Episode 48 & 49: A Gen Z Perspective on the Pandemic with Activist Maya Penn

about the episode

As we continue to speak with thought leaders and experts during this pandemic for our Alchemy Series, it became clear a voice was missing: how are younger people adapting during this time? After all, Gen Z is notably affected: missing graduation ceremonies, virtual learning replacing the classroom entirely, proms, and other milestone moments being called off – we wanted to hear how someone in this demographic was responding to this moment in time. 

This past Earth Day, our guest was Maya Penn – a suitable fit as Maya has been working in sustainability for 12 years and she started her eco-fashion company in 2008 at only 8 years old. She has been hand chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her youngest Supersoul 100 changemaker and thought leader and received a commendation from President Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. 

Maya made history in 2016 during the Obama administration when she was commissioned to create an animated film for the opening of the first-ever digital report to Congress, which was to have an American museum of Women’s History built in Washington. She also founded a nonprofit organization called Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet and started an ongoing initiative where she designed and created eco-friendly sanitary pads for women/girls in developing countries. She has shipped pads to healthcare facilities in Haiti, Senegal, Somalia, and more. 

Maya is clearly someone who takes action and has never let her young age dictate how she will conquer her goals. Her lessons in this episode are poignant for any time in our lives, but she honed in on some of the trauma and despair that is happening now and how to harness this adversity. Her simple advice is to:

Take small steps toward any goal

Look for the many available resources now made easily accessible for all online is helpful for a listener of any page.

A special shout out to Wells Fargo and Prudential, our generous Alchemy Series sponsors. 


» Hear an extended version of our interview with Maya here (full transcript).

We’ve created the following Tip Sheet to guide your learning experience.

Download the full PDF version here.

interview with maya penn tip sheet

Episode Transcript

Maya: I tend to see that people feel like because they're young, they don't have the money, or the power, or the experience to really being able to make a difference and they feel like they're just that one drop in a bucket, but every drop creates a ripple effect.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map, that map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Dave: In today's conversation, we will meet Maya Penn who started her own company at the age of eight years old and has been working on sustainability for 12 years. She was hand chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her youngest SuperSoul 100 changemaker and thought leader and has received a commendation from President Barack Obama for outstanding achievement and environmental stewardship. She's a three time TED Talk speaker, founder and CEO of sustainable fashion brand Maya's Ideas, animator, filmmaker, global activist and author. She also founded a nonprofit organization called Maya's Ideas for the Planet, an ongoing initiative for creating and shipping sanitary pads for women and girls in developing countries.

Dave: Welcome to our weekly no barriers podcast series where we continue to explore this extraordinary moment in our lives, while remaining true to the theme we have always emphasized, what's within you is stronger than what's in your way. Special thanks to Prudential and Wells Fargo for their generous support of this podcast series. Well, Erik, I'm really thrilled to have Maya Penn on the show with us today. I can't wait for another great conversation. Maya, welcome to the show.

Maya: Thank you so much for having me. This is so awesome to be a guest and for such an awesome organization.

Erik: Awesome. Well, I want to jump right in because I want to ask you, looking at your bio, you've gotten to meet some pretty incredible people in your journey. You've met President Obama, I think, I think you've met Sean Penn, you've met Oprah. That's so cool. What was it like meeting some of those celebs and leaders?

Maya: Yeah. It's really awesome always to have your work recognized no matter who it is, but it's definitely crazy for me.

Dave: Maya, Earth Day has just passed us and you have been such an amazing advocate for the environment. Thank you so much for your work. Tell us a little bit about what you're passionate about right now.

Maya: What I'm doing right now for COVID-19, actually, is I've been creating face masks from some of the remnant fabric that I have from my sustainable fashion line, for healthcare workers and other people that need them. And also, I've been donating to my local food bank here in Atlanta to help kids that don't have access to food anymore because they might rely on school lunches, and just other vulnerable communities. And so, something that I'm really passionate about right now, and seeing all these people come together, and seeing so many people now really trying to use their time, their energy, whatever resources that they have access to, or just their voice, to try to make a difference in the world because it's so crucial right now, now more than ever. For as far as working with the food banks, I've really just been donating monetarily and also you can send food.

Maya: So, we've been kind of doing whatever we can do to help. And it's been really something that's really important because a lot of people just don't think about what other people are going through at this time that have completely different worries. If you have that privilege to really, the worst thing you could be dealing with is that maybe you're really stressed out or you're bored, then see what you can do to help somebody else. And that will also make you feel better too because we're all going through a lot of strain with our mental health at this time too.

Dave: Now, Maya, you strike me as someone who hears about something that is a problem in the world or a challenge in the world and you attack it, you go after and you say, "I'm passionate about this. I want to make a difference." You talked about this from the young age of four and then you talked about your story at eight and here you are being a sustainability advocate at a global level. Not everyone is that way, not everyone hears something in the news or hears of a problem and says, "You know what? That's something I can tackle." How do we instill a little bit more of that spirit in all of us?

