Phenomenal Woman founder Meena Harris talks to PEOPLE about the strong women in her life, who "eat 'no' for breakfast"

By Sam Gillette
January 19, 2021 08:00 AM
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Meena Harris, Kamala Harris and Maya Harris
| Credit: Meena Harris/Twitter

By July 2020, Meena Harris was "fed up" with people criticizing the women in her family — including her aunt, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — for being "too ambitious."

"It really stopped me in my tracks because I was a parent and feeling fed up," Meena, 36, tells PEOPLE, referencing the CNBC report that some of President-elect Joe Biden's allies thought the former California senator was "too ambitious" to serve as his vice president. "Are we really still doing this? Are you going to do this to my daughters and tell them, 'You're too ambitious'?"

In response, Meena wrote a children's book, Ambitious Girl, out Tuesday, which follows a young girl who learns about the challenges women continue to face, the words that are used to knock them down (i.e. "too bossy" and "too strong") and how best to overcome and reclaim them.

"I hope that girls take away from this, first and foremost, that female ambition is a good thing, it's a positive thing and it's something to be celebrated, to claim, to find power in," says Meena, a well-respected lawyer and the CEO of Phenomenal Woman. "Society tells us something entirely different. Society, and [by that I mean] patriarchal society, has made female ambition into, frankly, a dirty word, something that is used to critique women."

Credit: Little, Brown Young Readers

Meena has forged her own path as an entrepreneur and activist, but the core values that drive her were instilled in all of the Harris women by her maternal grandmother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an immigrant from India who became a leading cancer researcher and activist, who raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, to be strong, independent leaders.

"I was raised by a mother who said to me all the time, 'Kamala, you may be the first to do many things — make sure you're not the last,' " the former California senator told Good Morning America in December 2020.

Meena also learned that lesson. She tells PEOPLE that watching her own mother's journey as a young, single mom inspired her to push for excellence and face challenges head on. (Maya Harris had Meena when she was a teenager. With a young daughter in tow, Maya became a lawyer after graduating from Stanford Law School.)

"Seeing her in the world, daring to succeed when the odds were against her, so to speak, where people were betting against her and assumed that she couldn't do everything that she did while being a teenage single mom," says Meena. "In my mind, that is by definition ambitious. She proved to me that it can be done and that you can be a teenage single mom, and a woman of color trying to succeed in the world and do that. And not listen to people who tell you it can't be done or it's not for you."

The author
| Credit: Little, Brown Young Readers

Meena also felt empowered by watching the other successful women in her family.

"One of my family members says, 'I eat 'no' for breakfast,' " the mother of two explains. "People are going to tell you no. People are going to tell you that something is impossible. If we listen to them, that becomes true. It's sort of a self-fulfilling thing where they can then further point to, 'See, we never had a female Vice President, that can't be done. Our country is not ready for that.' "

Meena continues: "If you are not ambitious, if you do not believe in something bigger than what has been or what we're able to see, then not only is that not claiming your ambition, it perpetuates these systems that allow people to hold us back."

The activist's platform has become even bigger since her aunt became the Vice President-elect, but Meena says their relationship remains "unchanged."

"I talk to her all the time. We're super close. It's a special relationship. That very much is unchanged," says Meena. "I'm grateful that we have that bond. It's strong and I'm glad that it has not really been affected in any way by all the craziness."

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Long before the contentious 2020 presidential election, Meena made a name for herself as an activist when she launched Phenomenal Woman, an action campaign inspired by Maya Angelou's eponymous poem. The campaign, which she started after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, sells a line of T-shirts and sweatshirts that tout empowering statements like "Phenomenally Black", which has helped promote the mission and message of the Black Lives Matter movement, and "Latina Power." (Meena is also the author of Kamala and Maya's Big Idea, a kids' book that was published in June.)

With Phenomenal Woman, Meena wants to continue to "amplify" the work of activists, who "have been doing this work day in and day out for decades." But her biggest hope is that "people stay loud" and continue to fight for change — during the 2020 election and beyond.

"We're still in the thick of this pandemic and we've [heard of] this idea of 'going back to normal.' Normal was not working for a lot of people," she says. "We need to support our people in terms of providing a social safety net. Or, when we talk about ambitious women, supporting them in the workplace so that they can be ambitious and succeed and do all the things they do, such as be caretakers for their family."

The work is far from over to help women and "underrepresented communities," says Meena, who spoke with PEOPLE in December, before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by rioters egged on by Trump himself. (The president is awaiting an impeachment trial that will begin after Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.)

"When we have these elections, it's really the beginning of that work. There's a lot of mess that we need to dig ourselves out of," Meena explains. "But most of all, it's a real opportunity to see beyond that and to take this as an opportunity for an entirely new framework and era of politics and political engagement — especially from the perspective of underrepresented communities that, frankly, are responsible for winning a lot of these elections and deserve to be heard."