Q+A with Molly Paul, Burgeoning STEM Leader + Young Entrepreneur

This week’s featured Muse, Molly Paul, is not your average high school senior. Despite her age, Molly is one of the most driven, enthused, and articulate go-getters we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Cited as an inspiration by former Muse and environmental activist Rhiannon Tomtishen, we can absolutely see why: Molly knows who she is, what she stands for, and she isn’t afraid to take initiative to make it happen, even when that means facing her fears head on. 

Molly has received numerous prestigious accolades, spoken at countless conferences and events about her conservation work, and is the proud founder of the organization Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption, which works to place abandoned pet turtles in new homes or classrooms to prevent them from invading the communities of native species. Her contribution to the Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering + Math) movement far surpasses just her impressive work and public speaking–Molly also designed and leads a summer camp in her hometown of Raleigh, NC geared towards middle school girls interested in STEM, with the goal of nurturing future STEM leaders in the community. We love Molly’s tenacity, conscious involvement, determination, compassion, and enterprising spirit! We can’t wait to see what the future holds for this incredible young woman.

The Basics

  • Age: 17
  • Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Education: Senior at Saint Mary’s School
  • Field of Interest: STEM Education, Conservation/Environmentalism, Youth Empowerment, Entrepreneurship + Gender Equality
  • What Is Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? think throughout my time in high school I have learned to not let fear stop me from accepting an opportunity, even if it feels intimidating. I think taking Honors classes and building up a tougher course load has alleviated that fear in me. I also used to be a pretty nervous public speaker during middle school and early in high school. However, over the years more opportunities presented themselves to practice my communication skills. Even though the opportunities were intimidating, I didn’t turn them down. I’ve grown a lot and am now a comfortable public speaker. For instance, I traveled with the Executive Director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to Washington, DC, to accept an award for the Museum from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Also, I facilitated a Q &A session of an international science conference with 1,700 audience members. These experiences have been opportunities to practice public speaking and build my confidence. I’ve also had the opportunity to study abroad in Australia, build homes in Cambodia, and present at an international conference in Costa Rica. Accepting these opportunities helped build my confidence as a traveler and made me realize how much I appreciate being outside of my comfort zone. Also, I’ve made a terrific network of friends with each experience. So in a lot of ways over the past few years, I have stopped letting fear get in the way of my growth and ability to follow my passions.
  • What Is Your Favorite Thing To Do For Fun? Playing with my dog, Bebe, getting a mani/pedi, and outdoor activities like hiking or kayaking with friends.
  • What Are You Currently Listening To On Repeat? The Black Keys
  • What Are You Currently Reading That You Can’t Put Down? Just To Make You Smile: A Teenage Daughter’s Reflections on Loving and Losing Her Father to ALS by Sarah Caldwell. Sarah is an inspiration to many people and her story is incredibly moving. I’m honored to call Sarah one of my best friends.

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Questions + Answers

As such an accomplished young woman in the scientific community, you’re a natural leader for the STEM movement. What is the most important thing that you’ve learned from your STEM pursuits?

First of all, thank you, but there are so many women I know who are much more accomplished than me! Their hard work and determination serves as an example for me on days when I’m feeling frustrated or impatient with my own work.

The most important lesson I’ve learned is “take the long view.”  My mentor, Dr. Emlyn Koster, director of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, shared this with me. I think especially for teenagers it is easy to get caught up in the relatively little bumps in life. When you think about the long-term, not only do those little bumps become irrelevant, but you also gain a greater sense of the meaning behind why you do the work you do. For example, developing, making, and selling Molly’s Turtle Soap is a big part of what I do as the director of RATA. When you refocus with a long-term view, it is easier to see that the point of it is less that I’m selling products and more that I’m exercising my skills as an entrepreneur and giving back to organizations that share the same values as me. The details of how much I sell on any given day take a back seat. The point of why I make them is much bigger and I think taking a long-term view helps make the sometimes nitty-gritty work of the present much more meaningful.

At 17, you’ve already founded two different charitable organizations devoted to bettering the well-being of turtles: Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption and Molly’s Turtle Soap. What do these turtles represent to you? What are the personal stories behind these organizations?

For me, Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption (RATA) has always been a local way to solve a global issue. I started RATA after adopting two red-eared sliders as pets and learning they’re an invasive species, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. They’re the most prolific turtle species in the pet trade. As babies, they’re cute to own; as they grow they can become a challenge for a variety of reasons. Many owners think they’re setting their turtle free by releasing it into a local waterway, and that’s actually a terrible idea. Some states in the US have populations of these turtles made up entirely of discarded pets. Females are capable of laying over a thousand eggs in a lifetime. I help to rehome them by connecting owners to new families and classrooms. By rehoming turtles in Raleigh (and a few cross-country), I am able to help address a global issue at a local level. I have personally fostered and rehomed over 100 turtles and have connected many more hundreds of families. This work has prevented these turtles from being released into the wild and taking over natural spaces of native species.

