Meena Harris is the founder and CEO of Phenomenal.
Meena Harris is the founder and CEO of Phenomenal, an organization launched in 2016 that works to bring awareness to intersectional social causes. Before launching Phenomenal, Meena graduated from Harvard Law School in 2012 and worked as a Judicial Law Clerk in the D.C. Court of Appeals. In 2016 —while launching Phenomenal as a side hustle— she moved back to San Francisco and worked as a Senior Policy Manager at Slack for a year before heading to Uber where she was Head of Strategy.
The t-shirt that started it all, an ode to Maya
Angelou's iconic poem "Phenomenal Woman."
Meena started Phenomenal, or rather Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, in the aftermath of the election that put Trump in office. Phenomenal has spearheaded countless campaigns both to counteract the sexism, racism, and misogyny spurred by the current US administration, and to bring awareness to many different causes and organizations. They have partnered with nine different organizations, including Justice for Migrant Women, Native Voices Rising and TGI Justice.
The Harris women are truly a force to be reckoned with. In addition to founding and leading Phenomenal, Meena Harris is a lawyer and children’s book author. Her aunt, Kamala Harris (#forthepeople) needs little in the way of introduction, she is the future (and first woman) VP of the United States. Maya Harris, Meena’s mom and Kamala’s younger sister, is a lawyer and political analyst who served as a senior policy advisor for Hillary Clinton and who is currently campaigning for her sister (be sure to catch her on Instagram live for amazing conversations featuring leaders like Rep. Ayanna Pressley, actor Yara Shahidi, and more!)
"Kamala and Maya's Big Idea" and "Ambitious Girl"
In June of this year, Meena released Kamala and Maya's Big Idea, her first children's book that teaches kids that if you're willing to fight with everything you've got, no dream is too big. And just last week, Meena announced that her second children's book, Ambitious Girl, is going to be published early next year.
I had the privilege and honor of speaking with Meena and asking her about everything from starting Phenomenal, the obstacles she had to overcome, and the influence (and significance) of powerful women in her life.
You started Phenomenal after the 2016 election, I wanted to start by asking what inspired you to become a social entrepreneur? And how did the idea of action campaigns come about?
When I started it I didn’t really think about a campaign or an action campaign or anything like that. I think for me, I was raised in what I call a social justice family, or activist family, where I was taught from a very young age that I had both the power and responsibility to do good in the world, whatever that looked like and no matter how small. Coming out of the 2016 election, like a lot of people, I felt like I had the responsibility to do my part– and frankly I felt a little bit of regret that I didn’t do enough before the election. I think like a lot of folks I thought I can’t sit on the sidelines. For example, right after the Muslim ban, which I think was in January or February (and one of the first things Trump did), people were hosting fundraisers for the ACLU. So likewise I wanted to raise money for women’s organizations, part of that grew out of the women’s march and obviously the election which had such an intense focus on women. A lot of the headlines after the election were like “Are women going to fight back?”, “Are women going to step up?” or “When are women going to break the glass ceiling?” So for me, I always derived a lot of inspiration from the poem “Phenomenal woman” by Maya Angelou, and it was really just me doing something that felt good for me and my friends. I printed out some t-shirts and we used them for the women's march. And the rest kind of grew from there... We decided to make it into a fundraising campaign, it was only supposed to last a month, but we far exceeded our goal and decided that we wanted to keep it going, and we kept it going... It obviously turned into something different and much more than that original t-shirt, we are almost coming up on four years.
What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome when starting Phenomenal?
