Today we’re speaking with Maya Penn, a fashion entrepreneur and environmental activist. Her company, Maya’s Ideas, is focused on sustainability in order to combat the damaging impact of fast fashion on the environment.
Maya is a keynote speaker, sustainability consultant, three-time TED speaker, artist, global activist, animator, filmmaker, social entrepreneur, coder and author. She has also received a commendation from President Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. Maya was awarded the 2016 Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L. Award, as well as honored at the SCLC Drum Major for Justice Awards (honorees include Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, John Lewis and more).
She was hand-picked by Oprah Winfrey as her youngest Supersoul 100 entrepreneur, change-maker and thought leader.
She has been one of the youngest leaders in sustainability and environmental justice for 12 years, starting at the age of just eight years old.
This interview has been gently edited for length and clarity.
GoDaddy: Tell us a bit about yourself and your business.
Maya Penn: My name is Maya Penn. I am a 20-year-old entrepreneur and environmental activist. I’m the founder and CEO of my company called Maya’s Ideas that I started in 2008 when I was actually eight years old. It is a sustainable fashion line, and I make all of my items from recycled, vintage and organic materials.
GoDaddy: What’s the line between entrepreneurship and activism for you? Are they different things? Are they similar?
Maya Penn: For me personally, entrepreneurship and activism really kind of play off of each other in a unique way. I’ve never felt like I have to fit a certain mold as an activist or as an entrepreneur. And I’ve used both of those facets as strengths to push everything that I’m doing forward, in a sense.
I’ve always had a huge focus on sustainability, for social justice, and that’s always been at the core, giving back.
I’ve always donated 10% or more of my profits to local and global charities and environmental organizations. And eco-friendliness has always been at the core of Maya’s Ideas.
Because I’m also an activist, I never have compromised on that original goal that I had. And that’s why I started my business.
GoDaddy: What advice or recommendations would you have for others who maybe want to turn a passion, an activist passion into entrepreneurship, or vice versa?
Maya Penn: When it comes to business, it’s really important to be clear on your why. And activism is a great way to incorporate that why. Maybe it is environmental issues. Maybe it is a lack of diversity and inclusion within certain industries.
Whatever that why is for you as an activist, it can easily translate into entrepreneurship, how you can use your business to give back to your community, to give back to the charities and organizations or local grassroots, nonprofits that you’re passionate about.
All of these things really make melding those two worlds together a lot easier. And just really staying true to yourself, staying true to what it is that you’re passionate about, no matter what. And not being afraid to carve out your own unique path as an entrepreneur.
GoDaddy: What advice would you have for managing any tension that there might be between your goals as an activist and your goals as an entrepreneur?
Maya Penn: I think that the advice that I would give around managing that tension that can arise, is to not look at both sides as competing factors. Really figure out how both your company and your mission can benefit from each other. How you can use your business to further elevate the work that you’re doing to create more reach around whatever your mission is? And how you can use those resources you might have as an entrepreneur to further your work, as an activist, and then vice versa?
What can you learn from being an activist, being really knowledgeable about the issues that you’re tackling? This is actually almost a hidden power that you can utilize.
A lot of companies now are trying to break into social good work into corporate social responsibility. And a lot of it is inauthentic, or there’s a big learning curve for those companies, but because you’re coming from an honest and authentic place, a more educated and passionate place, it’s a lot easier for that to be a factor within your business.
GoDaddy: Do you have any examples of ways that your activism has fed your entrepreneurship?
Maya Penn: Being someone who is in the sustainable fashion space, the fashion industry has taken a huge toll on the environment, on the planet. Because of that, sustainability has always been at the core of my business from the very beginning.
As someone who’s really well-versed in sustainability within business, it’s not all about making more products or having an excess of inventory.
Maybe it’s the reach that my brand has, how many different distributors around the world that my brand has access to. It’s more than just making more stuff because that’s contributing to the problem.
I’ve always scaled in a way that’s more unique, and that’s really set my business apart. I’ve always really been focused on smaller collections and more limited-run collections.
I work with the materials that are already out there, instead of contributing to the waste that surrounds fast fashion.
Doing this has actually set my brand apart from a lot of other brands in many ways, even from a lot of sustainable fashion brands who, even though they’re using sustainable materials, still might have an excess of inventory.
GoDaddy: How has the issue of activism in your business relate to your identity as a Black woman?
