Meena Harris would (politely) like to remind you that she is “not Kamala,” though she is many other things: founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, former head of Strategy & Leadership at Uber, a lawyer, a best-selling children’s book author, and a mother to two young girls. Born in Oakland, California, into a public-service-minded matriarchal family, Harris graduated from Stanford undergraduate and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard. Most recently, she was a campaign surrogate for her aunt, Kamala Harris, and was often responsible for behind-the-scenes social-media looks into the process (“You could be president!”). Her second children’s book, Ambitious Girl, comes out this week and is already on the top-ten Amazon book list. Harris told the Cut about the importance of creating representation for her girls, the difference between a normal Zoom meeting and a “full-effort” one (which requires makeup and a shower), and dry January. Here is how she gets it done.
On a typical morning (during a global pandemic):
My older daughter, who is 4, has started this really cute tradition of drawing pictures for me in the morning and then coming in the room and leaving them on the bed. We’re all at home so I’m not walking to the coffee shop anymore like I used to, but I have this hack that I came up with for making something at home that kinda tastes like a latte. I’ve not been good at all about eating healthy or, frankly, on a regular schedule. I pretty much never eat breakfast. It’s just coffee. I usually try to put on workout clothes to sort of motivate myself and remind myself to work out if I can get a window in. That’s pretty much it and then I’m just sitting here in my little corner by a window with my makeshift office desk that is in our den and I’m just sort of hunched over my damn computer all day long so it’s very glamorous.
Things are all over the place and I’m just trying to make it all work on any given day. That being said, it is still definitely about ruthless prioritizing and time management. My Google calendar is my bible. I even have to schedule in windows that say “Do not schedule.” With building a business and juggling a lot of things it’s important to constantly evaluate how you’re prioritizing things with deadlines, with general goals and schedule management. I think we can get trapped in the do, do, do and productivity and these metrics for success, especially in the context of being an entrepreneur. A lot of it’s artificial and you get in these modes of Oh this is urgent and we have to get this done and this is a deadline we set! And I think it’s important to always step back and say: “Is this actually urgent?” I think I learned it as a corporate lawyer when I was outside counsel. Where you have this objective outside perspective. All of my clients were tech companies where for them it’s like I’m in it. Everything’s on fire! This is an emergency! It’s urgent! And we’re often like: Is it really? Let’s take a step back.
I have a lot of check-ins with different team members on a weekly basis. I’ve been in and out of the tech industry my whole life and unlike a lot of people, Zoom was very familiar to me. Even before COVID, when we were all in the office we took most of your meetings in Zoom. For me, it was figuring out what kind of effort I was willing to put in to maintain it [my schedule] without completely exhausting myself. For example, I’ve gotten very comfortable not giving a fuck about wearing makeup. Often, my hair looks crazy or I may have just done my bike for 30 minutes and I hop on a meeting and I look sweaty. During the election it was full throttle when I was doing back-to-back virtual events — for those I was getting dressed and I wasn’t looking crazy because it was an event of like 100 people! At the end of that I was so burnt out. I have to say it feels incredibly liberating to not have as much Zoom in terms of the full-effort Zoom I’ll call it.
On unexpectedly becoming a writer:
The author thing was never on my bucket list, but there’s just nothing like pouring yourself into a creative project and sharing it with the world — especially with kids. Feeling like you’re making an impact, in your own small way. So many people with the first book would say the most amazing things about kids reacting to it. Many were wowed by the fact that Maya and Kamala are real people, they’re not fictional characters.
There was a particular moment when someone called one of my family members “too ambitious” and it was amplified by the media. It sends a signal to women: This is how the world views female ambition, and as a consequence we hide it. It’s like a dirty secret. I especially found this in the political context, it was like: She’s a snake. She’s opportunistic. But then the other part is just being a mom of two young kids and just being like: Are you fucking kidding? Are you still going to be doing this shit to my kids? This is enough. So I wrote the next book imagining it as a self-affirmation book that girls would potentially be reading before bed, so then they wake up the next morning fully confident in themselves and going unbridled after their ambition.
Reading classics with my older daughter, we noticed the lack of diversity. We would color skin in with a brown marker often, very often change pronouns from “he” to “she.” We know that you can’t be what you can’t see. My daughter learns about the world through books and family. She wants to be what she sees. Both of my books center Black girls as leaders, as the main characters, the speaking characters, the one whose eyes you are seeing the world through. And it’s just as important for white children, white boys to see that. It’s just as important for my girls to believe and see and know that that can be their future as it is for boys to believe in female leadership and know that that’s a real thing to aspire to as well.
On winding down:
Usually my response would be wine. But I’m doing dry January right now. My family loves to cook so it’s not new to me, but it’s still something that I’m doing a ton more than I did before. Kamala especially is the type of person where you ask her one question [about cooking] and then she’s like, “Oh! Let me tell you …” and then you’re on the phone with her for like two hours and then she follows up via email with 16 recipes that you did not ask for and then she follows up: “Did you make it? How did it turn out? Did you do this? Did you make sure to do it this way?” That is just the culture and family I grew up in. There’s nothing better than getting all your shit ready, opening up a bottle of Chardonnay, and just cooking. That is heaven to me. Julia Child said, “I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food …”
On being a public figure:
There are those moments where it’s like: You don’t get me. You don’t know me. I also come away sometimes being like I don’t have to fuckin’ explain myself to people and then there’s a question of like: Are you operating in bad faith? I made the choice to be involved in the campaign, to engage in conversations around political issues. There are some times where I’m like I’m not fucking Kamala. I’m my own person. I may have different views than she does, and Joe does too by the way. But I think people just want to be heard. That is ultimately what that comes down to. People are looking for ways to communicate, to be heard, and I respect that, and I think it’s important to remind yourself that it’s not usually personal.