We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."
Meena Harris may be the niece of vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, but the 35-year-old has a lengthy resumé all her own. Throughout college, she worked multiple jobs as an outlet for her entrepreneurial spirit. After Harvard Law School, she took on a stint in corporate law, and while she was clerking, she designed and sold her first popular T-shirt. Several years later, she founded Phenomenal, a lifestyle brand that brings awareness to social causes, and has collaborated with pretty much every big-name, female celebrity you can think of.
Here's how she got there.
TMRW: How did your family influence your career path?
Meena Harris: When I was younger, I just felt that I would become a lawyer. It was like the path of least resistance because I'm surrounded by lawyers. I had this incredible front-row seat to my mom and aunt and the work they were doing, and I had a lot of reverence for it. I think I knew I could do good in the world. Despite the fact that I grew up in this family of lawyers, I was never pressured to do what they did. Most importantly, I was told, "You can do and be anything," but it was made clear, "You have to pursue excellence."
When did you decide to take an entrepreneurial turn?
As a kid, I always had a job. Fast forward to college, I had, like, seven jobs. This is when the entrepreneur stuff really came out. I was making earrings and then selling them in different dorms and at local boutiques. I was an art kid, too, and I feel like that's been the tension of my life up until I started Phenomenal. Deep inside, I have this creative passion.
Post-college, it was a series of just checking those boxes, going to law school, clerking and then going to a law firm. I now realize I can't turn this part of my brain off, and while I was clerking, I made this shirt that famously and very provocatively said, "I'm an entrepreneur, b----."
It was really about being inspired by other female entrepreneurs and that community. What's wild is this was back in 2012. I was a corporate lawyer that had this silly shirt.
And that was the beginning of Phenomenal?
Yeah, it took off in its own way. It was something I was doing on nights and weekends out of my living room. By the time the (2016) election came around, I wasn't new to the T-shirt game.
I sent this text to my family thread, and I was like, "Oh, my God. What if I put 'Phenomenal Woman' on a shirt? How awesome would that be? The Women's March is coming up. What's my favorite poem by Maya Angelou?" My mom was like, "Meena, do you really have time to handle another T-shirt? You're already a maniac. You have a really busy full-time job."
I remember doing a T-shirt and thinking, "Oh, my God. It's so cool. Tyra Banks is into it. I wonder if this is my dream, to be an entrepreneur." Even though I was still insecure about calling myself that or didn't understand what exactly my business was.
How did you decide to pursue Phenomenal — and entrepreneurship — full time?
I hadn't gotten it totally right yet. I look at that as phase one, and then Phenomenal Woman, I got it right. It was a moment where I was like, "Oh, my God. I have to run to this thing," in a way that my instincts were telling me was not the case for the "entrepreneur" one.
What ultimately determined my decision is financial stability. (In that first phase) I was very early in my legal career, but I kept it up on the side. Not everything is worth quitting your job for.
How have you been able to balance so many projects at once, especially now as a mom of two?
I definitely think I'm one of those weird people that thrives off it. One of the things, though, that I have learned, especially in recent years, that burnout is real. Actively check in with yourself. Do you feel burnt out? Are you on the brink of exhaustion? Does your brain feel cloudy? Self-care wherever you can! Sometimes I can't go to yoga, but I can go lie down on my bed for 10 minutes because I'm that tired.
And I really have learned the value of creating white space to let myself be creative. I hate to give a self-care tip that's like, "Oh, it's good to do mental health, and it gives you more ideas to do your business." But that's how I operate, and it's mutually beneficial, right?
Also related to that is taking your time to problem solve, not rushing things that don't need to be. For the most part, I've learned to slow down and understand the most amazing thing about being an entrepreneur is that you're in control.
What advice do you have for people considering an entrepreneurial path?
A critical early lesson for me was get advice from everyone. Test your product and ideas and seek feedback, but ultimately make the decision for yourself, and go with your gut and your instincts.
Embrace the process, and come to it as a student wanting to really learn. Take stock instead of just constantly doing, doing, doing. We can be spinning our wheels and putting a lot of stuff out, but is this actually aligned with whatever North Star you've established for your business?
I'm always looking for ways to be efficient and super ruthless with my time. With a family and kids in the mix, and I'm like, do I really need to go to this thing? If I don't go, is it gonna really hurt me?
How would you recommend getting started?
I look back on that period of doing, "I'm an entrepreneur, b----," and I was immersing myself in a new space, becoming curious, learning about other businesses and entrepreneurs, and looking at it as an opportunity to really learn a space that I didn't feel a part of.
If you're able to figure out within yourself, "Wow, I'm really passionate about this thing," there's ways to explore and get that education through doing. Part of the process is proving it to yourself, and it's hard. It may not translate to other people, in part because what you're doing is new. Maybe it's something they've never seen before, and their immediate reaction is, "Oh, that's weird," or, "That's never going to work out."
That's part of being an entrepreneur. It sounds so corny, but keep at it. You don't know where it will lead you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.