Meet Madison Maxey, The Fashion & Tech Whiz Who Won $100,000 To Skip College

The 22-year-old renaissance woman is building an empire.

By Sowmya Krishnamurthy

As a kid, Madison Maxey was always obsessed with how things are made. By age 16, her curiosity and determination landed her major fashion internships with Tommy Hilfiger and Nylon. It was only a matter of time before the San Diego native was hit with the entrepreneur bug. After a semester of college, she won the prestigious Thiel Fellowship (which famously awards $100,000 to prodigy and break-out thinkers) and dropped out of school. Now in her early 20s, the self-described “creative technologist” runs her own company, The Crated, out of San Francisco. She has created everything from a temperature-controlled light jacket to a wearable EKG monitor. When she’s not overseeing fashion and tech projects for the likes of Zac Posen, Google, North Face and Milk Studios, she finds time to learn new software and—yes—she even reads for leisure. She’s just finished Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

Get inspired by Madison Maxey. 

How did you become a creative technologist?

When I was pretty young, I was interested in making things. That turned to making clothes and the process. How you take different geometry, which are clothing patterns, and propel them into a shirt or pants. How do you choose materials? It wasn’t the glamour of the industry as much as the process of making a garment that I thought was fascinating.

Many young women who want to pursue fashion are more interested in the glitz and glamour, but not you.

I think often people are like, “Hey Maddy! I want to introduce you to my friend in fashion” and we won’t have much in common. [I’m thinking], “You use nylon? How about synthesizing nylon? If you synthesize your nylon, the particles will want to meet so you can make your own conductive nylon.” By then, the person’s like, “Uh. This is not what I wanted.” [Laughs].

Madison Maxey worked on the Sync shirt for her company, The Crated. It is audio responsive. Source: The Crated

So how did a young Maddy get interested in this?

A lot of it came from my father who was a deeply curious person. He also defied a lot of typical gender roles. He was an aerospace engineer but he loved making things. When my Mom was like, “Hey we should get new curtains for the house,” he’d be like, “Great. I’ll get out the sewing machine and make us some curtains.”

As a teenager, you scored some pretty cool internships including working at Tommy Hilfiger and Nylon. How did you get your foot in the door?

I had five or six internships before I applied for those. I had work experience and I had hard skills. Even as a teenager, I attended a college-level dressmaking class. I taught myself Illustrator and Photoshop. I ran a fashion blog in high school with a friend of mine. We sent letters to everyone and ended up getting invited to events at Paris Fashion Week and Bread & Butter Berlin. By the time I was applying to Tommy Hilfiger, I had done so many things beforehand.

These companies get flooded with unsolicited interns all the time. What did you say when you would e-mail them?

Tommy Hilfiger wasn’t looking for interns. I happened to find an old press list that had all the head designers’ names and emailed every single company on the press list. I heard back from like, three out of 100. That’s not a good return rate. [Laughs]. I’m saying, “Hi. My name is Maddy. Your brand is something I think is so beautiful and I would love to do Photoshop and Illustrator work for you and run errands for you. Make sure the studio runs well. Of course, I don’t expect any pay because this is fashion.” Kind of like, imagine what it could be like [if I was hired].

Madison Maxey's 'Photochromia' collection features UV-responsive garments that change in the sunlight. Source: The Crated

Most kids are worried about getting a car and prom at 16. How were you already so business-minded?

I think it was the support of my parents. I was the one like, “Mom, we need boxes of beads and cords. I have a project to make!” My mom would be like, “Write down a list of everything you need. Write down the prices. Call the store. Print out a map.” She put all these little hurdles. If I went over all the hurdles, we’d go to the store and she’d buy the things I wanted. Because of that, it’s deeply ingrained in my mind: if you want something, map it out and know that there will be hurdles. Anticipate the hurdles you possibly can and keep running and jumping until you get there.

A lot of successful entrepreneurs didn’t finish college. After a semester at Parsons School of Design, you dropped out.

I got a scholarship for college that covered one semester. As that semester was closing, it was a clear mental turning point. I really wanted to start a business. I wrote a proposal to my parents about taking a semester off, saying: This is what I’m going to do. These are my plans. My dad always told me if you want to get anything done, you have to put it in a laminated binder. They were like, “Okay you can take one semester and go back.” It just so happens, I never went back.

Madison Maxey stars in a video about an LED dress, made for Google and Zac Posen. Madison contributed the electronics. 

You got the Thiel Fellowship to run your own business. Many people think that you get $100,000 to skip college. What really happened?

It’s a lot of work. You get monthly payments. It’s like having a job in that sense. You’re responsible for serving yourself from the buffet. You really have to go for it. Something that was meaningful for me, was my dad was really sick for a period of time. He was the main breadwinner for our family. Unfortunately, he passed away the day after I got the fellowship. It was this sigh of relief that I could take care of myself. My mom, with all the things she had to deal with, wasn’t going to have to worry about if I had money.

Now, you run your own company called The Crated. Tell us about it.

It’s a design and engineering studio integrating technology and apparel. Basically, we create textile circuits. I did a project with Google and Zac Posen for example where they wanted a textile circuit you could program to be set into one of Zac’s dress designs. There aren’t many people who do this. It’s me and two other people. [Laughs]. It’s been really fascinating to build working knowledge in a space that’s been very nascent. There’s room to contribute.

There’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in tech right now. Have you faced any challenges as a young woman of color in Silicon Valley?

I acknowledge that some have had crippling experiences and don't want to negate them. Personally, though, I've really enjoyed being able to be an example of different kinds of people in technology and hopefully that can inspire others to follow their passions as well!

Maxey's climate-controlled jacket will keep you warm in the winter without the bulk! Credit: Spencer Kohn

Maxey shows off her programmable LED dress for Zac Posen & Google. Model Coco Rocha shows it off on the runway Source: Getty Images

Check out more of Madison's work! (Top Photo Credit: Spencer Kohn)

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