Oh, how times have changed.
Meena Harris recalls her entrepreneurial role models back in 2013: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. “There were not a lot of women, definitely not a lot of Black women,” she says. “Thankfully we had Oprah, but we needed a lot more Oprah’s.”
Meena channeled this observation in the first T-shirt she ever sold, which read, “I’m an entrepreneur, bitch,” a play on the business card of one of her former employers, Mark Zuckerberg: “I’m CEO, Bitch.”
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The shirt was only meant to raise money for an advocacy campaign that Meena was working on after hours to her law career. But when supermodel Tyra Banks was photographed wearing the shirt at a tech conference and T-shirt sales subsequently blew up, Meena realized she had tapped into something bigger, more meaningful than her original cause: a movement to empower ambitious women everywhere.
Law unto herself: from Lawyer to Full-time Entrepreneur
A Harvard Law graduate, Meena spent her early career following in the footsteps of her mother and aunt, Maya and Kamala Harris—both hugely successful public-interest lawyers. Her mother, Maya, a civil rights lawyer and public policy advocate; her aunt, Kamala, attorney general-turned-senator-turned-Vice President of the United States. Advancing social change and empowering women is in her DNA.
And though Meena discovered a traditional law career wasn’t for her, entrepreneurship wasn’t necessarily on her radar, either. She just didn’t grow up seeing it.
"I had these incredible female role models growing up," Meena says. "Nevertheless, they were mainly within the space of the law, social justice, and public service. And although that had an important impact on me and really informed who I am, my choice to go to law school, for example, I didn't really have any models for business and being an entrepreneur."
"There are a multitude of ways that we can tap into our own passions and purpose and contribute in a meaningful way...for me, learning that I can do that through entrepreneurship has been freeing."
The jump from legal counsel to founder was a big one. Like many entrepreneurs, Meena started her business, Phenomenal, as a side project, while still working as a senior policy manager at Slack. It was 2016 and Trump had just taken office. Again, she turned to creative outlets to make a statement and to remind her fellow women that they mattered—despite the backwards rhetoric at the time. Inspired by her favorite Maya Angelou poem, Meena decided to print tees that read "Phenomenal Woman."
She didn’t expect for the shirts to sell—they were simply her way of making a statement during a particularly frustrating moment in history for women. Her plan was to sell a few hundred “Phenomenal Woman” shirts to her friends and celebrities in her network, and donate the proceeds to non-profits like Emerge America, EMILY’s List, Essie Justice Group, Girls Who Code, and Planned Parenthood. This "little" side project ended up selling 10,000 shirts in mere days.
This was a pivotal moment for Meena—she realized she could still raise awareness about important social causes and drive change outside the realm of legal policy.
"There are a multitude of ways that we can tap into our own passions and purpose and contribute in a meaningful way," Meena says. "And that's a far better way to do it, in your own mold versus somebody else's. For me, it was learning that I can do that through entrepreneurship and that has been very illuminating and freeing for me, honestly."
Later in 2016, Meena quit her daytime job to pursue her true passion: bringing awareness to causes through creative, accessible messages, rather than the legal path she thought was an inevitability.
Building a brand around building people up
Since launching Phenomenal full-time, Meena has rolled out apparel lines that bring awareness to various causes and social injustices, with net proceeds benefiting non-profit partners. The products all have one thing in common: building people up. “Phenomenal Mother"; "Phenomenally Human"; “Phenomenally Black.” These are just a few of the T-shirts that Phenomenal has sold in recent years.
And they’ve all gone viral thanks to Meena’s knack for social media and influencer marketing. Celebrities like Issa Rae, Olivia Wilde, and Padma Lakshmi have posted selfies wearing the “Phenomenal Woman” shirt; and Regina King accepted her Emmy Award wearing Phenomenal’s “Justice for Breonna” shirt.
She has what seems like an innate understanding of the impact of trends and culture on marketing—her 800,000+ Instagram followers would likely agree.<
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Evolving with the times
Times have changed and Meena is acutely aware of her company’s need to evolve.
A more socially-aligned administration presents new challenges for Phenomenal—along with new opportunities. “How do we keep people engaged in issue advocacy and caring about what's happening in the world when we don't have somebody to focus on who is literally targeting and attacking communities?” Meena asks.
For this, she’s thinking beyond apparel.
“We've done a lot around products and apparel, but at the core we really think of ourselves as a 360-degree media company. We've proven out our ability to do creative things at the intersection of product and content—now we are looking to expand even further our work in the content and community space.”
In 2020, she launched her first children’s book, Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea, about two girls of color empowering their community to effect positive social change. And earlier this year she released her second children’s book, Ambitious Girl, in hopes of normalizing and encouraging women’s ambition.
Late last year, she teamed up with Funny Or Die’s Brad Jenkins to launch Phenomenal Productions, a full-service creative production house that creates content focused on communities of color and underrepresented voting blocs.
Phenomenal also has eyes set on a more mainstream audience thanks to partnerships with Netflix, such as a series of swag for hit young adult shows like ‘Bridgerton’ and ‘To All the Boys.’ Both shows were created by women of color, and feature a bi-racial love story at the center of their plots.
Meena remains sensitive to the fact that so much injustice still needs to be addressed. She recently turned some of her attention to highlighting the racial disparity in vaccine distribution. "We are going to be doing more work around the vaccine and this public health crisis that we are still living through and thinking about," Meena says. "We have this influential platform that's all about creating accessible content for people to engage in about what's happening in the world, from the perspective in particular of underrepresented communities."
The world needs more women entrepreneurs
That first T-shirt Meena sold, "I’m an entrepreneur, bitch," bears special meaning, and not just because it’s what spurred her own entrepreneurial journey. The T-shirt shed a light on the unique challenges and hurdles women entrepreneurs have to face—an issue that hits close to home for Meena.
It’s no secret that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women business owners, many of whom have had to permanently shut down their businesses to take on family and caregiving responsibilities. There’s also the persisten fact that gender bias in funding negatively impacts women and their outcomes.
Even for the women entrepreneurs who "make it," Meena says they’re still perceived and treated differently by society.
I don’t think we allow women entrepreneurs to make mistakes and to fail.
"The best entrepreneurs are problem solvers and people who are able to fail and learn and iterate and innovate off of that. But I don’t think we allow women entrepreneurs to make mistakes and to fail as we should be," Meena says. "And when we don’t, we’re excluding them from opportunity."
Startup history is filled with stories of founders making big, public mistakes and successfully turning a fresh page to start over. But can we say the same about women founders? "We won't make any progress in terms of equity, representation, and access if we don't change the culture around how we view women who dare to be ambitious,” Meena says. "There is an inclination to slap women down, to say, ‘You can be ambitious, but not too ambitious. Stay in your little box.'"
From shirts to children’s books and partnerships that champion under-represented voices in media, Meena ultimately hopes for Phenomenal to raise awareness of the unique challenges of ambitious women.