Being a mom to twin girls, I’m constantly wondering how I can teach them what it means to be a strong, self-assured woman in today’s world. I work hard to model these through my own behavior and by surrounding ourselves with women who embody these characteristics as well. But I also realize that what we’re doing at home is just one piece of a much bigger story. It’s essential that we encourage the world around us to transform as well, and that’s why I’m thrilled to have Meena Harris here to share how she channeled her passion into Phenomenal and into writing children’s books like Ambitious Girl that invite us all to explore the challenges faced by women and girls and how we can reclaim the words meant to knock us down. I hope you find our conversation resourceful and that you’ll leave a few of your own ideas for raising ambitious girls in the comments below!
Nina Westbrook — I’ve heard you’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit! Tell us about Phenomenal and what compelled you to launch the Phenomenal Woman campaign. Was there an ah-ha moment when you knew it was time to dive in?
Meena Harris — It’s funny, because I come from this family of public-interest lawyers. So none of us are quite sure where this entrepreneurial streak came from. But I’ve always been a creative at heart — and my mom, and this entire community of women who raised me, always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.
So even though my journey — from politics to big law to tech — has been a bit more traditional, when I took this leap and became a full-time entrepreneur, it sort of felt like coming full circle.
In terms of launching Phenomenal, there wasn’t really a single “a-ha moment” so much as this steadily increasing gravitational pull: I just had to be in this space, doing this work. It was 2017, and — like a lot of people living through this time of heightened of activism and engagement — I found myself wondering what I personally could do to lift up women, make our voices heard, and support issues I cared about.
So I started small — in fact, I could hardly have started smaller! — making just a handful of t-shirts for that first Women’s March. Over four years later, to my great surprise, Phenomenal has grown into a female-driven media brand and creative agency that centers underrepresented communities. It’s been the most incredible journey.
NW — You released a book entitled Ambitious Girl which, as a mom to twin girls, I was thrilled to see! What was that process like and what do you do daily to ensure you’re raising two ambitious young women?
Meena Harris — I’ll be honest: writing a kids’ book was never on my bucket list. More than anything, it was something I did out of frustration — after I got fed up with having to grab a brown marker or switch up pronouns just to introduce some diversity into the books I was reading with my daughters. I’m sure you can relate!
With Ambitious Girl in particular, I was getting tired of seeing the media treat the word “ambition” like it was a valid critique of women running for office. That’s not a message I wanted my daughters to hear. But I realized pretty quickly that if they were going to see that reflected in the stories we were reading together, I’d have to write those stories myself.
Turning that frustration into action wasn’t just cathartic for me; it’s also opened this whole new way of connecting with parents and kids who believe in the same values and hold the same hopes for a brighter, more inclusive future.
In terms of how this takes expression day-to-day, I think one of the best things you can do is just be honest with your kids. Because kids are smart and perceptive, and I think they often pick up more than we realize. Even if it’s just by osmosis. And they’re dealing with all kinds of complex thoughts and feelings all the time.
NW — You’ve mentioned that language has power and I see that Ambitious Girl is focused on reframing and redefining words that have been used to knock women down. What can we all do to avoid the ‘too this’ and ‘too that’ language that doesn’t support the ambitious girl narrative?
Meena Harris — Obviously we have a lot of work to do across the board — by which I mean as a society, not just as individuals. But the most important and formative work absolutely starts at home, where we as parents, caregivers, and educators can take some of that language that’s so often used to tear girls down, and reframe it as a positive statement about power and agency.
One of the most critical things we can do is also one of the most straightforward: avoid negatively using words that we know are unfairly used to critique women, such as “loud.” And try not to use those words in such a way that suggests some sort of character flaw.
It’s the difference between “You’re loud!” and “Let’s not scream at the dinner table.” If that seems like a subtle distinction, think about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of each of those statements.
A little mindfulness, a little awareness of the meaning behind what we’re saying and how it’ll be perceived by an impressionable, curious mind, can make a powerful difference.
NW — In addition to bringing home books like Ambitious Girl, do you have a few tips for parents who are trying to discuss diversity and representation with their own children at home?
Meena Harris – With all of the obvious caveats about keeping things as understandable and age-appropriate as possible, one of the best things you can do is just be direct with your kids about the hard questions, while validating their insights and feelings. That builds a certain confidence that’s perhaps deeper than simply lifting them up with words. Which is, of course, also important.
For example: in my experience, you can’t adequately explain to a 2-year-old why beauty standards are largely based on long, straight-haired white women — or why she should be proud of her curly, Black natural hair, even though it might not be appreciated by others. But you can explain that everyone’s hair is different. You can describe how some people spend a lot of time and effort to make their hair look exactly like hers. And you can surround that child with images and messages that expand notions of who and what we consider to be beautiful.