Q&A with Maya Madsen, founder of Maya’s Cookies

One of our co-founders, Michon Javelosa had a great conversation with Maya Madsen, the founder of Maya’s Cookies, the number one Black-owned Gourmet vegan cookie company in the country. Here’s a transcript of their convo or you can watch the interview: 

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a vegan baker?

Maya: I had no idea I was going to be a baker, I just happened to be a good home cook because I have 3 sons that are athletes and they eat me out of house and home, so early on and I realized that I had to make everything from scratch, which is all right, and I have a knack for cooking,  it makes me happy! It’s something I do to relax and share my love with people through food. So being vegan, especially 15 years ago, there just weren’t a lot of vegan desserts on the market. So I had to create my own. It turns out that other people loved the cookies that I created as well. 

Q: So Maya’s Cookies was really born out of creating this for yourself and then realizing that you had something special. 

Maya: Yes. So basically I was using my cookies and sharing them with people as gifts so that I can show them how fabulous eating plant based is. And showing them that you don’t have to miss out on anything. I was like, look at these delicious cookies and then encourage them to eat more plants. Also, 7 years ago when my eldest son entered College, I was faced with tuition and then my middle son entered College a year and a half later. And I had double tuition bills. So I had to figure out some sort of way to bring in a little bit of extra income to help pay for College. 

And, side note before the whole Black Lives Matter movement. Being the mother of 3 young Black men, College was extremely important to me because I knew what kind of a world they were about to face as young Black men. And I wanted to make sure that they had a seat at the table and knew a college education was going to help them. So, as a Mother, I was going to do anything outside of robbing a bank to make sure I could afford their college. That was my drive as well as I was trying to make sure that I could pay for their College tuition. So I started sharing with my students in my spinning classes, and I was baking up to 20 dozen a week and realized maybe I should turn this into a real official business. I took the steps to figure out how to do that. That is how Maya’s Cookies was born.

Q: What was it like when you got started? Did you have the capital? Did you bootstrap it? Did you have investors? What were the challenges? How did you get going? 

Maya: The challenges where I had no money to start with, every penny that I had extra had to go to their college tuition. Quick little side story, my son in September called me and said, Mom, I can’t get into the library because you didn’t pay my bill this month and my card isn’t swiping. I was like, “OK, don’t worry I’ll take care of it.” That’s just the reality of having kids in college at the same time and trying to provide for that. So I had $0 capital $0 start up. I opened up a credit card with a $3000.00 limit and I bought everything I needed. I started a Farmer’s market, so I used that $3000.00 credit card to buy my tent, my tables and get all my permits, that’s what cost me the most. And a banner and a kitchen rental space. The cheapest place I could find was in a vegan, macrobiotic kimchi, and sauerkraut factory. They had a kitchen that they didn’t use and they rented it to me to make my cookies. I was trying to stay within my budget, which was $0, I used that $3000.00 credit card to start my business. I didn’t have any capital.

Q: Did you have hurdles trying to find even ingredients or suppliers as you were starting or even currently?

Maya: I was really fortunate because the owner of the macrobiotic kimchi and sauerkraut factory was a woman who has been in the game for 30 years. The first thing she said to me is we need to get your cost of goods down and I’m going to help you. I’ll let you order your supplies through our supplier because we order so many thousands of dollars worth of supplies. And that’s going to help you get your costs down. So she was instrumental. I was so Lucky, but she saw my passion, I think and my drive. And I think when she saw that, she realized that I was determined to make this happen and she stepped up. 

Q: You started at Farmer’s Markets and recently opened up your first brick and mortar storefront. What was the journey of that, can you share any pivots needed or what your experience has been, especially since the pandemic started since COVID-19 came into the frame. 

