Meena Harris is on a mission to encourage the next generation of young girls to live boldly, be unapologetic in pursuit of their dreams, and, most importantly, own their innate power. Her new book Ambitious Girl breaks down the double standards when it comes to using the term ambitious.
According to the mom of two, "We [women] have been taught you don't tell people that you're ambitious. You say, 'I'm motivated. I'm a hard worker.' It's because we are told, 'You can be ambitious, but not too ambitious. When you start to get too powerful, that makes me uncomfortable.' That's what the suggestion is."
As a two-time New York Times bestselling author, she is making strides on her own terms and building a media empire along the way. Following the 2016 election, the Harvard Law graduate launched Phenomenal with the initial concept of a one-month fundraising campaign to benefit women's organizations.
Since then, the company whose name is inspired by Maya Angelou's infamous poem, "Phenomenal Woman," has expanded to a lifestyle brand shedding light on issues, culture, and causes involving underrepresented communities. The brand's significant impact has even resonated with celebrities such as Kerry Washington, Octavia Spencer, and Lizzo, to name a few. Not to mention the organization's recent announcement of Phenomenal Productions, a full-service creative production house, which aims to create content at the intersection of culture and politics geared toward communities of color and underrepresented voting blocs.
On the brink of the success of her latest children's book, Ambitious Girl, 21Ninety spoke with the 36-year-old about leading a life of intentionality, her source of strength, misconceptions about Black working moms, and debunking the phrase women's empowerment.
Dontaira Terrell: Being a New York Times bestselling author twice is a huge accomplishment. Outside of that, what does literary success look like to you and why?
Meena Harris: Thanks for framing it that way. I'm extraordinarily grateful for all of the support that allowed me to be recognized as a number one New York Times bestselling author. But I like how you phrased that because, to me, it is not all that defines literary success. It has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life to create something so personal and means so much to me, and feels so important in terms of what I'm intending to do with it and making positive change in my small way.
It's to see people read it and to react to it. And to see kids reciting the lines in the book or calling themselves an "ambitious girl." I hear so many great stories from parents and educators about how kids react to my books. It's amazing how kids absorb all of this stuff. That, to me, is success.
DT: What is an intention that you set for yourself to live your most authentic life?
MH: I don't know if this is redundant or just taking what you said and making it my answer, but setting my intention to live my most authentic life is to be authentic and to be honest. However, I think that word authentic has come to be almost overused. What does that even mean anymore? With Instagram and being online, you're supposed to be authentic, but everybody knows that it's the best parts of your life.
But on that note, TikTok is something that I've really gotten into because I think talking about authenticity and ordinary, everyday people living their lives and seeing it has been such a great space for that.
It's hard for me not to be authentic, and not everybody's going to like that, but that's all I know how to be, and there's something very freeing about that when you're not trying to be somebody else or hiding a part of you. To me, it's key and something I don't know how else I could live without—and again, understanding that not everybody is going to like that. I have to be okay with that because that's who I am.
DT: What keeps you strong when things get difficult?
MH: I can tell you without hesitation that it is my children. Even in the last year or two, there have been so many moments where being with them, laughing with them, getting to hug them after a long, hard day, or just getting to see their unfiltered view of the world puts so much in perspective for me.
Sometimes I feel like they're little comfort puppies, which is a really special thing to have to come home to every day if you need a little self-care through a hug. Ultimately, they keep me strong. That perspective is very helpful, putting one foot in front of the other if things are hard and understanding that so much of what I do and how I view the world and my work is for them. But also in my parenting and thinking about a more equitable role they are going to grow up in. My girls guide me a lot, and they give me a lot of strength.
DT: What would you say is a major myth or misconception about working moms, especially Black mothers? And how can we continue to push the needle forward to kind of change the narrative?
MH: The biggest misconception is that we can succeed, achieve and do everything we want to do without basic support from our employers and our homes. I think this pandemic has drawn attention to that and all of us being able to see and experience it in that our lives collapsed and we're rejecting this idea of work-life balance. Whether you're in the office or at home, it's all happening all the time, all at once. Now it's the idea of going back to normal. But normal was not working for most working parents and working moms. As a result, we see this has deepened many of those inequalities and inequities in the workplaces.
Women and women of color are leaving the workplace in record numbers due to the pandemic because they cannot do it all. They cannot juggle all these things. What that is also telling us is a lot of these gender inequities exist in our homes too. We know that. These roles disproportionately fall on women. I think the big misconception is that somehow we're all just able to do this without having policies and practices in our workplaces that acknowledge that so much of this falls on women. We need to do so much more to support women in the most basic ways to set them up for success. Right now, we are setting them up for failure, literally. And that is why they are leaving the workforce in record numbers right now.
DT: We often hear the phrase "women's empowerment." It's become very buzzworthy and popular these days. But I recently read one of your Instagram posts that said you reject the term. Can you expand on your thoughts and speak more about this?
MH: The main point is that it suggests we need someone to come along and give us power. It's a societal issue going back to the double standard conversation we've been having around the word ambition. We have to address that women are often prevented from showing their power and exercising their power. To step into it, celebrate it, and wield it because of this sexist, racist society we live in.
For me, "women's empowerment" often ignores those challenges that create power and balances intended to hold women back or prevent them from exercising power. We see that, especially in workplaces and in contexts where women are trying to succeed and achieve. It's the same thing with the word ambition.