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Molly’s Turtle Soap came about because I’ve always wanted my own business. My grandparents taught me how to make soap and creating one in a turtle shape was a natural fit for me. It’s also a creative outlet because recipes require trial and error. Some of my most popular scents have come about from playing with ingredients in my kitchen. I expanded this brand to include a tub soak and sugar salt scrub. I sell my products locally and donate the proceeds to NC conservation organizations. So far I’ve donated nearly $19,000. Recently, I trademarked the name and I see opportunities to expand this brand which I look forward to while in college.

Why do you think it is so important for young women to pursue entrepreneurial ventures?

Simply put, the world needs more female leaders. I am constantly inspired by the strong, driven female entrepreneurs I have met. Being an entrepreneur and running your own business is something that teaches you to be smart, savvy, and, honestly, gutsy. You learn how to work with money, handle all kinds of people, and execute your vision. Even if you do not go on to run a business, these are crucial life skills you do not learn until you experience them yourself. There are countless resources for entrepreneurs if you do enough research. I was truly surprised by the level of support within the community for Molly’s Turtle Soap.

I’ve definitely had a bit of a cushion since I am young (read: I don’t need to pay the bills). For people who have the added pressures of adulthood, there’s a lot more risk involved when starting a business that will ultimately support a family. I’ve been fortunate to meet some successful women entrepreneurs who literally maxed out multiple credit cards to start a business. That takes “gutsy” to a whole new level. On the other hand, I’ve also known young women who’ve started successful businesses in monogramming and writing which required very low dollar investments, so those opportunities exist, as well. If something speaks to you, it costs nothing to do some research and have conversations about where to go with your idea.

Talking with customers at Turtlefest at Bass Lake Park

You’ve already achieved such an impressive amount for a young woman, and you haven’t even graduated from high school! Where do you see the future taking you? What is one piece of advice that you intend to use to guide you through college and beyond?

Since the age of five I have wanted to direct an aquarium, so hopefully I’ll be doing that in the future! In the shorter term I plan to attend graduate school and then hopefully go on to work for a non-profit or find other ways to be engaged in service. High school has been a great time for me to explore so many different opportunities. I’m interested in thinking about ways that helping the environment intersects with education and social justice.

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I serve on Dr. Jane Goodall’s national youth council, Roots + Shoots, and was fortunate to see her again in Costa Rica last March. She said, “Every single one of us can make a difference every single day.” She’s right, and that’s a piece of advice that I treasure. The difference doesn’t have to be monumental, the difference can be taking a water bottle with you instead of purchasing bottled water at an event. It could be a five minute conversation with one person about why it’s important to care for the planet. If all of us make small, positive differences every day then collectively we’re doing a tremendous amount of good.

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What have proven to be the biggest challenges for you in conservation and environmental work and how do you overcome these challenges on a daily basis? What guiding principles do you consistently follow in your work?

Conservation and environmental issues probably won’t ever be completely solved. On one hand that’s frustrating and challenging, on the other hand that’s the reality of the field I’ve chosen to work in. I can choose how I feel about that and if I chose to feel angry all the time I’m not sure I’d accomplish very much.

I have always had a strong work ethic. I like to get things done well – the first time. I realize that’s a tad blunt and it is the largest pressure I put on myself. One thing that guides me is keeping in mind that a lot of what I do is to pave a way for girls after me. I could name hundreds of incredible women leaders and scientists who’ve come before me and through their actions created an avenue for me to have the opportunities I’ve experienced. I want to give back and do that for future generations. For example, last year I spoke in front of 1,700 people. Admittedly, it’s intimidating but I don’t stand on stage as simply me. By virtue of being a teenage girl I am representing other girls and what I do sets an example to my peers and adults. Ultimately, being a science-oriented young woman in a pink blazer should not register as surprising on any scale. Diversity of interests, varying expressions of femininity, and virtually no gender norms are a future I hope to help facilitate by being authentically myself. I think by all of us being ourselves, we will help future generations be able to freely develop their interests in life.

There are some challenges to this work, but we all live with ups and downs and when the downs happen I choose to just keep going. I also encourage everyone to uplift those around you. When an opportunity presents itself see if there are ways to widen those to include your peers. My final guiding principle is to always send thank you notes. Purchase the nicest cards you can afford and get those in the mail promptly!  

Who Inspires You?

The women I always looked to growing up and today are Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Eugenie Clark. Some of the most inspiring women I have met along my journey are Maria Rose Belding, Sarah Caldwell, and Leanne Joyce.

+ Do you know any other young women making a difference in the STEM community? Share their stories with us, and we may feature them on BYOM!

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