At 20 years old, Madison Maxey should be finishing up her second year of college.
Instead she’s dropping out to become one of this year’s 20 Thiel fellows. The program was launched by PayPal founder Peter Thiel to give inspiring young entrepreneurs the funding ($100,000), time (two years), and mentorship needed for their creative work.
Maxey will be Thiel’s first fellow in the fashion industry. Her goal is to transform the garment manufacturing process.
“To do something that no one else is doing can be really isolating,” she tells us.
Maxey learned how to sew by the age of eight and by 16, she was entering exclusive European fashion events on VIP press passes for her popular bilingual street style blog, La Société de Mode. This eventually led to a scholarship from the CFDA and Teen Vogue.
After a semester at Parsons College of Design, however, Maxey realised that school wasn’t for her.
“I remember a teacher getting angry with me for missing class to interview with a major publication for an internship,” says Maxey. “In my mind, something that can really help you boost your network and help you enter the field should not be something you have to fight for.”
Maxey decided to draft a proposal for her parents explaining what she would do the next semester when she dropped out of school. “I told them, ‘This is what I want to do, how much it’s going to cost, how long it’s going to take, who I will ask for investment …'”
She subsequently created Madison Maxey Blazers, a New York-based start-up that uses recycled fabrics to manufacture blazers. Maxey tells us that one of the biggest lessons she learned running her own business is that rejection happens. At one point, the fashionista created buying packages for 100 targeted boutiques and didn’t hear back from any of them.
“It hurts, but you learn that you’ll be OK afterwards,” she says. “Your friends still like you. People still let you eat in their restaurants.”
She never intended for Madison Maxey Blazers to become an e-commerce site, but while interning for Enstitute and as a host at General Assembly, Maxey discovered how much technology could expand her vision.
“I ended up moving into this weird mesh between fashion and tech,” Maxey says. “I started learning to code, and switched into doing more web-based projects.”
She heard about the Thiel fellowship from her sister and immediately sought to learn more. She applied for an Under 20 Summit in New York City, which is a program for potential Fellows. Attending the summit allowed Maxey to connect with like-minded visionaries, which was enough to convince her to apply.
When she starts her fellowship this year, Maxey will explore the ways garment manufacturing can be optimised to create smarter clothing patterns with lightweight solutions. She tells us she wants to integrate efficient international practices in the U.S. to help cut costs, replace heavy machinery with necessary software, and keep manufacturing jobs here (as a teenager, Maxey learned about these practices when visiting factories in Shanghai).
“By looking at pattern-making software, we can cut down on labour and make domestic production more efficient,” she tells us. “Unfortunately, fast fashion companies aren’t going to come here unless something monumental happens. But if we can make a change in cost of production for small companies then we can compete a little more with international markets.”
Maxey, who lived in Brooklyn for the past year, is now beginning the first part of her Fellowship in San Francisco. While fellows are encouraged to live in the Bay Area to capitalise on the connections the area provides, they are free to live and work from wherever they want. For the first time since it launched in 2011, the program will provide a shared dormitory-style living space at San Francisco for Fellows in the area.
“The validation part is hard. When I say, ‘I’m on a gap year from college,’ people wonder a little,” she tells us. “But to me, I know I’m not wasting my time.”
“You have to be able to set up your own system and implement regulations upon yourself. For people who can do that, school is a hard place to be because school conflicts with that.”
Non-college options are not for everyone, but Maxey believes that kids should have the freedom to take time off if they want to do something else, and shouldn’t be told that college is the only route to success. Ultimately she has just one rule she always follows: No excuses.
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