Maya: Absolutely. When I first started the business, I was driven and I was a vision for myself. I wanted to be a major brand for plant based goodness across the nation. And I wanted to be an online brand, so that was my goal all along. So I went to the Farmer’s market in order to get the brand out there. We live in a tourist city, which is San Diego. So Lucky for us we get a lot of tourists here that would go to the Farmer’s Market, find my product, and then they would end up flying home and ordering online well. So we had a steady stream of online business, about 80% online and 20% farmers markets. 

So going into COVID all the farmers’ markets shut down. I laid off half of my staff and I said OK, Let’s just do whatever we can to build online. That’s all we have left. So we took it upon ourselves to send Cookie boxes to all vegan people of influence that we could think of, All the magazines, just everyone to see if they would post us or, give us a shout out and luckily for us the vegan community is so passionate and strong to help each other and the vegan community in San Diego came together to support the local vegan businesses in any way they can. So they really helped by stepping up and ordering and ramping up our orders. And then my goal of sending out to vegan companies and vegan people of influence started to pay off because they were doing the same thing. They’d say look at this brand, they sent us these delicious cookies. The product is delicious and it stands alone. They would post and our online sales started to go up to a point where we were staying afloat and I was making, you know, the same amount of revenue that I was making with the farmers markets. 

Then with the horrific death of George Floyd at the end of May and the social justice issues that came to the forefront of everyone’s minds, you know, as a person of color, as a Black woman. I’ve been living this for all my 51 years. And, you know, people are friendly listening to us and what we’ve been dealing with in society, just walk life in our shoes, that really put us on the map because people want to support Black owned businesses and our business ended up on several lists that were floating around the Internet of Black businesses to support. And because of that, on June 1st and 2nd, we got an influx of orders to the point where we went from 20-50 orders a day, to 100 orders a day, to 2,000 orders a day and that happened overnight. So with COVID we were doing OK because people shopping habits were online and the vegan community wanting to keep us from going out of business by promoting and encouraging people and then the flood of support for Black owned businesses really pushed us over the edge as far as exposure. So that really helped, but I am most proud about the fact that we were able to create jobs. We had to hire a small army of people in order to fulfil those orders. I was able to bring on a ton of College students that had lost internships due to COVID, or study abroad programs and beyond. And we were able to supply jobs for them and in our community. And they were also part of the bigger picture, which is part of that movement. You know, they were really excited about that and they wanted to help us get these orders fulfilled and also be part of it. So that was a wonderful thing that came about because of it.

Q: As you’ve shared there has been some beauty in the turmoil of the last year. You’re also doing great work in your community with women of color,  and we’d love to know more about your focus on youth and underserved communities. Is this something that you’ve always intended to weave into your business structure?

Maya: Thank you for asking. My goal all along was to pay for my Son’s College and then give back to my community. I didn’t think I was going to be able to give back to my community significantly until about 3 or 4 years from now. But because of the spike in business in June, it really put us in a position where we can give back and also help other charities. But in the meantime, I have always had a passion for preaching and teaching a plant based nutrition,

A: Because I come from an exercise and fitness background 

B: I’m African-American and knowing some of the diseases that plague our community, such as heart disease and diabetes can be cured or reversed with plant based nutrition, that was my passion. 

So I taught plant based nutrition on an occasional basis at a program called Crossroads for Women. It’s a program and halfway house for women that come out of prison and they’re living there to try to get their lives back together. These women have been eating prison food for X amount of years. So I always come in and you know, have fun and show them all the different products that were out there and substitution and bring some food in. Just teach them a plant based food and what food can do for your body and your mind, your mental health, your physical health. So that was my passion, working with those women. 

I also loved to work with young men of color to help mentor them as well. There’s a program called The Achievier Program and they’re young men that are Juniors in high school and getting ready for college. So we help them with every step of the way as far as college preparedness, basic life skills, business skills, everything that you would need to know to navigate this life as a young Black man. And this is before the Black Lives Matter gained more attention this summer. Being a Black woman, being in the Black community, being a Black person, we just know what our young men are facing. So we want to make sure that they have the tools necessary to navigate that. So they see the program, that’s what it’s all about helping them… everything from you know, if you get pulled over what you’re supposed to do, financial literacy, how to apply for loans and student loans and make sure your credit is good and all of the little life skills, just mentoring these young men. 

