Even Meena Harris—a Harvard grad who held lofty positions at Uber, Slack and Facebook before launching her own social action campaign—has had her moments of weakness.
Take, for instance, the time she was attempting to fix something in her home and it just…wasn't working. So, at the height of frustration, she did something we've all done before: Turned to her partner Nik Ajagu and surrendered. It would stay broken forever and that was that.
Except, well, it wasn't. Because her toddler wouldn't stand for such negativity. "She was like, ‘We don't give up in our family,'" Meena recalls to E! News. "I was like, ‘Oh gosh, that's right. I forgot we talked about that.'"
And it's true. Defeat isn't in her DNA. Growing up, Meena was raised by three real-life versions of Wonder Woman: Late Grandma Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a leading cancer researcher, Mom Maya Harris, a senior policy advisor to Hillary Clinton, and Aunt Kamala Harris, the vice president of the United States. So yeah, giving up simply isn't a thing she does.
After all, her entire life she's had a front row seat to what chasing your dreams looks like, regardless of the cards you're dealt. Born when her mom was just 17, Meena, now 36, was right by Maya's side as she put herself through undergrad at UC Berkeley and then Stanford Law. On days Maya didn't have childcare, Meena tagged along. Weekends? Those were spent in the office—together.
"We have this concept of work-life balance, that if you're mixing the two or they overlap, that's not a good thing," she muses, especially today as parents everywhere are just barely keeping it together amid the global coronavirus pandemic, "but the fact is, it was actually really important for me growing up to see that."
Indeed, witnessing the experiences of the "strong, powerful, ambitious" women in her life helped set the stage for her own career—and her hunger to push for more. In 2016, on the heels of the presidential election and the worldwide women's marches, the Uber exec bet on herself and launched Phenomenal, a social justice empire that brings awareness to underrepresented communities. "I felt this jolt of wanting to use my platform, my voice, my creative skills to do whatever I could to be a part of what we were seeing," she explains, "which ultimately was this historic moment of women really rising up."
A moment to be celebrated—and one that proves the power of women who are persistent, assertive and confident. All personality descriptors men bear proudly, but women know all too well can quickly (and unfairly) translate into being nagging, pushy or controlling.
With men, says Meena, "it's like, ‘He's a go getter. He's about business. He doesn't mess around.'" But when it comes to women, she continues, "It's not the same and we need to acknowledge that. We as a society tell women how to be and exist in the world, which is the idea of, ‘You can be ambitious but not too ambitious. Stay in your lane.'"
So, she's charting a new course with her second children's book Ambitious Girl, which follows a tiny protagonist on a journey to reclaim her worth. Because, despite it being 2021, women are still told their personalities are too…something. Meena herself could go through the alphabet with words that have been hurled her way: Ambitious, bossy, competitive, direct...
"That's just more empowering," she declares. "Go ahead, continue to tell me all the things that I'm too good at." Because the louder she is with her accomplishments, with enacting change, the louder future generations will be. "Reclaim the power in these words," she advises. "We're talking about changing culture and creating a more equitable society."
And that change doesn't start at the Women's March or a trip to the polls. It starts at home, with the messages you're promoting, the books on your shelves, the shows on your screens. After all, her 4-year-old Amara already knows that giving up is not an option. And these lessons aren't just critical for young girls.
"When we think about how impressionable young children are, how these cultural signals and messages start so young, that's when we really have an opportunity to make lasting change that ultimately leads to good men," she says. "It's about empathy and compassion. These are basic values that I think, as parents we all want our kids to be. It's about being good people."
And, listen, she knows that sounds utterly exhausting—"It's hard enough to get food on the table or bathe your children amongst all the other things we're all trying to do every day"—but we're here for the marathon, not the sprint.
With her own daughters Amara and Leela, 3, she does her best to balance the encouragement with a dose of reality, preparing them to confidently enter a world that will challenge them just because they are women, just because they are Black.
"They're very young but trying to introduce racism and the fact that they may be told by someone powerful or the government that they are not allowed to say certain things that they feel, we're contextualizing it in terms of free speech: 'You have an opinion, and somebody tells you that you can't speak because of the color of your skin, how does that make you feel?'" she shares. "I think it's really important to connect these issues in a way that is tangible and concrete for them to understand."
Getting ahead of it is also key, not just waiting for children to ask questions or experience racism or sexism themselves. So, when the author of Kamala and Maya's Big Idea noticed a lack of representation in kids' books, she changed stories' pronouns from he to she and took a brown marker to color the characters' skin to represent families like theirs. And when Amara noted her curly hair was "different" than her preschool classmates, Meena surrounded her daughter with images of people who have hair similar to hers, explaining that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.
"Part of it is being open to having those conversations or initiating them when the moment arises and not putting it off until it's a much more serious experience," she tells E!. The other part, she notes, is being honest: "We live in a world that still has a lot of systemic issues around oppressing people from communities that historically have not been in power."
Now she finds herself repeating some of her own childhood lessons from Shyamala, Maya and Kamala: Nothing is going to be handed to you, but if you work for something, no one can stop you if you don't let them.
"That goes to conversations around privilege and entitlement, finding your place in the world and understanding that you have power to carve your own space," she says. "You will likely encounter challenges, including people that get in your way and tell you no or tell you that you're too ambitious or that you have some ambition that can't be done because it's never been done before." For her girls, it's about helping them understand that this is the world we live in and preparing them "to confront that, to transcend and to persevere."
And for those looking for an extra jolt, she'll leave you with these words from her late grandmother: "No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And while each of us cannot possibly save the world on our own, we still have power to do our part in whatever way, and no matter how small."
Like we said, Wonder Woman.
This story was originally published on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 at 2 p.m. PT.