by Becky Chung
Maya Penn is a tiny, vibrant force of nature. She’s an entrepreneur, philanthropist, fashion designer, animator, blogger, writer and illustrator. She runs a budding eco-friendly fashion business and a nonprofit for environmental awareness, and her mind churns constantly with new creative projects. And we should probably mention — Maya is only 13.
Maya’s story began with a humble piece of fabric she found lying around the house. She transformed that little scrap into a zebra-print headband embellished with a butterfly. She called it “Zebra Fly.” That experiment led to more handcrafted accessories, and soon, she was getting stopped on the street by admirers who wanted to know where she bought them. That was when she knew she had stumbled onto something big.
Those passing comments from strangers planted a bold idea in Maya’s head, and at the ripe old age of eight, she decided to launch a fashion company. Five years later, Maya’s Ideas is flourishing, and she has stayed true to her mission: All the items she makes are environmentally friendly. Plus, 10-20% of her profits go to charities and environmental organizations close to her heart, such as the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Since then, Maya has expanded her burgeoning empire, creating a nonprofit, Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet, to spread awareness about environmental issues and encourage local action. “I had a lot of causes that I wanted to spread the word about,” she says, “and I thought the best way to do that was to start a nonprofit.”
Maya is extremely poised and articulate, and she exudes passion for everything she does. We talked to Maya about her creative inspirations, life lessons, and making real change around the world. Our first question:
You come up with so many new ideas all the time. What gives you inspiration? Here’s Maya –
I get a lot of ideas from other people. As an artist, animator and filmmaker, I’m inspired by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Lauren Faust. I’m inspired by a lot of music like U2 and Bono’s music. Nature is also a big inspiration for me.
How did you get into animation?
It started when I was around 3 or so. I started making little flip books and I always wondered how they make cartoons. To this day, right after I watch a movie on DVD, the first thing I do is go to the behind-the-scenes [feature]. I was always really excited to know how they made this all happen.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m going to be releasing “Malicious Dishes” later this year. It’s an [animated] series about little viruses in the computer. One time I had a virus on my computer and I thought, “What if they had their own little world inside the computer? What if they had their own restaurant?” I thought I could make my own little cartoon out of it.
[I'm also working on an] animation called “Pollinators,” about bees and other pollinators in our environment. I made a superhero team out of them. They get all these bad guys who are trying to harm the environment. You learn about the environment, but it’s still a really fun cartoon.
Then I’m also working on a project with my non-profit about creating eco-friendly and reusable sanitary pads for girls in third world countries. A lot of them can’t go to school because they don’t have any pads to wear.
Where did that idea come from?
Earlier last year, I learned about how girls in Nepal and Uganda can’t go to school on their cycle because they don’t have any sanitary pads. When I learned about that, it was a big concern for me. “Wow, I didn’t know that. What can I do about that?” There are other projects like this, other companies that are donating pads and tampons to these girls, but the only problem is they’re not sustainable or reusable. For example they may receive a pack of pads that are all disposable. So once they use it, then what? They don’t have any more and the problem starts all over again. When [my nonprofit’s sanitary napkins] are finally worn down and thrown away, they’re biodegradable and sustainable and won’t hurt the environment.
You have already done so much — it’s really impressive. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned?
Everyone starts small. When you first start a company, it’s not going to take off overnight, and even if it does, it’s still going to take a lot of hard work. A lot of people get intimidated; they might see all of these bigger companies and wonder, “Well, how am I going to compete with them?” But everyone starts small.
Your company has grown quite a bit. What have you learned from that experience?
Always stay true to your company. As your company grows, ask yourself, “Is my company still unique? Is this what I first envisioned when I came up with the idea?” Sometimes I come up with designs based on trends in clothing or fashion and then I think, this isn’t the direction I wanted to go with my company. I always try to make sure I’m staying true to my brand.
What is your advice for young people trying to start a business?
You always, always, always have to start with a passion because if you don’t have a passion, a love or drive behind what you’re doing, then eventually it’s going to go downhill, and you won’t want to do it anymore. It’s really important to do what you love because you’ll go farther.
Where do you see your passion taking you?
Honestly, I can’t really say what I’m going to be doing one day. I don’t know. I know I always want to be an animator; I always want to create short films and make my ideas come to life; and I want to give back in everything I do.
What is something you know that you wish everyone knew?
Everyone can make a change. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, how old you are – every single person can make a change if they have a passion for it. People in general, youths especially, are really oblivious to the problems that are happening all around the world. Even if they are [aware], they might not know what they can do to make a change. So really investigate and get more informed.