Maya: Making a positive difference and just seeing what's that little extra thing you can do should not be a big to-do. I tend to see that people feel like because they're young, they don't have the money, or the power, or the experience, or so on and so forth, to really be able to make a difference and they feel like they're just that one drop in a bucket. But like I love to say, every drop creates a ripple effect. If you donate a dollar to a nonprofit, if you turn off the light before you leave the room, if you put out that tweet or that post talking about a cause that's important to you. Just all of those little things, I think, makes such a huge impact.

Dave: For our listeners who don't know, there's a animation that you did around pollinators, that was years ago now, and tell me a little bit about the animation you're working on now. You said you're working on a series?

Maya: It's the same series about the pollinators and it's a kind of what is a cool adventure, action type series speaking to preserving ecosystems and protecting the environment. And there's a wide range of different characters. And so, they're like a really cool cast of characters and I'm excited to share that with other people. And it's also, too, something that I really encourage people to do is to look at all of your passions and see how you can utilize them to make a difference in some way. Because not only am I speaking to environmental issues with this animation, but when I was 16 I was commissioned during the Obama administration to animate the opening of the first ever digital report presented to Congress. And this was to get an American museum of women's history built in Washington. So, it's like you can never even foresee how all of your interests, and skills, and passions can make a difference in some way or can be used as a fuel for good.

Erik: What advice would you have for other kids who are quarantined right now, who are home bound and trying to think about maybe using this time for some kind of good or purposeful activity?

Maya: The main things that I want to say to young people is, whatever it is that you've been wanting to research, or learn more about, or try out, or do that you can do at home, of course, now is the time to really look into that and get into that. And even for entrepreneurs, creatives, people who have nonprofits. I mean, this is still a time for you to be able to continue to grow and cultivate the work that you do. Something that I say a lot to people who have a certain teachable skill is like host an online class. Because not only is this a way for you to showcase your skills, but also this gives people something to do while they're at home. And so, I think that, for example, that's just one way that you can utilize your skills to inspire other people or share what it is that you're doing.

Maya: And it's really about also taking care of yourself as much as possible. And you don't always have to put so much pressure on being productive because I feel a lot of people, especially people who are in more entrepreneurial spaces, have this huge intense pressure to be as productive as possible during this time. And it's really hard because this is a time that's really draining and stressful for everybody and people can only give so much during this time. So, learn a new skill or do something for you. Learn something that what makes you happy and tap into those things and see how you can utilize those things for good.

Maya: Maybe you want to paint a picture to raise awareness for a certain cause and that can just be something that you're going to do during this time. It's really just little things. Or if you can, to donate to local food banks, nonprofits in your own area or do something for the environment. If you can buy seeds online, plant a pollinator garden, there are so many things that you can do right now that are not only a way to make a difference but are also something that can be fun or calming, or something that can be a source of joy for you too, so yeah.

Erik: I love that advice, by the way, great minds think alike because we've been interviewing a lot of thought leaders and we just interviewed a world renowned scientists from MIT and he said something very similar, like go easy on ourselves right now, right? You don't have to be crushing the world and it's like, hey, be affected by this and it's okay. We just find a little peace and joy and ease up a little bit on the stress that we put on ourselves.

Dave: Yeah, I love that concept. I think, as I was looking through your book, which our listeners should definitely check out called, You Got This, I was thinking one, what an amazing book to write and a great book for me to give to my 12 year old daughter because it's all about finding your passion and your path. But I was also just like with the title right now, I was thinking a lot of us are feeling like we don't got it. [crosstalk 00:11:11]. This is not a time where I feel like I got it. I feel like I'm struggling through it.

Dave: And so, I was thinking about the younger generation and too, and like I mentioned, I have a couple of kids, but 12 year old daughter and then I was thinking of all the people who can't go to their graduation from high school or college and are entering a really terrible job market and feeling like, "Gosh, I don't know if I do have this." And so, I was wondering what kind of advice you have for the younger generation that is struggling, this is a tough time to be a kid looking for a job or a kid going to school.

Maya: The one thing that I can say, that you can hold onto, is that everything is temporary and though, even though this time is making a huge impact on all their lives and in a lot of ways a lasting impact, this current phase that we're going through with COVID-19 is still a temporary phase and is still one season and there is an end to the tunnel. And so, it's really about, as much as you can, try to focus on what you can do and figure out who you can reach out to to help. There are so many people now, business leaders, creatives, so on and so forth, who are leaders in their fields who are so excited and willing to actually help and even consult with a lot of young people who are trying to get their own career and their own life off the ground right now.

