Maya Penn’s Ideas Inspire

Teen entrepreneur/artist/philanthropist unleashes awesomeness

June 26, 2016

Maya Penn speaks during the Auditorium Speaker Series at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, Florida.
Maya Penn speaks during the Auditorium Speaker Series at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, Florida.

Maya Penn says she started her first business when she was just a kid, selling plastic pizzas to her stuffed animals. But that was only make-believe. She started her real first business years later, at the ripe old age of 8—an Etsy shop called Maya’s Ideas, selling headbands she sewed herself using recycled and repurposed fabrics, with a portion of the profits going to charity.

The young entrepreneur—now 16 and promoting her new book You Got This! Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change Your World (North Star Way, 2016)—impressed the crowd at the ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition with her boundless enthusiasm and endless projects. Her book, written over the course of a year in the form of a journal, is designed to inspire other young people and give them a way to realize their own dreams. Her advice sounded pretty good to an auditorium full of adults as well.

In addition to running Maya’s Ideas, which has expanded to include her clothing and jewelry designs, Penn coded her own website. Being a young woman of color in tech makes her feel like “a unicorn,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to me to get other girls into coding.”

Her coding skills come into play in another of her projects: animation. Penn fell in love with the art after seeing a television program about Disney animators. Many kids don’t like to learn that that their favorite characters are made by someone else and not real. But for Penn, learning how cartoons came to life made them more magical. She created two of her own animated series: Malicious Dishes, about the secret world of computer viruses, and The Pollinators, a tale of superhero bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds that she created to increase environmental awareness.

Improving the environment and the lives of women and girls are also the goals of Penn’s nonprofit organization, Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet. The charity’s current project helps send ecofriendly sanitary pads to girls in developing countries so that they don’t miss school for several days every month.

Penn has always been homeschooled, which meant frequent trips to the library for her education. But once her business began to grow, she started using the library as a resource to learn about marketing, branding, and dealing with customers. “Librarians are keepers of the portals to other worlds,” she said. “That’s a superpower you need to recognize.”

Having so many charitable and business endeavors at such a young age certainly raised Penn’s profile—she’s been interviewed by Forbes and The View, has a viral TED talk, and counts Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian as a friend and mentor. So she uses her position to mentor other young people and offer guidance on success and perseverance.

Penn’s advice includes finding something you’re passionate about. As challenges arise, she suggests asking: Why did you start in the first place? How is it making an impact? Where do you want to go? Keeping these three questions in mind can help you stay committed to your goals.

Think about what your creative skills are and how you can use them to help others; Maya’s Ideas grew out of her love of sewing and drawing and her desire to help others.

Having someone care about your success is also key. “Find mentors, be mentors, invest in ideas even in small ways,” she said.

Despite a schedule packed with schoolwork and business, Penn makes time to do “normal teen stuff” like play video games, hang out with friends, and make cosplay costumes for Dragon Con. She also knows she needs time to “be still”—reading, meditating, drawing, or doing yoga to ease stress.

Maya’s biggest idea? Be curious and go for it, and don’t be afraid of failure. “You’ll learn from your experiences,” she said, “even if you mess up.”