Maya Penn: There is definitely a huge connection with social good entrepreneurship in connection with being in the Black community.
Mission-driven entrepreneurship is actually very common within the Black community because of how many issues the Black community is facing.
That can include socioeconomic issues, environmental issues, diversity inclusion within certain industries, you name it. Having that need to give back, to help make a difference to help better the community has really been at the core of a lot of Black-owned businesses and that’s very clear to see.
Black women are actually the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, despite only receiving less than one percent of most funding. So having a platform and having that presence as a Black woman entrepreneur, it’s not just starting a business. It also helps to open the door to speak to those issues and how important it is for there to be more funding accessible to these groups of entrepreneurs.
We want to help support our community. We want to help build generational wealth. We want to be able to help build a legacy and give back, something to pass down to future generations, to build something that will make an impact in that way that future generations can benefit from as well.
GoDaddy: Do you feel that the act of entrepreneurship is activism for some?
Maya Penn: I do. Just your presence within certain industries, within certain boardrooms, can help open the door for so many other Black, Brown and Indigenous entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs also need their shot at being funded, at getting their brand exposure and everything else that seems to be out of reach for many entrepreneurs of color.
What really makes being an activist and an entrepreneur more powerful within business is the fact that many brands are now having to address issues like sustainability and diversity inclusion.
Oftentimes, their responses can be very forced. They can be tone-deaf or they speak from an uneducated place because these are topics they’ve just never looked at prior until a portion of their consumer base started bringing them to their attention.
When you’re coming from an authentic place, when sustainability, inclusion and diversity are the core and the backbone of your business, that is ultimately going to help your business succeed more in these changing currents and tides of the business world. You’re coming from an authentic place and the consumer base will see that as well.
Activism adds value to your experience as an entrepreneur because it adds to your “why.” Every business in existence needs to have a “why.” A business needs to have a need that it’s trying to address. Sometimes needs that are just consumer and financially oriented aren’t always enough.
You feel more fulfilled being in your industry as an activist. It’s easier to work through a lot of business challenges because it’s not just all about the money or the success. It’s also about the positive impact that your business has on the world.
So having that driving factor is really great for you as a business owner, for your employees, for everyone all around.
GoDaddy: Why do you feel that it can be a challenge for some small business owners to mix entrepreneurship and activism? How can they overcome that challenge?
Maya Penn: I think it’s a challenge because of the emphasis that we put on capitalism being the end-all, be-all to the success of a business. We need to really reinvent a lot of the relationships that we have with business.
It’s so important to blaze a trail, to be unafraid to try something different, to go against the status quo.
However, I can completely understand why people have a hard time mixing the two worlds together. A lot of issues that impact our world are directly rooted within capitalism.
But there’s a way to shift that mindset and to utilize the platform that you have as an entrepreneur. To create more equity and more equality, to invest in the initiatives that will help make an impact on our planet, to make a positive impact on communities, to bring awareness to important causes, is to use this power for good.
My advice is to always listen to your gut, listen to your intuition. Make choices and decisions that you personally feel proud of and that you feel comfortable with, especially being a conscious entrepreneur.
There can be this fear of not making the right choices because your heart is so in it, and that is perfectly fine.
In the business world, there’s a big emphasis in the business world about kind of taking your heart out of your business and taking your heart out of your work. But when you’re doing something that’s mission-driven, you need to have your heart in it as much as possible.
Feel free to go in and make the choices that you personally feel makes the most sense to your mission, to the impact that you want to leave on the world with your business, beyond just making a product or making a profit.
GoDaddy: Do you have any advice for other Black entrepreneurs?
Maya Penn: My specific message to other Black entrepreneurs is to really be authentic.
You don’t have to diminish your culture or diminish your identity in order to be successful within an industry. I think that’s something that a lot of Black entrepreneurs face, is feeling that they have to dim a lot of their light and diminish a lot of their culture in order to succeed in a certain space.
But I think now more than ever, it’s important to be authentic.
You can be a role model to others just by pursuing your entrepreneurial mission, by pursuing your entrepreneurial goals, and by always giving back.
It’s one thing to be an example of success, but for me, my personal definition of success is being able to reach back and help others achieve their goals.
Being able to reach back to your community and give back in meaningful ways. And so that is what I would say is super crucial. Of course, it’s important to achieve your success and to be that example, but you also have to be an example in the work that you do and how you use your time and your profits to make a difference as well.