrepreneurship, etc. into my curriculum. It definitely has given me more space to let my curiosity flourish.
You’ve learned more than one computer programming language. How did you learn to code and why do you think more girls don’t code?

I got into coding because I wanted an official website for my company. I was 10 at the time, and all I did was look up “how to build a website from scratch.” From there, I started teaching myself html. I also started learning Python and Javascript, and I even use coding for my animation.

There are so many resources available today that make it more accessible to dive into coding and other stem fields, which makes it even more unfortunate that there are so few girls studying coding and computer science.

I think the biggest issue is not only lack of representation of women/girls in stem fields, but lack of encouragement as well. Many girls don’t have people telling them that pursuing a career or even just an interest in coding is possible for them. Whether it’s parents, teachers, mentors, friends or other peers, there’s a lack of guiding girls in the direction of at least trying out coding.
From afar, the world of code can seem daunting and confusing, when it is actually incredibly creative and nearly limitless to what you can create. It only takes one moment to create the spark that can turn into a lifelong love of computer science.

Who inspired your environmental efforts and entrepreneurial spirit?

My parents instilled in me at a young age the importance of giving back to the environment and the community. Some of my earliest memories include recycling and me and my parents donating canned goods or clothes to food banks and homeless shelters in Atlanta. 
These things have taught me about how crucial it is to make a positive impact on the planet in anyway that you can. Despite my parents both being entrepreneurs themselves, my entrepreneurial spirit found me when I started my company (though I may have still inherited their entrepreneurial spirit somehow). As my business started to grow, I grew along with my business and I had to learn the ins and outs of branding, marketing, knowing your customers, etc. I learned through research and trial and error.

What are your long-term goals?

My long-term goals are to continue scaling up my business, my nonprofit and my animation studio and keep making an impact through all of my endeavors and inspire others to give back through doing what they love.

How will your generation shake up the world?

More and more young people have a chance to use their voice to make a positive impact on the world and fight for the causes they’re passionate about. 

Now more than ever, we are shifting in a conscious direction in almost every aspect of our world and our society, and more people are starting to realize that they have to be the change that they want to see. This is especially true for the current generation of young people who will also be the future leaders in our world.

It seems like you get quite a bit done on any given day. What time management advice can you share? 

A lot of it comes to narrowing down what’s important to focus on right now. What are the few projects that are most critical to get completed now? Then create time slots in your day to work on each project.

After getting ready for the day, I start with four hours of schoolwork, then I’ll go to my studio to work on my company. Orders, projects, website updates etc., I’ll do these for about two hours. Then I’ll also take a few hours to work on either my nonprofit, my animation or any other projects.

What will you do next? 

My company, Maya’s Ideas, has scaled up and is now doubling its production team and will be rolling out a new and unique spring/summer 2017 line of eco-friendly clothing and accessories that is heavily inspired by nature. 

I will also launch a bigger animation and film studio in Atlanta called Penn Point Studios, and the first project I will be releasing is an animated series called “The Pollinators.”

This year, I’m launching an initiative through my nonprofit Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet to provide seed grants to young female entrepreneurs who aspire to start their own businesses. I am also putting into action a girls’ empowerment event and a stem/steam workshop for girls where my book You Got This! (Published by Simon & Schuster) will be used during the workshop to guide and inspire the girls.