Meena harris In 2016, Meena Harris started designing statement T-shirts that quite literally made a statement. Her most famous one read “Phenomenal Woman,” quoting a Maya Angelou poem. Harris, who is also the niece of Kamala Harris, saw the T-shirt as political tool—not to promote her aunt, but to celebrate underrepresented women. The brand quickly became a full-fledged company called Phenomenal Media, which has partnered with HBO, Amazon Prime, and Netflix for apparel and events.
In the past year, Harris has expanded from apparel, and launched a book club as well as several media partnerships. Phenomenal Media served as coproducer for two Broadways shows, and acquired women’s humor website Reductress.
Harris is also the New York Times bestselling author of four children’s books. Today, she’s announcing the start of new publishing partnership with the Hachette Book Group: Phenomenal Media Books, which will acquire, edit, and produce books from underrepresented voices in several genres for children and adults, in collaboration with Grand Central Publishing and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Harris chatted with Fast Company exclusively about the launch of the new imprint. (The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Fast Company: How did Phenomenal Media go from a T-shirt to a book imprint in the past six years?
Meena Harris: In the first four years of our business, people really came to know and love us as an apparel brand. But the truth is that we’ve never seen ourselves as an apparel brand. We are and have always been building towards a 360-degree media company—and one that is inspired and driven by our mission, which is to center women and historically excluded communities. A year ago, we took a big step in formally announcing our expansion into content and entertainment.
Everything we do comes back to our mission of centering women and underrepresented communities. It’s really about using any media. In our early days, I considered apparel and T-shirts to be a form of distributing media: You’re literally wearing it on your chest.
FC: Why a book imprint?
MH: It’s about continuing and building on our thesis as a 360-degree media company. But so much of it is also informed by my own personal experience as a new author, who came into what is still a predominantly white publishing industry. I’m still getting to publish books and learn on the job, but I certainly could have used more institutional support as a first-time author. And I say this recognizing that I was also hugely privileged. I have an informal network of support from friends who are authors, and I have representation from one of the top talent agencies. Underrepresented authors don’t often have that support. But everyone deserves it, not just a privileged few.
The publishing industry is still predominantly white. There’s a report that found 95% of American fiction books published before 2018 were written by white people. The industry itself is 76% white.
We’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s been slow. And we want to see more of that. We want to tell all of our stories, not just one story, across fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books.
FC: What specific support do you envision offering underrepresented authors that they don’t currently receive?
MH: That’s a great question. As an author, I myself have yet to work with a team of color. Obviously, having a team that reflects your unique experiences and understands you and your story is important. I also think that if we’re talking about changing the entire industry, it needs to be in the industry itself and not just authors. A white or predominantly white team can be just as supportive, but they need to have a commitment to diversity and understanding the unique needs and circumstances of a debut, particularly for a woman of color who has never navigated this before.
It’s a very old and entrenched industry. I’m on my fourth book and I’m still learning every day. I’ve heard stories from debut women of color—you can’t just let people in, and then say good luck, and expect them to succeed. I think that’s where we can have an impact as an institution, by creating this support instead of women having to build it for themselves. The specific needs vary, whether it’s using social media to market a book, or tips on how to look professional during media interviews. I’ve been asked for tips on what color makeup to wear for a Zoom interview. So the goal is to provide that strategy, for getting these books out in the world.
FC: We’re also living in a scary time for publishers, given the number of censorship and book-banning laws. What do you see as the role of publishers in this landscape?
MH: We’re in an unprecedented political environment. We have a lot of basic work to do as people are passing book-banning legislation. It’s really important to continue to publish those works, and give authors the support they need. The second part is related to being an advocate against this horrific silencing and really racist efforts to turn back a lot of the progress we’ve made. Last week, they banned AP Black History in Florida. The publishing industry has incredible power and a big microphone. The work we’re doing and our mission is more important than ever before, especially when those authors that are still just trying to get access are now under attack.
FC: We’re living in an exciting but scary time for women: on one hand, Kamala Harris is vice president. On the other hand, Roe v. Wade was rolled back. What is your message to young women navigating this landscape?
MH: It is hard, it is scary, and it is unprecedented. We have to keep fighting. Take the time you need to rest and take care of yourself, but we have to keep our eye on the ball. This work happens over generations and it can feel defeating—it does feel like two steps forward and one step backwards, or even one step forward and two steps back.
I also would say that I’m hopeful. During the midterm elections, we saw young people voting in record numbers, alongside folks and communities that always show up in record numbers—including Black woman. That really gives me hope. I think it goes back to understanding the power of storytelling and books, as a way that we can move people and audiences, and expose them to experiences that lead to a better world for all of us.