I spent an hour talking on the phone to Maya Penn. We giggled and chatted about pizza and sushi, Facebook, bedtimes, and sleepovers. I forgot, for a moment, that I was in the TechRepublic office and not in my childhood bedroom, curled up on the rug with my old corded purple phone in my hand.
I had made friends with a 14-year-old. But more than that, I had made a connection with a young businesswoman — one that I truly believe has the ability to change the world for the better. When we hung up, I wanted to call her back and pick her brain some more — to ask her about her business plans, her book deals, her sociological insights, and her hopes for the future of technology.
In short, I was completely inspired.
Penn is the CEO of Maya's Ideas, which she founded when she was eight years old. Penn is an entrepreneur, a technologist, a philanthropist, an artist, an author, an animator, and a coder. Maya's Ideas is a site where she sells eco-friendly clothing and accessories like scarves, hats, and hair clips. She started the business because she liked sewing headbands, and people started asking her to make them. She began selling them on Etsy, but quickly realized she could build a brand of her own. And, this is more than just a cute idea — Maya's Ideas generated more than $30,000 in 2012.
Penn lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her mother and father, two dogs, and two cats. Her parents collectively homeschool her. She is currently in the ninth grade, but she is as busy as any other startup founder you'll find.
"My mom especially always really encouraged me to do what I love, and my dad has opened me up to finding things I love," she said.
One of those loves is for technology. When Penn was just four years old, her father taught her to take apart a computer and put it back together again. It was amazing, she said, because she had never seen what a technology device was made of, or what it was capable of.
Last year, she gave a TED talk for TEDWomen2013 about being a young female entrepreneur. It was her first big speaking engagement, and she admitted she was very nervous.
"That's good it doesn't show, but I was definitely nervous," she said. "That was one of the biggest stages I have ever spoken on, and it went global."
Indeed it did. The talk has almost a million views on the TED website, and Penn has been asked to travel and do many other speaking engagements since then. "I do enjoy public speaking because I get to make a lot of new friends after I speak," she said.
At the TED talk, Penn debuted her first animation short, "Malicious Dishes," an animated series about computer viruses, which she plans to turn into full-length episodes soon.
The idea stemmed several years ago, when Penn had a virus in her computer. While she was waiting for the anti-virus programs to finish scanning, she wondered, "What if viruses in my computer have personalities?" So she drew an animation about the stories of these viruses, who traveled via USB drives around a computer world that humans were unaware of. Penn also drew another series called "The Pollinators" about bees and other pollinators and their impact on the environment.
And, her animation isn't limited to the digital world. She is an author of two children's books, which she illustrated herself. Penn is currently working on another book, a memoir about her journey as a young entrepreneur and her advice for children with similar aspirations.
As if that wasn't enough, Penn is also a self-described coder. She coded her company's first website on her own by learning basic HTML. She was 10.
"My interest in coding spurred from the company. At the time I was trying to get a more professional and customized website, and I wondered how people built websites from scratch, what were all the nooks and crannies, key parts of how websites were built, the actual raw code," she said.
The process helped her see how much work went into making a simple web page. Now, she is learning Python by taking a class with her father. She doesn't necessarily want to start a business around coding (yet), but she sees the importance in understanding it as a technology and business tool. The ultimate definition of being "tech savvy," she said, is being somewhat familiar with code, and that's especially important for girls.
"The field of tech isn't very even, gender wise, and I think that that really needs to change," Penn said. "Anybody can code, no matter your gender, race, how old you are...we need girls to represent and say 'Look we like to code and program and script just as much as anyone else does. We are just as capable,' and I speak on that to my nonprofits."
Oh, did I mention she donates 10 to 20 percent of her profits to nonprofits? Environmental stewardship is one of Penn's most notable platforms, and she is very knowledgeable about climate change and sustainability. She has her own non-profit, Maya's Ideas 4 the Planet. She also volunteers regularly at local food banks and recycling events in Atlanta.
She's currently working on a project to make biodegradable sanitary pads for women in developing countries that either do have to miss school when they are on their menstrual cycles or use mud and rocks, or other things harmful to their health. Traditional sanitary pads are harmful to the environment, so Penn is trying to fix that.
Penn is incredibly eloquent when she speaks, but she also has an infectious energy, and people have noticed. She has made a splash in the business world already, and has been written about by plenty of publications, especially since her TED Talk.
One of the most amazing things about children is their ability to simplify things that adults would ordinarily see as complicated. If a problem exists, there is usually an easy solution, and all we have to do is harness it. Penn is very wise for her age, but the simplistic honesty in her answers can't help but make you smile.
"When a lot of companies grow, they become too isolated with their customers, and might kind of ignore them in a way," she said. "Customers and fans are what got their business to grow so big, so why would you ignore them?"
Running a business has helped her grow both spiritually and mentally, Penn said. "You learn stuff in business you can use in everyday life, stuff you can't learn anywhere else. You have to just love doing it it and be willing to put the hard work and commitment into it."
For now, Penn is content with staying as busy as possible, trying to get as much done during the week and learning through both school and work. She knows it will take some time because, after all, her bedtime is still 9:00 p.m., and she's not supposed to work on weekends.
"I just have to see what the future will hold because I have so many different passions focused on so many different fields. I'm not even sure where all this will take me, but whatever I want to do, I want to give back in some way," she said.
When I asked her, what, more than anything, she hopes people say about her in 20 years, her response had nothing to do with her many business ideas — those ideas she is already afraid she doesn't have enough hours in the day to do.
"I hope people take away that no matter who you are, where you're from, what your background is, you should be able to do anything you dream of and always do something that can help other people, help the planet in some way," Penn said. "You don't have to start a nonprofit to give back. It's the little things."
In her own words...
What are some of your other hobbies?
"I hang out with my friends, have sleepovers and different things like that. I go on church trips and like tennis and playing piano. I personally like origami. I don't know why I recently got interested. And sculpting, really almost any visual art I can get my hands on."
What food do you like?
"I like a variety of things...Pizza, sushi, I also like cake. And this is not a food, it's a drink, but me and my mom make green shakes from different apples, kale, broccoli. We eat organic and natural foods too, which are really nice and taste really good."
What tech tool are you most excited for?
"I personally am excited for Oculus Rift. I'm already into gaming myself, and I've always been interested in designing one of my own games in the future."
Who are your mentors?
"I know one is Lauren Faust, an animator and writer. She has worked on a lot of shows like Powerpuff Girls, and is one of my biggest inspirations for going forward with animation and my artistic passion... Pat Mitchell, the CEO for Paley Center of Media. I met her through the TEDWomen talk, and she is a really amazing woman and very inspirational and a good friend of mine. Also, Alexis Ohanian, one of the co-founders of Reddit. I met him on book tour for one of his new books."
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
"It's really important to live your life to the fullest and do what you love. Go for it, do it when you want to do it. And don't let [anything] set you back, if you love doing it and really want to just go ahead."
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.