Meena Harris didn’t plan on creating a movement—it just happened. Even using the “M” word to describe the popularity of the Phenomenal Woman T-shirts she makes causes her to pause. “It has really grown into what some call a movement, which makes me uncomfortable, because I never really set out to do that,” says Harris, founder and CEO of philanthropic lifestyle brand, Phenomenal. “I was thinking about how we continue to use our platform as a way to engage mass audiences around really critical issues, especially those that affect underrepresented communities.” Movement or not, Harris's platform boasts a wide reach. Phenomenal shirts frequently pop up on Instagram feeds, worn by celebrities, prominent social figures, and everyday women calling attention to the causes that matter to them most.
In the three and half years since Harris left her corporate tech lawyer background to become a full-time entrepreneur, Phenomenal has become much more than a T-shirt company. The brand partners with organizations and uses its messaging to create community engagement around Equal Pay Day and other major issues like voting, sexual assault, immigration, and female empowerment. And it’s been incredibly successful. “Phenomenally Indigenous,” “Phenomenally Black,” and “Phenomenally Asian” are just a handful of the brand’s equally successful offshoots.
As an entrepreneurial success story, Harris hopes that other company owners see the benefits of making activism a part of their business models too. Because, as she explains, “Not only is [activism] a good thing to do and the right thing to do, but it's good for your bottom line, and it's good for society.” It’s hard to argue with that, which is why we asked Harris to share her thoughts on the business of activism, taking risks, overcoming obstacles, and why she wanted to do good things with Phenomenal.
Meena on Launching Phenomenal to Do Good:
I had friends who were going to the 2017 Women's March. I couldn't go because I had a newborn, but I wanted to be a part of it in some way. They wore the shirts and got lots of positive comments. On the first day when we launched [Phenomenal], which was on International Women's Day during Women's History Month, we sold way more than I ever could've expected. We sold 2,500 shirts. I thought we would sell 50 if I hassled enough people. I thought, What if we host a fundraiser? Which many people were doing and continue to do for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. I thought, Let's use the shirts to raise money for women's organizations.
Meena On Leaping Into Full-Time Entrepreneurship
[Phenomenal] was never supposed to be much of anything. It was a very small idea that came out of the 2016 election. As somebody who was involved in politics and who was civically engaged, I woke up after election night thinking I was celebrating our first female president, and something much different happened. The next day, I woke up with a fighting spirit. There was such a focus during the election on women. The headlines were, "Are women going to show up?" And people were talking about the Women's March. That was something that I thought could be my contribution. I've always had that entrepreneurial spirit and creativity in me, but it took this moment to really unlock that. But because I was on such a traditional path, I lacked the confidence to take the leap and call myself an entrepreneur… In some ways, it was to give myself that confidence.
Meena on Paving the Way For New Activists:
I have to say, I was definitely kind of a purist earlier on around hashtag activism. What are you really doing? What the hell does a T-shirt mean? This process of building the company and starting off with that one shirt really allowed me to see that that is actually incredibly important, and it's something that should be celebrated, especially for people who may have never done this stuff before. For many of them, they are engaging for the first time in their lives. I look at it as sort of this gateway drug, like an engagement ladder where one day I have you wearing the T-shirt, and then hopefully in a year, maybe you are knocking on doors or you're doing more. I saw how people were engaging with it and in such a small but concrete way, and how it was really speaking to them. I started thinking about how to keep using that as a tool to raise awareness around different issues.
Meena on Trusting Herself:
Some of my most significant obstacles have been myself and getting to a place where I was finally willing to take the leap and go all in. I incrementally did this. I said, I'm going to launch this thing, then quit my job because it was just so overwhelming. But in the back of my head, I was like, At the end of the year or next year, I'll probably go back to tech. I wasn't like, This is it. I'm going to take the leap. Even though I did leave my job, it was still in the back of my head. I still didn't have that full confidence to just say, I can do this myself. It's scary. It is risky. It is a big deal, but as I've allowed myself to incrementally expose myself to it, there's no question that this is what I should be doing.
Meena on the Business of Activism:
As a business, we ask ourselves, Are we talking about these issues? Are we promoting them in a way that is actually aligned with the work in such a way that it's furthering that work? So why shouldn't [big commercial brands] build business in the exact same way? What if they actually tied every single product to a social justice message or a charity component? That's what I'm challenging myself to do. And, ultimately, if we grow as big as I think we can, I want to challenge everybody to think about that. You have enormous power in not only being a profitable company, but also a platform.
Meena on the Power of Partnerships:
I think that in order to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to drink your own Kool-Aid and think, I have a crazy idea and I'm the first one to come up with it. I'm going to change the world. You're probably not the first person to come up with that idea. You may be the first person to do it better or improve on what's already out there, but I think in terms of values, it goes to collaboration, partnership, and thinking about your platform as something that, yes, can be profitable, but also can be powerful. What is the responsibility that you have in building something like that to lift up other people in a way that absolutely can benefit your business? If you lead with those values, no matter what you do, I think that it’ll leave a pretty good outcome.