Why Phenomenal Entrepreneur Meena Harris Wrote a Children's Book About Giving A Damn
When's the last time you read a book to your kid that actually had a character that looks like your kid in it? For me, the answer is pretty much never. Like many parents, I find myself making adjustments as I read to better reflect the world: changing pronouns from "he" to "she" or "they"; adjusting stereotypes ("mother was at home getting supper ready while waiting for father to come home from a long day of work" seriously?); and trying to instill in my daughters that people can be a family even if they don't look alike. In spite of my best efforts, my bookshelves in no way reflect the diversity of the world and they barely scratch the surface of being a mindful, community-oriented human.
Anjelika Temple here, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Brit + Co, mom to two half-Indian half-British girls, and avid seeker-outer of diverse kid literature. In today's edition of Creative Crushin', I'm thrilled to share the story of Meena Harris, who is seeking to change the landscape of children's books, one big idea at a time.
Sign of the times. Zoom interview instead of grabbing coffee together.
Founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, Meena is an activist, lawyer, mother, and now, a children's book author. Equally devoted to power suits and soft AF athleisure, Meena also happens to be a style icon. Her t-shirts, sweatshirts, and apparel have donned countless political figures, forward-thinking celebrities, WFH enthusiasts, and most recently, essential farmworkers.
Like so many of us, Meena also found herself frustrated with the lack of representation found in children's books. Add to that a passion for social justice and community organizing, her family's activist history, and poof, a book was born. Read on for what inspired Meena to write Kamala and Maya's Big Idea, her advice for starting something from the ground up, and why cooking is her favorite form of self-care.
Anjelika Temple: First off, root us in what roots you. Where did you grow up? What did you want to be when you were little?
Meena Harris: I was born and raised in the Bay Area, in Oakland. Growing up, I always wanted to be a lawyer, because I was surrounded by lawyers. My mom and aunt were both lawyers, and such influential figures for me — I saw the incredible work that they were doing in terms of social justice, public service and public interest through their work. I was also inspired by my grandmother, who was in the civil rights movement, and all of her friends, many of whom were lawyers fighting for racial justice. This responsibility to fight for your community and to protect your community has stuck with me.
I also knew early on growing up that I was very creative. I was entrepreneurial but I was sort of different than my mom and aunt. So while I did end up going to law school, Phenomenal is where I've fully realized my creative and entrepreneurial side that, until now, I had kind of put to the side.
AT: I love the whole ethos of Kamala and Maya's Big Idea. Tell me more about the inception of your book and what inspired you to write it.
MH: Similar to launching Phenomenal, it was never on my roadmap or on my bucket list. I never, ever thought that I was going to be an author or, for that matter, a kid's book author. I was raised in a household that was always talking about social justice and activism and how each of us in our individual ways can do our part and step up and, to be corny, make the world a better place. I spent the last three years talking to women asking what can I do? How can I do more? And that's what this book is about. It's that each of us can play a role. Each of us has a role to play and can do our part.
The second piece of it was the moment of becoming a mother myself and one, appreciating that little kids really learn about the world, especially before preschool, is through books. It's through parents, family, community and through books. I was reading all of the kind of classics and other new books to my kids and was finding myself replacing the pronouns ("he" with "she") and coloring the skin brown because there's still a lack of diversity. It was interesting to become a new mom when I did, because it coincided with this proliferation of all this feminist kids lit, which was really wonderful and needed, like Rebel Girls and Rad Women. But I also found myself looking for stories with meaningfully developed characters, fictional characters that look like my girls and stories they can imagine themselves in. There's a study that shows that In 2018 there were as many books with animals as main characters as there were books with Black, Latinx, Asian, or Native main characters combined. So finally I was like, "I'll just write the shit. I'll write the damn book myself cause I'm not seeing it."
I've been very happy to be able to follow in the footsteps of people who have been pioneers in many ways of putting out more feminist and women-focused children's literature, but we still have such a long way to go. We see it in every industry that there are these norms that I think we really need to disrupt.
AT: Now, getting to the visual side of it, I know you collaborated with artist Ana Ramirez. Tell me a little bit more about that process.
MH: Similar to what inspired the book to begin with, I was very intentional and specific about wanting to have a woman of color illustrator. Ana is amazing. She did visual development for the Pixar film Coco which is actually a favorite of my kids. Coco, of course, was one of these incredible films that was about underrepresented characters and really bringing out the beauty of Mexican culture and just so visually gorgeous with all the florals. Colorful, vibrant, and that's my style. Ana's work also reminds me of Jamaican artwork with the combo of very high contrast and bright colors, and I was drawn to that.
AT: Given that kids' books are for kids and grownups, how do you hope your book will make people feel? What's the short mission of the book?
MH: I think it's about giving something to parents to think about. How you raise your kids with that spirit and with that intention around whatever you want to call it: giving a damn, wanting to help your community, social justice, social activism. It's so basic in terms of the lessons there. And I think the real mission is showing that whether it's through a kids' book or a dinner table conversation or what you are showing to your kids, talking about social issues has to be a real commitment and something that you're really thoughtful about.
The flip side of that is that it shouldn't just be a kids' book, but that's me doing my small part. So I hope to encourage parents in that way. Back to the basics of the idea that you can start small, you can start anywhere, it just takes waking up and deciding that you're going to take that first step, that you're going to go for it.
AT: You've got two little ones, a day job, a phenomenal side hustle, and now you're an author. How do you reset? What does that even look like for you now and normally?
