At Maker Faire, it is not unusual to meet people who spark your creativity. Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet someone who inspires you to be a better person. For me, that person was 15 year old Rajee Shah, founder of To Green and Beyond. Shah makes a variety of products, including paper bead earrings and pendant lamps, upcycled from junk mail, catalogs, and old maps. I caught up with Shah at her booth in Zone 2 of this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area.
“I started paper crafting three years ago,” said Shah. “I was in eighth grade. It wasn’t something I had much experience in; I was just looking on Pinterest for some ideas because I was feeling a little bored and I found paper beads. I started making a lot of them and found that I enjoyed doing it.” The hobby soon turned into something more. “A lot of people told me that [the beads] looked really nice and I should sell them. I figured if I was going to keep doing this, I might as well not have a lot of them stacked up at my house; I could sell them and use the money for a good cause.”
According to Shah, the idea to donate the proceeds to charity has been there from the very beginning. “When I was younger, I had birthday parties where I asked people not to give gifts, but to donate the money to charity.” As far as what inspired this generosity, “I think it’s just how my family was; I was taught that it was really important to give back to the community. I’m fortunate to be so privileged and live in a great place in which I’m able to have access to so many things and it’s important to give back to the community by helping others that might not be as fortunate.”
Shah shows no signs of slowing down. “I found something that I really love doing and I’m passionate about and decided to use it for a good cause. As of now, I’ve donated to four organizations. I started with KIVA, micro-financing to multiple people across the globe. I try to specifically donate to environmentally-friendly causes and women who are having hardships. I also support Kids and Art, which helps families who have been affected by cancer. The kids have artists who help them create various pieces of art. I sometimes volunteer there as an artist and donate earrings to them at their charity auctions so they can raise money to find cures for cancer. There’s also an organization in India called SHWAS. They find kids in underprivileged families that are unable to get an education. I donate to them and through them I am able to pay the tuition of a couple of kids there, and I try to specify that I want to help girls. Right now we pay the tuition of two girls who are in the seventh grade, and my donations cover their tuition and fees and books so that they’re able to go to school and get an education. The fourth is AAUW (American Association of University Women). Three years ago I went to a camp at Stanford called Tech Trek which is sponsored by AAUW. It’s completely scholarship based but you have to apply to get in. The point of the camp is to encourage 7th grade girls to stay in the STEM fields, because that’s the point where they tend to turn away from those fields. So I donate $850 to them every year to sponsor one girl.”
Over the past three years, Shah has managed to raise $5,000 selling her jewelry and crafts. I point out how incredible this is, especially for someone so young — and especially since she’s managed to stick with it for three years already. “I don’t think the weight ever really hits me. People tell me sometimes, but I’m not sure it registers.”
Now that the hobby has turned into a business, I ask whether her motivations have changed at all. “I still do it for fun, but I also know that I have a responsibility now and I’ve committed to people who depend on me. I can’t stop from my end even if I do start losing interest because other people would be affected as well.”
Amidst the clamor of the rest of the Faire, Shah takes a minute to sit down and make a pair of earrings. She brings her tools to the show along with a stock of beads — so when the products sell well (and they seem to be selling quite well as I talk to her) she can replenish the stock. Shah cuts jewelry wire to length, then makes precise bends to form the familiar shape of earring hoops. To these wires, she adds upcycled paper beads and decorative elements, then uses pliers to make a series of crimps and closures. It takes all of ten minutes, but it is obvious that Shah has had quite a bit of practice.
The booth is deceptively simple; a couple of folding tables and a framed sign explaining where the money will be donated. “I really enjoy when people understand what I’m doing. I think it’s important that other people help the world as well.”