In addition to that, I have a passion for the animals, obviously being a vegan biz. We have a local charity called Farm Animal Refuge here in San Diego that I love to support. We work with PETA as well, and some other animal rights organizations like Humane League, and Last Chance for Animals. I’ve worked with them for years and I want to be able to do that on a larger scale, more National organizations as well. 

We just recently (meaning the Maya’s Cookies team) partnered with Detour Fancy, which is a female version of that program I mentioned where they do the same thing, but mentoring young ladies of color who are sophomores or juniors in high school. Mentoring them and getting them ready for adult life and beyond. 

Q: What are some of the favorite vegan businesses you like to support both professionally and personally? What do you feel we can do to support VegEconomy?

Maya: Well, I’ll start with my local favorite. Kula Ice Cream plant-based ice creams. They are high quality, well thought out from a science point of view as far as the textures and the flavors and all small batches. That’s my favorite ice cream right now. She also happens to produce the product here at Maya’s Cookies, so I’m a little biased, but it’s SO good, and we do sell Kula Ice Cream at our Cookie shop, but I’m telling you it’s phenomenal. 

I also love Mylk Dog Nacho Cheese, that’s another Black owned business in San Diego and they ship nationwide, and it’s my favorite, nacho cheese. I don’t feel guilty when I’m eating nachos, but those are a couple of my favorite local brands I love. 

For my outside of local or mainstream favorites one is Califia Farms. They have different kinds of oat and nut milks, and a whole line of creamers and cold brews. I love their products. I also love Miyoko’s Creamery. That’s my favorite cheese. 

As far as restaurants. Locally we have Veg’n Out here in San Diego, which is my go to. And when I’m in the L.A. area, I love going to Monty’s Good Burger, that’s my favorite burgers joint. It’s amazing. 

Gosh, there are so many products. My whole Life is plant based, so I should just open up my pantry and start naming things. 🙂 

For skin care I love LUSH products. Their soaps and lotions and I think they have switched a 100% to vegan. I know they had a couple products that were honey or beeswax, but recently listened to an interview from their founder and think they are transitioning to 100% vegan. That’s one of my favorites. But I mean, I could go on and on for an hour. 

Q: Do you have any last remarks or things that you would want to share with either a current vegan business owner or someone who’s thinking about starting a business? 

Maya: I would say number one find a mentor, that mentor, you know, that’s huge. I was lucky enough to have a mentor. And I am in touch with that mentor even to this day, when I went through the spike they were able to walk me through it and offer some savvy advice on how to get through it. Things that I hadn’t even thought of, so number one, have a mentor!

Number 2, don’t immediately give up when things don’t go your way. 

I’ve had to pivot so many different directions with this business. And you know, sometimes it gets really hard. Don’t let that stop you! My motto in life is put your big girl pants on and I get it done. Sometimes you may need to have a moment to cry or whatever your coping mechanism is, but then put your big girl or boy pats on and get it done!

Biggest thing though is having a support system, all it takes is one person. And when I say support system, you don’t need an army of people. All it takes is one person who truly believes in you and who when you’re wanting to give up, helps and gives you that pat on the back and that confidence to keep going. It just takes one person. So make sure you have that support system, even if it’s a pet!

Q: What’s the best way to experience and get Maya’s Cookies in our mouths? If not in San Diego and can’t make it to the storefront, how can people find you? 

If you can’t make it to SD to go to our store, please find us online at https://www.mayascookies.com We ship nationwide. We have a beautiful holiday tin with our holiday flavors that we’re currently selling. And a portion of the proceeds of that tin go to the 2 charities I mentioned: Detour Fancy and Farm Animal Refuge. So I promised them huge sales so that we can cut them a nice check!

Maya’s Mentions:


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