MH: The work itself is what makes me feel centered and happy and sustained and I mean, it can be very tough, tiring work but it's something that really fills me up and keeps me going. In terms of how I reset or practice self-care, sometimes it's just realizing that I need to put stuff down and let go a little bit and be present.
I always say that if you're doing something with your hands where you literally cannot be on your phone, then that's the best way of reset. I've been able to really do that more through cooking, which has been something that's not only a stress reliever, but I also just love cooking. It's something that, again back to growing up, was very central and prominent in my household -- laughter, humor, good food, and social justice. It's sort of the way I would describe it. So getting to cook for my family and try out new recipes, that's brought me a lot of joy.
AT: I'd love to quickly shift gears to your company, which is more like a movement. Tell us about how Phenomenal started, and the mission behind it.
MH: It was never supposed to be anything. It was never supposed to be a business. It was certainly never supposed to be a movement. I always say that I still feel a little uncomfortable when people say that cause that was never the goal... I didn't set out to do that. I think that's kind of the lesson in it. I started off with a very small idea, very modest idea to sell Phenomenal Woman t-shirts to benefit women's organizations. It was coming out of the 2016 election where a lot of people felt sort of like, "What just happened? What can I do? How do I, in my own space, my own sphere of influence, make an impact no matter how small?"
Phenomenal Woman has always been a favorite poem of mine by Maya Angelou so I decided to make t-shirts for friends to wear at the Women's March. The images they sent back, marching in the shirts and wearing them in front of the capital, floored me.
How could I stop there? And so we decided to launch a campaign for Women's History Month. I expected that we would sell a couple hundred shirts if I bugged family and friends, and we ended up selling 2,500 shirts on the very first day, which was not expected at all. And again, I felt like how can I stop? I could have said, "All right, we far exceeded our goal. I'm done. I've done my one month fundraising campaign." But as an entrepreneur, and as a community organizer, I wanted to figure out how to do more. How can we get to the next month and just keep going?
And that's how I built it. Month by month, and then that December I said "Okay, I'm going to go back to my regular life. I'm going to go back to my job, back into tech." And I literally just couldn't get away from it. And it's still growing. So here we are. I didn't think I would still be talking about it now, over three years later.
AT: What are some recent Phenomenal shirts and campaigns our readers should know about?
MH: My north star is supposed to be that we're doing cause-based, messaging based campaigns. But sometimes I'm like, "I want to put this on a sweatshirt and I'm going to put it out there." I've been doing more of that lately. And part of that's just me being creative. The most recent campaign-based one we did was Phenomenal Farmworker. We launched a campaign during this pandemic to draw attention to the fact that farm workers are essential. They are literally categorized as essential by the government, but are not treated that way and are not protected as an essential worker. So drawing attention to that while also celebrating them and the incredible contributions that they make to our economy and to our everyday lives.
The other more relevant one that we re-engaged recently is Phenomenally Asian. We launched a campaign to raise awareness around the anti-Asian racism that we're seeing unfortunately as a result of this public health crisis. We did a Phenomenal Mother campaign last year to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis at the border. It was all about honoring and celebrating the mothers who were risking everything coming to this country for a better life. And also the fact that we are seeing so many mothers around the country who are stepping up saying, "I can't stand by and let this happen and I'm going to get involved and I'm going to provide aid and help to those families." Which was really incredible. We worked with Families Belong Together for that one. We're working with Justice for Migrant Women from the phenomenal farm workers. But then as I said, we've also just been having fun. We just did a Per My Last Email sweatshirt, because we're all working from home.
AT: And now to the advice part of the interview, what are your words of wisdom for people who are starting anything on their own? Whether it's their first t-shirt, they want to write a book, they're making a big career change, what advice can you share?
MH: Figure out what your goal is; your north star. Figure out what you are building, what your number one goal is and every single step that you take should be in service of that and building towards that. The moment that you stop doing that, you need to be careful about being distracted.
Second, you should be constantly iterating, constantly testing, constantly improving. Sometimes it's hard when you have a really good idea in your own mind, or this passion, and you're working really hard at it and it's not quite working out, to be able to kind of step back and say, "All right, maybe I should change something about this. Maybe I can be doing this in a better way." So you need to be flexible, nimble, and willing to pivot.
The third thing is constantly seeking feedback and not underestimating the value of your peers at providing feedback and mentorship. I think especially with mentorship, we have this concept that a mentor has to be somebody who's senior to you or superior in some way or that they've accomplished something that you are aspiring to, versus looking around you. Some of the best advice and learning and mentorship that I've received as a female founder, as an entrepreneur, has been from other founders who are on the same journey.
AT: Where and when can we read Kamala and Maya's Big Idea?
MH: It's coming out on June 2nd! We have a pre-order campaign with local bookstores across the country. Knowing the value and importance of bookstores to communities, we launched it well before the pandemic hit, but now it's needed more than ever. We have so many independent bookstores that are really struggling to stay afloat and online orders mean a ton to them. So I'm really proud that we have 25 pre-order partners across the country. I can't wait to share it with the world, whether virtual or in person.
We also have a printable activity book that we just released for parents at home around helping kids to develop their big ideas. We included letters in there for thanking hospital workers, frontline workers to show kids how they can get involved and support their community right away.
Fake laughs always lead to real laughs, even virtually ;)
Consider us completely inspired, and excited to add a new book to our kids' bookshelves. Be sure to follow @meena + @phenomenal on Instagram, and head to PhenomenalGirl.com to pre-order your copy of Kamala and Maya's Big Idea from one of many independent bookstores!
For more stories of brilliant trailblazers, head to the Creative Crushin' archive.