Maya: There are a lot of resources available and resources available to students. And so, don't be afraid to ask for help and to seek that out right now because those resources are being made more readily available because of everything that's happening. And to, like I said, just try to focus on where you want to go after all of this and just kind of keep your eye on that as much as you can because, like I said, this is still one season, and even though we're going to have to do a lot of picking up the pieces after this, this is still one moment in time and just please make sure that you reach out for help. Send that email, send that LinkedIn message, take that online course, just go for it.

Erik: That's awesome. Yeah. We tell ourselves that in the mountains quite a bit, you're in a miserable 12 hour day and you're just stuck in a boulder field and you're cold and hungry and you say, "Hey, pain, this pain is temporary. I'm going to wake up and this will be in the past and we'll be through this." That's a good message.

Maya: Yeah. Absolutely.

Dave: Maya, I'm curious, as a parent, Erik is also a dad, what did your parents do to help create such an extraordinary child at such a young age? Did they have any role to play in this or did you just come out this way?

Maya: It's something that I say because parents do ask, "How can I support my kids and their ideas?" And I think what's important is to at least take those little steps to let your kids know that you want to support their mission. Because, for example, if your 10 year old says, "Well, I want to be an astronaut." Of course, they can't do that right now, but if you can find some online documents on YouTube about either astronauts or space and space travel, and just those little things like, "Hey, let's watch this video about space travel or let's watch this TED talk." Or, "Let's go to this museum." All of those things really register with your child. So, they know that their passions and their interests, and their ideas really matter. So, that's really, I think, the biggest tip that I love to give and that's something that my parents definitely have done over the years.

Dave: Well, Maya, where can our listeners go to learn more about your work and how to purchase some of your products, or how to get involved in the things you've discussed here today?

Erik: Or your animation or your film series.

Maya: Yeah. So, you can find out everything about kind of anything that I'm currently working on, or want to share, on my Instagram. My Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are all @mayasideas, which is just M-A-Y-A-S ideas. The website for my sustainable fashion line is mayasideas.com and I also have my nonprofit organization, Maya's Ideas 4 The Planet, which you can find at mayasideas.com/nonprofit. And so, if you just want updates on pretty much everything I'm working on, my social media is the best place to find all of that out and if you want to learn more about the sustainable fashion line or support that, then mayasideas.com And the nonprofit is that website slash nonprofit.

Dave: Well, Maya has been a real pleasure having you on our podcast. For those listeners who want to check out any of the things that were mentioned in today's show by Maya, you can always find details in our show notes at nobarrierspodcast.com. You can get, You Got This, Maya's book online as well on her website or anywhere where you shop for books. We encourage you to check that out. And if you're looking for things for your own students to do, we encourage you to check out a new product that was released by No Barriers just this month that is for middle school students to develop their resiliency skills in this time of uncertainty. It's a self-guided but we have instructors going through with students as well, so you can check that out at nobarriers.usa.org. Thanks again, Maya for a great conversation.

Erik: Yeah, thank you.

Maya: Thank you so much for having me. This has been so awesome.

Dave: Well, Erik loved talking to Maya on Earth Day. I know we're not releasing this on Earth Day, it's such a fun conversation to have tied to this very current event in our lives. What did you hear from today's conversation that really struck you, Erik?

Erik: Well, I got this really practical idea out of talking to Maya, which is if you're homebound now, which a lot of us are, spending more time at home, what endless possibilities there are to further an entrepreneurial idea or to learn how to animate and do like a cool little series, like Maya, or do some kind of cool art project or write a book, right? This is the time to dive into really deep things, that in our busy worlds we wouldn't have the time, energy, focus to be able to do. So, I love that idea. I keep coming back to this repeating theme of , hey, emerge out of this a little bit stronger than when you started.

Dave: Yeah. And I think I was just so impressed with this podcast series we're doing that is about how do we respond in this time of crisis across the globe? I mean, she touched on so many of the topics that some of the global experts, whether it's Dr. Paul Stoltz or Dr. Hugh Herr, that we've talked to just in the past few weeks. She said it really simply, she said that you need to take this time, if you can, to try something new, explore something new, but also be gentle with yourself and realize that you may not have that energy and that's okay too. And that hopefully you find the time to emerge out of this with some newfound direction.

Dave: But she had kind of this nice way of talking us through all of that. Of course it's a great time to learn something new and build our business, but of course it's a time that's tough and to be okay with all of that. I think that's a common theme we've heard from people who are 40, 50 years her senior that have studied this their whole lives. Here's Maya walking up, I don't know exactly how old Maya is, I think she's like 20, and so she's just kind of saying in a really simple way. Be gentle, but explore. So, thank you everybody for joining the conversation today. As always, show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com and please remember, as always, what's within you is stronger than what's in your way.

Erik: Cool, man, no barriers. Thanks.

Dave: The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer Pauline Schaffer, executive producer Didrik Johnck, sound design, editing and mixing by Tyler Cottman, graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Megan Lee and Karly Sandsmark. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance and thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

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