How Maya Penn Became One of the Most Socially Conscious Entrepreneurs of Gen Z

UPDATED: June 5, 2023
PUBLISHED: June 5, 2023
Maya Penn, founder and CEO of Maya's Ideas

“I was a really nerdy kid,” says Maya Penn, the entrepreneur who started her first company 15 years ago at the age of 8. “I’ve been obsessed with both environmental science and art for as long as I can remember.”

That company is Maya’s Ideas—a sustainable fashion brand Penn started by upcycling old clothing and recycled materials to make tops, hats, scarves and neck warmers. Today, Penn serves as founder and CEO. Maya’s Ideas uses organic, recycled and vintage materials to create clothing and accessories.

The interest in fashion design came from Penn’s artistic talents, but it was her love for nature that spurred her research into the fashion industry’s immense environmental impact. “In 2008, eco-fashion was nowhere near a mainstream topic, so I wanted to create a better alternative,” she remembers.

The beginning of Maya Penn’s entrepreneurship

Maya’s Ideas took off, and Penn was no longer selling to just friends and family. She leveraged the power of the internet to take the business global, selling her handmade wares on Etsy and later in her online store, which she designed and built herself.

As Maya’s Ideas began to gain more traction, Penn found her life transforming. At age 11, she appeared in a 2011 Forbes article about grade-school entrepreneurs—the first of many interviews she’d give.

In 2011 she also launched a nonprofit, Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet, through which she began donating 10–20% of her Maya’s Ideas profits to charities and environmental organizations. (Today, her foundation supports “environmental justice, mental health in regard to climate anxiety and diversity in STEM and tech in creative careers,” according to her website, and gives back through The Pad Project to girls in Haiti, Somalia, Senegal and other countries.)

By age 13, she’d given three TED Talks; her third, at TEDWomen 2013, went viral. The same year, Black Enterprise named her Teenpreneur of the Year and she made her first TV appearance on The Steve Harvey Show.

Combining passion and purpose

Despite running organizations and racking up numerous commendations, it wasn’t all work and no play—or at least, it wasn’t all about Maya’s Ideas. Coding on the side was one of Penn’s passion projects, but not the only one. Also a talented illustrator and animator, she began creating short animated movies by age 12, before—surprise—starting her own production company, Upenndo! Productions.

At 16, Penn was “commissioned to produce and animate the opening of the first ever digital report presented to Congress,” according to her website, which advocated for the construction of an American museum of women’s history in Washington, D.C. That same year, she won the Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L. Award. Penn has also “received a commendation from President Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship,” according to her website. Additionally, she has published her first book, You Got This!, with Simon & Schuster. The book inspires kids to tap into their creativity by teaching them about social entrepreneurship, sustainability and giving back.

Penn says that, unlike Maya’s Ideas, which was founded on a sustainable mission, a lot of brands find difficulty creating fashion in a way that is more environmentally friendly. This is because most of these companies are only recently incorporating sustainable practices into their business.

“These are usually large corporations who have traditionally only had one thing as the cornerstone of their business: profit above everything, instead of focusing more on people and the planet alongside profit,” says Penn, who currently consults for businesses on sustainability best practices and teaches biomimetic design.

Brands that have sustainability at their core, like Maya’s Ideas, may enjoy exploring new advancements or even traditional production methods that can be incorporated into a process to increase the product’s ecofriendliness.

Maya Penn’s focus on environmental justice

Penn attributes her passion for environmental sustainability to her parents, who raised her in an environmentally conscious home in Atlanta and have long been cheerleaders for her passions and big ideas.

As Penn looks to blend her creativity and commitment with social justice to leave a positive impact, her hope is to see fast fashion replaced with eco-friendly fashion and environmental education become more accessible.

“Environmental racism is a systemic issue. While environmental issues impact us all in some way, neighborhoods and communities of color are often impacted harder,” Penn says. “Many Black, brown and Indigenous communities are more at risk of experiencing air pollution, water pollution, climate-related deaths and illnesses, and inability to recover and rebuild from extreme weather due to lack of resources. I think it’s really crucial for anyone in the environmental space to understand the importance of this topic.”

Through Upenndo! Productions, she plans to build character-driven projects centered around topics close to her mission, including climate anxiety and environmental justice. Her animation work can be seen in projects for LUNA Bars, Adobe, GoDaddy and more, and she’ll make her directorial debut on the upcoming animated short Asali: Power of The Pollinators, executive produced by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon.

What’s next for Penn? Although she (and her designs) recently appeared in the January 2023 issue of Vogue alongside Billie Eilish and other climate activists, she’s focused on other plans.

“I am excited to soon visit Ghana, as I am on the board of the incredible community-led sustainable fashion nonprofit THE REVIVAL, which is tackling secondhand clothing pollution impacting the country,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of Maya Penn.

Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed—among other intriguing things—to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.