“I think all girls should have that experience. If you want to learn to code, if you want to learn to build or engineer, it shouldn't be held away from them,” the 21-year-old tells PEOPLE

By Falen Hardge
March 04, 2021 06:47 PM
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Maya Penn
Credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

At 21, Maya Penn has done more than most adults twice her age, including interfacing with Fortune 500 companies, rubbing elbows with Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama and sketching cartoons for TV. The CEO, entrepreneur, activist and creative refuses to limit herself, something she learned early on.

Penn founded her first company, an eco-friendly clothing line called Maya's Ideas, at age 8. Three years later she founded the non-profit Maya's Ideas 4 the Planet, aimed to fight climate change and raise awareness about diversity and equity-driven STEM initiatives.

"I always had a lot of various passions growing up as a kid, nature and the environment, art and design, animation," she says on Thursday's PEOPLE Every Day podcast.  "And so, I kind of utilized all of those different areas throughout my journey. All of those same themes of just giving back and creativity are really what tie everything together."

For the full interview with Maya Penn, listen below to the episode of PEOPLE Every Day!

In 2016, she was featured as the youngest honoree in Oprah's Super Soul 100 amongst other thought-leaders like Ava DuVernay, Common, Deepak Chopra, DeVon Franklin, Amandla Stenberg and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Penn now holds a record as a three-time TED speaker and is the youngest woman to do two back-to-back official TED talks, all about her journey to follow her passion and chart her own way forward in business, art and activism as a young woman. In December 2013, her TEDWomen Talk went viral and has since amassed almost 2 million views.

"I love taking people on a journey and helping people empathize and understand more about the world and about various communities and how we can all make a difference in some way" she says.  

As for where she gets her drive from, she credits her parents with encouraging her to follow her heart. "I'm really grateful that I have parents who have always went along with all of my ideas and cheered me on. My mom has been my rock through this whole thing and my biggest cheerleader," she says.

At the tender age of 4, her father taught her to be hands-on with technology. "He showed me how to take apart a computer and put it back together again and I fell in love with technology from that point."

Penn went on to teach herself HTML and later coded her first website. She describes her father's unyielding support for her as "empowering" because "those skills played back into my teenage and adult life as I am continuing to do my career. I think all girls should have that experience," she adds. "If you want to learn to code, if you want to learn to build or engineer, it shouldn't be held away from [you]."

Since the pandemic began, Penn's nonprofit has provided masks, personal care items and food to the less fortunate in the Atlanta area, and the organization sends eco-friendly sanitary pads for women and girls in Haiti, Senegal and Somalia.

When she's not working, Penn keeps her creative juices flowing by drawing, painting and reading literature about plants. She also makes time to have virtual movie and game nights over FaceTime with her friends: "just stuff that a normal 21-year-old does," she says.

As Penn sees it, she's just an example of what anyone can do if they follow their gut. "A lot of people kind of see themselves in me and really appreciate the fact that I am kind of multihyphenate because our society really zeroes in on, 'You have to do this one thing for your whole life,' instead of being able to explore all of the various passions that you have."