She named her fashion company for a 1978 Maya Angelou poem. Founded in 2017, Phenomenal is an organization that brings awareness to a myriad of social causes, including educational excellence, healthcare equity, criminal justice reform, gender pay gap, gender parity in STEM, reproductive health, and political representation. High-profile celebrities like Serena Williams, Jessica Alba, Mark Ruffalo, Tracee Ellis Ross, Debbie Allen, Van Jones, Lizzo and Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards have been ambassadors for the campaign. Phenomenal has also been featured in People Magazine, Vogue, Inc., Photobook Magazine and the New York Times. In June 2020, Harris released her first book from HarperCollins, entitled Kamala and Maya's Big Idea, based on the story of her mother, Maya Harris, and aunt, Kamala Harris, the 49th Vice President of the United States. Most recently, Harris transitioned into the entertainment space with the launch of Phenomenal Productions, where the company will focus on content and partnerships that center women and historically marginalized communities.
Let's start with why you founded the Phenomenal Women campaign. What inspired it? How did you get started?
I launched Phenomenal coming out of the 2016 election. I felt a lot of grief and sadness. But I also woke up the next day feeling ready to fight and thinking about what I could do. I hadn't imagined the campaign would make such a big impact or that I'd still be doing it years later. It was originally only supposed to be a one-month fundraiser.
The concept came together because “Phenomenal Woman”, the poem by Maya Angelou, has always been super meaningful to me, and I'd previously had a side hustle making t-shirts. My goal was to make a shirt and raise money for women's organizations throughout Women's History Month. We launched it on March 8, International Women's Day. On the first day, I thought we would sell like a couple of 100 shirts, but we ended up selling 2,500. We had put something out into the world that was speaking to people. I easily could have gone back to my regular life, proud that we'd far exceeded our fundraising goal, but instead I thought, how do we keep it going?
I easily could have gone back to my regular life, proud that we'd far exceeded our fundraising goal, but instead I thought, how do we keep it going?
What does it mean to be a phenomenal woman?
I think the original meaning, is that you are bold and you are yourself and you show up in the world with intention and purpose. But I love that it now means so many different things to different people on different days. I've had people tell me that they had to crush a deadline, and they put the shirt on to get through their all-nighter. I've had lots of women wear it going into labor or leaving the hospital. Others have worn it under a sweater for a big meeting at work. The clothing gave them a sense of armor.
When we first launched, the most amazing part was seeing people boldly wearing their shirts to declare themselves "phenomenal"; and have others comment and affirm they were. It was beautiful. And it goes to show the power of something small but concrete. It's really amazing to see how something so basic is universal. It’s a reminder that women are powerful. Women are phenomenal, which we all know, but I think we can do a lot more to remind ourselves and society.
What was the inspiration behind the book Kamala and Maya's Big Idea?
It's a childhood story about two strong girls, my mom, Maya and her sister, my Aunt Kamala. It's about how to come up with an idea that solves a problem for your community. I don't want to give away the plot completely, but it's fundamental lessons that I was taught as a kid, things my mom and aunt showed me about how each of us can make positive change in the world.
In many ways, some of the original inspiration for the book came from reading kids' books with my firstborn and not seeing her represented in the characters. We were reading a lot of the classics and using a brown marker to color the skin. I'll never forget when Nick and I were looking at preschools. We were doing a tour, and everybody had gone on to the next room, yet Nick stayed behind and went through all the books looking for black characters. We've made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go.
As an activist, how do you maintain your optimism? How do you keep the fight going?
It is hard. It can be overwhelming, so it is important to take care of yourself. I'm still working on getting better at that. I think a lot about the Audrey Lorde quote, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."
You can't pour from an empty cup and how we refill varies. When I am exhausted or burned out, I try to clear my calendar for the next day and just kind of sit with it. Because frankly, that's part of the process. It often feels like two steps forward, one step back, but you have to keep your eye on the ball, play the long game, and understand that this is continuous work.
People often feel paralyzed by the enormity of what needs to be done to drive social justice. So they do nothing. What's your advice?
Start with the one thing that is within your reach. I started with t-shirts because I already had some expertise in making t-shirts. When we did a campaign around families separated at the border, we celebrated the courage of mothers risking everything to give their kids a better life. I found it really inspiring when regular moms all across the country were jolted by that and decided they couldn't sit by any longer. They collected shoes, backpacks, clothing and other needed supplies. Those mothers said I have to do something, anything - and they did it. They made a huge difference.
It goes to show the power of something small but concrete. It's really amazing to see how something so basic is universal.
What role does collaboration play in activism and building a brand platform?
Collaboration has been a central guiding principle for us. If somebody else is already doing that work we use our platform to amplify what they're doing, elevate what they're doing, and help fundraise for it. We figure out how to work with them. In activism and community organizing, many folks have been doing this work for generations. They are the experts. We use our platform and our brand to support their work.
What do you think it will take to have a strong, competent woman running the country the next go around?
I think it takes voting for women. Women are electable when you elect them. Women are electable when you support and donate to their campaigns. I don't have an easier answer. We live in a sexist world and we have to tackle the bias within ourselves. We often put the onus on everyone else who's voting, but there are women who we assume will vote in their own interests who don't.
When you grow up with ingrained ideas of what leadership looks like, you can get scared because you think a new image of leadership it's not possible. Some people vote out of fear because we don't have an example. Women’s leadership is not just aspirational, though. We know it can be done. We're seeing female governors and mayors and others who have been handling leadership positions phenomenally.