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I'm a Gen Z professional who wears my natural Afro and bold outfits to work. Other generations don't understand how we dress.

Elle Hardy   

I'm a Gen Z professional who wears my natural Afro and bold outfits to work. Other generations don't understand how we dress.
  • Maya Penn is a Gen Z activist, educator, and business owner who embraces her personal style at work.
  • Penn emphasizes sustainability, vintage fashion, and inclusivity in her businesses and outfits.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Maya Penn, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, philanthropist, animator, artist, and CEO of Maya's Ideas, based in Atlanta. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I'm a Gen Z environmental activist, educator, owner of a nonprofit and a film and production company, and the founder and CEO of Maya's Ideas, a sustainable fashion company.

I've worked with Fortune 500 companies, startups, and everything in between. I focus on bringing more sustainable and ethical practices to different industries, especially fashion.

I've heard people say Gen Z doesn't know how to dress for the workplace. I don't think that's true — we just do things differently.

Gen Z prioritizes self-expression, and that extends beyond their personal lives

Gen Z is challenging the standards of the business world. We want to bring our own style and personality into every space we can.

It's always been important for me to stand out, and I've always had my own style. I've never felt the need to adhere to specific trends.

Gen Z fashion is fun and quirky, and we're into self-expression. We want to show more color and creativity and be more nontraditional in our clothing. You're less likely to see us in whatever runway models are wearing and more likely to see us incorporating our favorite anime characters and other interests into how we dress.

We're also at the forefront of making fashion more accessible

My generation has pushed everyone from high fashion brands to corporate wear brands to cater to people who haven't traditionally had a voice in fashion, like people of different sizes, cultures, and other areas of diversity.

Gen Zers also feel we may have missed out on many things, so we like nostalgic aesthetics. Again, this allows us to incorporate our interests into what we wear.

Vintage fashion is important to us

Sustainability is very important to me, but I'm not alone. 40% of Gen Z and millennial consumers say that environmental impact is an extremely or very important factor when purchasing.

I've been getting into style from the 1930s and 1940s, especially vintage dresses. I love weaving thrifted clothing into my outfits when I speak at conferences or board meetings. It's disruptive and conscious: Showing where you source your workwear highlights your priorities. I recently hosted TEDWomen in Atlanta, and my outfits were mostly vintage dresses.

There are a lot of amazing vintage shops on Etsy and Instagram. I also support local thrift stores and love wearing my mom's clothing or jewelry.

I'm also really into tailoring and mending clothes and accessories to give them a new life

The most sustainable fashion is what's already in your closet. Fast-fashion clothing is designed to be worn only 10 times before it starts falling apart. I actively avoid fast-fashion labels, but if I buy new clothes, they tend to be from small, local businesses.

I usually tailor my own outfits when needed, but tailoring services are available everywhere. Having a greener wardrobe doesn't mean you need to sacrifice self-expression.

I like to play with traditional elements of corporate style but incorporate elements of my creative side

One of my favorite outfits is a power suit or blazer mixed with artsy pieces. I'm not one to shy away from color, so I might combine it with something really bright or some eclectic jewelry.

Because I also want to challenge the business world as a whole, I'm even more comfortable combining business wear with prints and jewelry from the African and Indigenous diaspora and weaving the different elements of who I am into what I wear.

I've gotten some negative responses to the way I look

Gen Z is redefining professionalism more inclusively, allowing for the expression of identities and cultural backgrounds. However, there's still a lot of progress to be made.

The only negative response that I've gotten to my look is about my natural Afro. I've received comments about this from adults since I was a child. When asked about it, I respond that yes, it's my natural hair, and I wear it this way because it's beautiful, elegant, and professional.

Most states still haven't passed The CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act, which was first signed into California law in 2019. The CROWN Act aims to protect people from discrimination about race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles — such as braids, locs, twists, and knots — in workplaces and public schools.

I don't set a dress code in my businesses

All of my businesses intersect with creative industries, and I want my employees to be able to express themselves. People in my industry tend to have colorful or eclectic ways of dress, and I don't have a problem with that.

If older generations want to dress in more traditional business attire, it's none of my business. People should be able to wear whatever they want. At the same time, by recycling fashion from past generations, we're not that far removed from their aesthetics — we just have different outlooks.

What matters to me is that my employees are professional, they do the work and meet deadlines, and they treat people around them with respect.

If they can do all that but want to come to work with pink hair and piercings, that's fine by me.

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