Activist, entrepreneur, technology leader and mother—Meena Harris is the embodiment of the Phenomenal Woman


Activist, entrepreneur, technology leader and mother—Meena Harris is the embodiment of the Phenomenal Woman

Being surrounded by strong women role models shaped her life

By Meenakshi Iyer  September 16th, 2019

It’s tough to keep up with Meena Harris, not just in conversation but also on her numerous achievements. As a young student of the arts at Stanford, Harris did many odd jobs, from tutoring to babysitting to even selling handmade earrings. She then went on to study law at Harvard, was a part of Barack Obama’s 2007 presidential campaign, and worked with tech giants like Slack and Uber. She’s also the founder of the empowerment initiative Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign—all while mothering two beautiful daughters under the age of four. In short, she’s always been a hustler. And this gene has been passed down by an admirable lineage—she is the niece of presidential favourite Kamala Harris and the daughter of Hillary Clinton’s advisor Maya Harris. Her grandmother Shyamala Harris was a cancer researcher and a civil rights activist. In a telephonic interview with ELLE, Harris tells us how being surrounded by strong women role models has helped shape her work and life. 

 

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ELLE: How did the Phenomenal Woman campaign come about? 

Meena Harris: For a lot of women, the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election was challenging and depressing. While going to the Women’s March that followed, I was thinking about the heroes who came before us—those who paved the way and created the path we are on now. I thought about Maya Angelou, who wrote Phenomenal Woman, one of my favourite poems. I also thought about my mother, who has been working towards creating an equal space for women for many years. So, through the campaign, I wanted to honour them and also recognise that ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they just speak up and show up. 

ELLE: The message resonated with a lot of women, especially those belonging to underrepresented spaces like technology and politics. And there could not have been a better time for a platform like this to bring women together. How do you go about choosing your causes? 

MH: Phenomenal Woman came into mass consciousness during the Women’s March, and it centres around the conversation on intersectional feminism. There is no “one size fits all” solution to all the issues that affect women. For instance, one of the issues that we are passionate about is equal pay. In the US, Equal Pay Day is in April, and it symbolises just how far in the year most women must work to earn what men earned the previous year—four extra months. But black women don’t reach equal pay until August, and for Latinas it is the end of November. This means that they have to work an entire extra year just to catch up. We are also doing an LGBTQ campaign either this year or next for transgender women. An unprecedented number of black trans women have been murdered this year. These are issues that affect families and communities as a whole. It’s not just women’s issues, and we want other people to talk about it. 

 

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ELLE: What are the two things that men can do to make this world a better place for women? 

MH: The first is being committed to helping women. You have to show up and consistently engage with the cause. The second is to create spaces for women. It’s not just about giving up your seat or ceding power. It’s about creating power for everyone. 

ELLE: You grew up surrounded by strong role models like your grandmother, mother and aunt. What was your childhood like? 

MH: I often joke about this, but I remember my childhood like the opening scene of Wonder Woman, where all these incredibly powerful women are fighting for each other and supporting each other. I think my grandmother was very thoughtful about instilling certain core values in all of us: she gave us a progressive perspective on social justice. She was one of the most courageous and formidable women I have ever known. During her time, it was incredibly brave of her to leave her home in India and come to the US to study. She was supposed to get her degree and go back, but she decided to stay and immerse herself in the civil rights movement. 

 

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ELLE: You exemplify all the qualities that your grandmother has passed on. And you’re creating a similar legacy for your two daughters. What is your dream for them?

MH: That they get to do anything they want, and thrive at it. Part of this means that if they want to study STEM or hold a technical job, they should be able to overcome the gender bias and discrimination we currently have in those spaces. I hope that as society progresses in terms of pay equality and putting women in positions of leadership and power, there will be space for them to not only do whatever they want, but also do it successfully. 

ELLE: What do you do when you’re not working? 

MH: I love simple things: going to the coffee shop, date nights with my partner, and having easy days with our kids. 

 

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ELLE: What is your hope for America in 2020? 

MH: Given what is going on in the US right now—especially the climate of racism and white supremacy—I hope that we can be honest about that history and ultimately come out of it having made some sort of progress. The other thing that gives me hope is Gen Z. I am so impressed by so many young activists and entrepreneurs. They are our future leaders. 

Photographs: Thomas Whiteside (Meena Harris), Instagram.