I think the hurdles in part were juggling what was a very rapidly growing side hustle while having a demanding full-time job, having babies and living life at the same time. (It’s sort of a classic nights and weekends entrepreneur story.) I think, related to that, also, just figuring out what I was doing. I knew that I wanted to grow it. I knew that I was clearly on to something, but it was definitely a long and pretty rigorous process of learning, mistakes, and just continuously challenging myself to be able to answer with clarity ‘what is this thing?’ So I think those were sort of general challenges, I’m trying to think back… a lot of it was just juggling, you know, when something is growing so quickly you want to seize that momentum, so it was trying to find that balance. But then also having to rapidly learn things like checking inventory and fulfillment, scaling what we were doing — in a space that I had some experience in, I had a t-shirt before this, but on a much smaller scale, so there was a lot of learning an entirely new space that I had very limited exposure to.
Meena and her aunt Kamala, (or as Phenomenal's merch says: "Vice President Auntie")
Both your Mom, Maya, and your Aunt, Kamala, are such amazing inspirations to women everywhere. I wanted to ask you about the influence/significance of such strong female role models in your life.
They are everything in my life. I think I owe who I am to all of the strong women in my life. I grew up in a very unique way in that they are who raised me, I was raised in basically an all female family, so those values around feminism and strong women were all I really knew growing up. I now realize not only how unique that was, but also how lucky I am to have had that and to understand how formative it was for me, and now to think about how to carry that forward with my own kids — while recognizing that their circumstances are different, it's not an all women household anymore, we let some men in along the way, but thinking about how I still pass on those values and lessons to them nevertheless. It’s definitely something that’s been hugely influential and formative for me.
Meena talking about the importance of strong women in her life
How would you like Phenomenal to evolve?
I think, like any brand, we want to deepen our community engagement, and grow our community of women through continuing to promote uplifting educational messages and raising awareness around issues. Our mission is to raise awareness around issues that affect underrepresented communities, so growing that, deepening that work, is what we are already doing and what I want to keep doing.
Some of the beautiful Phenomenal shirts (as I write this I'm wearing my Latina Power shirt).
How did the collaboration with the WNBA come about?
I’m trying to remember how that even came about… I guess it was, in part, through my friendship with Sue Bird and Megan, her partner. I have for a long time, as you know, cared about women’s equity in lots of different spaces and I guess it was just my own interests specifically around equity for women in sports. In some ways inspired by my friendship, getting to know Sue, and looking at the WNBA and thinking this is feminism, I thought what if we could flip the script and change the narrative around how we as a society view the WNBA, which is to assume that it’s not as valuable or interesting as the NBA? I think that’s something that has always been in my mind and as I got to know Sue, appreciate her activism and see her on her own journey of using her own voice more and more, it felt like it was something that we could be more supportive of and amplify. So we started with an op-ed, we launched Phenomenal Media for the first time and we launched it with an Op-ed by Sue and Nneka Ogwumike (who is the president of the WNBA players association)… oh I guess that's another thing that inspired it, which is that Nneka, as the president having negotiated one of the biggest collective bargaining agreements in WNBA history. We already know that women, Black women in particular, lead these movements and the WNBA is no stranger to activism. I thought about how we could amplify their work and support them, so it started off with this op ed and it grew into this bigger partnership where we launched our Justice for Breonna Taylor campaign and partnered with the WNBA in their dedicating their 2020 season to social justice
The WNBA x Phenomenal collaboration (the WNBA players are wearing their
Phenomenal "Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor" shirts).
Do you have any advice to pass along to fellow entrepreneurs?
For a lot of ambitious young people, for entrepreneurs especially, we tend to leave a lot of doors open, and while I think that’s good and is aligned with exploring your passions, at a certain point you have to start closing doors (& just because you close a door for whatever moment doesn’t mean that that door can’t be reopened). I think that was definitely something that I have done, and it’s something that I thought a lot about as a young lawyer, new in my career, and just figuring out what I wanted to do -- and part of it was that I needed to leave those doors open because nothing I was doing was speaking to me. I was still exploring… but at a certain point you can't do every single thing at the same time, so I think there’s another lesson in there which is just because you close a door for whatever moment doesn’t mean that that door can’t be reopened. But I think it goes to the point of focusing and dedication, the pursuit of excellence at whatever you do.