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How Meena Harris is reclaiming the word 'ambitious'

In her new children’s book, Harris drives home the message to young girls that ambition is a good thing.
Meena Harris is an American lawyer, children's book author, producer and founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign.
Meena Harris is an American lawyer, children's book author, producer and founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign.Courtesy of Meena Harris.

In 2008, Meena Harris was focused on youth-vote organizing for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign when she heard the word “ambitious” used a lot — and not in a good way.

“It was in reference to women with political aspirations,” Harris, 36, told Know Your Value. “It was said in a negative way, ‘oh you know she has political ambitions,’ to suggest someone was calculating or opportunistic, rather than celebrating a woman wanting to run for office, something which is so needed.”

“In that particular moment, I felt so fed up,” Harris recounted. “As a female, you can be ambitious, but never too ambitious.”

Harris has a lot of ambitious female relatives, including her aunt, Vice President-elect Sen. Kamala Harris, her mother Maya Harris, who served as Hillary Clinton’s senior policy advisor during her 2016 campaign, and her late grandmother Shayamala Gopalan, a civil rights activist and cancer researcher.

Meena as a child, with (from left to right) Mom Maya Harris, Grandmother Shyamala Gopalan Harris and Aunt Kamala Harris.Courtesy of Meena Harris.

“I learned at a very early age to celebrate ambition and to think that it was a good thing,” said Harris. “It’s a double standard that we’re taught to hide ambition, to diminish it, to be ashamed of it — or else we’ll be seen as power-hungry. We never say that about men.”

The Biden incident inspired Harris to reclaim the word for future generations. Her new children’s book “Ambitious Girl” stars a young girl of color who isn’t afraid to aim high. Released today, the book comes just months after Harris authored her first children’s book, the New York Times Bestseller “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea,” which is about the two women’s childhoods.

Harris wrote “Ambitious Girl” while hunkering down in San Francisco during the pandemic with her partner Nikolas Ajagu and their two young daughters. She has tried to curate diverse educational content for her kids, she said.

“A motivation for this journey was that I wasn’t seeing any Black girls or seeing our family reflected on the pages of books,” Harris said. “Diversity in children’s books has become such an important cause for me. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Meena Harris with her daughters.Courtesy of Meena Harris.

Only 12 percent of new children’s books were about Black or African characters in 2019, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Only 5.7 percent of children’s books featured at least one Black or African writer or illustrator.

In “Ambitious Girl,” illustrated by Marissa Valdez, the young protagonist sees a powerful woman on TV. Even though the public calls this woman “too persistent,” “too confident,” “too ambitious,” and more, the girl is inspired to make her own mark on the world some day.

“Let’s reframe it so that kids, and girls especially, can have the tools so they won’t let other people tear them down,” Harris said.

Harris started out by following a similar direction as her family. Growing up in Oakland as an only child, Harris said her mother and aunt treated her like a little adult.

“We never had a kiddy table,” she said. “I knew that I came from a unique family.”

She attended Stanford as an undergraduate, then Harvard, where she received a J.D.

Harris first joined her family in the public eye in 2016 when she founded the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, which brings awareness to social causes from farmworker rights to voter enfranchisement through clothing and social campaigns.

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“It was the intense moment after the 2016 election. It was the era of people having heightened awareness and engagement. People wanted to do something, anything,” Harris said. “I decided to make some T-shirts that had ‘Phenomenal Woman’ written on them to celebrate female ambition, and because that election was so focused on women. It was a small idea to raise money for women’s organizations and it took off. I’m still at it.”

Over the years, celebrities like Serena Williams, Viola Davis, and Sarah Silverman have promoted Phenomenal Woman gear.

Harris worked at a law firm and as a communications advisor on Kamala Harris’ 2016 senatorial campaign. After stints in corporate roles at Slack and Uber, Harris pivoted to work full-time on Phenomenal Woman and on children’s books.

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“I was on the same track as everyone else, but early on, I realized I was kind of different,” Harris said. “I’m the entrepreneur of the family.”

In December, Harris announced that she was building a studio called Phenomenal Productions with Funny or Die’s executive producer Brad Jenkins. The production house will benefit various causes and will focus on stories about young people of color.

Harris said that when it comes to her own ambition, she heeds the advice of her grandmother.

“I was taught that ambition gives you purpose and vision, but that it’s not going to be easy,” Harris said. “You’ll have people telling you that you’re ‘too young,’ ‘too this,’ ‘too that,’ and I saw my mom and aunt experiencing that in their professional careers. But consistent with what we were taught by my grandmother, they didn’t take no” for an answer."