Meena Harris, Building That Brand


Meena Harris, a lawyer and former tech executive, used to make statement T-shirts as a side job. Her most famous read, simply, “Phenomenal Woman.” (Perhaps you saw it on Instagram, worn by celebrities including Serena Williams, Lizzo, Ciara, Viola Davis, Laverne Cox and Eva Longoria.)

She also made hats for the “Phenomenal Mother” and sweatshirts for the “Phenomenal Voter.” All benefited various charities.

But during a summer of mass protests against racism and injustice, Ms. Harris’s apparel took on new resonance. Naomi Campbell wore a “Phenomenally Black” T-shirt for a high-end fashion event in July. Regina King accepted her lead actress Emmy in September wearing a shirt by Ms. Harris, with an illustration of Breonna Taylor and the words “Say Her Name.”

Ms. Harris’s passion project became her full-time job; she left her role as head of strategy and leadership at Uber to run her own company, called Phenomenal. She also picked up another side-gig — one that brought her more visibility than any prestigious job that came before it: campaign surrogate for her aunt, Kamala Harris, now the vice president-elect.

“I look at her as another figure in history and someone to be celebrated,” she said of her aunt — for example, with a holiday sweatshirt reading “Deck the halls with smart, strong women, Kamala-la-la-la-la-la-la.”

It’s the “keep talking” part of it that Ms. Harris has been considering herself lately.

“I think this is going to be a big question for us next year. When we don’t have the constant drama and attacks that are coming out of the administration, how do we keep people engaged in a meaningful way?” she said. “Not just the people that have been doing this work, and will continue doing this work, and are literally doing it all day every day. But regular folks.”

Communicating serious messages through a medium like apparel is tricky. Tone is paramount. Nuance can be lost. There’s only so much room on a tee.

“Just because a bunch of people liked it doesn’t mean that you should go put it on a T-shirt and sell it,” Ms. Harris said, of ideas she knew would be popular but messy.

Not everything sold by Phenomenal has a social justice message. Addressing work-from-home culture, Ms. Harris released sweatshirts in 2020 that read “Can everyone mute please?” She’s also sold pieces without phrases, like a one-piece swimsuit printed with Sonia Sotomayor’s face. Proceeds from these more general items are donated to a spread of nonprofits, rather than to a specific cause or organization.

One of those nonprofits is Essie Justice Group, an organization for women with incarcerated loved ones. Gina Clayton-Johnson, the group’s founder and executive director, said working with Phenomenal has relieved some of the overwhelming pressure to fund-raise.

“My team needs to be writing policy, running healing circles and organizing outside jails and prisons. They don’t need to be setting up chairs at a fund-raiser, or putting cute little sequins in envelopes,” Ms. Clayton-Johnson said.

On a phone call in August, the day after making her Democratic National Convention debut, Ms. Harris described herself as happy but “running on fumes.” She’d spent that night “drinking wine in a furry bathrobe” while watching the videos and speeches, she said.

During a conversation a few months later, the election was over but the holidays were approaching, and Ms. Harris’s partner Nikolas Ajagu, who works as an executive at Facebook, had just told her that letters to Santa from their two daughters (ages 2 and 4) had gone missing. There was a pile of laundry on the couch and the house was a “mess,” she said, using an expletive.

Because of her work with Phenomenal, Ms. Harris already had a robust following before her aunt became Joe Biden’s running mate in August. But starting that month, she began gaining followers on Twitter and Instagram in droves.

Accordingly, she has faced more criticism, trolling and general scrutiny for actions associated with her family. One recurring topic is Prop 22, a California ballot measure approved by voters in November, allowing companies like Uber to continue classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than as employees.

Ms. Harris’s stepfather is the top lawyer at Uber, which spent millions trying to pass the measure. (Her aunt strongly opposed it.) Ms. Harris was dragged into the fight as well because of her former job at Uber. In November — after the election — she decided to make it clear that she voted against Prop 22.

“I think it’s a very simple thing,” she said. “I’m very lucky to be in a family of a bunch of successful people who are doing a lot of different things. There’s interesting dynamics around that, but I’m my own person with my own views and my own platform and my own aspirations.

“Sure, you can be curious about somebody’s relationship with their family, or how their communications around these things are,” she said. But at the same time, she noted, “I’m not an elected official. I’m not formally accountable as a public servant, and I think sometimes, people do kind of treat you that way if you have a public profile.” (She later added: “It’s weird to talk about yourself as having a public profile.”)

When she talked about her decision to leave Uber in June, Ms. Harris used phrases like “breaking away” and “liberating myself.” For years, she’d felt like she was on a “treadmill of checking prestige boxes” — elite schooling, a law degree, a high-powered tech career, a treadmill powered by the ambition of her first-generation immigrant family.

Still, that ambition was fairly contained to the worlds of law and activism, “which of course, are core to who I am and how I view everything,” she said.

“No one in my family, other than me, has a business-minded bone in their bodies. I was not exposed to that at all,” Ms. Harris said. (Her stepfather didn’t take a job in the corporate world until 2014.) The idea of entrepreneurship? “That was just totally foreign.”

Now, she’s on a new treadmill. “I just didn’t really know the path to getting there,” she said.



Source link Nytimes.com

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