How Meena Harris’s Family History Shaped Her Future

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The producer, author, and niece of Vice President Kamala Harris on her upbringing and her newest project.

She might be the niece of the Vice President of the United States, but that hasn’t stopped Meena Harris from becoming hugely successful in her own right. At just 37 years old, Harris has held more careers than most of us will in a lifetime: She’s been a lawyer, the head of strategy and leadership at Uber, she’s authored multiple children’s books, she started a fashion company turned social justice platform, and now she’s even got her own production company. 

At this stage in her career, Harris is focusing all of her efforts on empowering women. It’s a cause close to her heart; her mother Maya had Meena when she was a teenager, and as a single parent Maya raised Harris with the help of her mother Shyamala, a biomedical scientist, and her sister Kamala. When Harris was young, she watched her mother graduate from U.C. Berkley and then Stanford Law School. “I had a front-row seat to her whole life,” Harris tells KCM. 

The influence of the strong women who raised her is evident in Harris’s latest project called In Her Element, a short documentary film in which Harris interviews three female leaders who have achieved remarkable success in the tech industry: Laura Escudé, a live show programmer and designer who specializes in music technology; Susie Wolff, a former professional racecar driver turned electric vehicle racing CEO; and Aisha Bowe, a rocket scientist and CEO of STEMBoard, an engineering solutions company. We spoke with Harris about the new film, how her upbringing influenced her career decisions, and why she has devoted her life to empowering and uplifting women.

KCM: The throughline of your more recent roles is clearly a desire to empower women. What made you decide to dedicate yourself to this cause?

MH: I think it’s in my DNA. It has always been at the core of who I am. I was raised in a house full of strong women, so the idea of men in power was very foreign to me until I entered the working world. Equality — both gender and racial — has always been central to my identity. My grandmother fought in the civil rights movement. My mother is a racial justice lawyer. It’s what I’ve always lived and breathed.

I had these incredible role models, particularly in the area of law. That’s why I went to law school. Now that I’ve gotten off the more traditional career path, I feel so fortunate that I’m still able to carry these values into a career in media. 

In In Her Element, these three very unique women have something big in common: The knowledge that “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Is that part of what drew you to Aisha, Laura, and Susie as subjects for the film?

These are three pioneering revolutionary female leaders, but the through-line is also that they’re all using technology in such different ways to advance their fields. I very much identified with Laura as a creative — she is a producer and a sound artist — but she’s also using technology in such innovative ways. Then Aisha is literally a rocket scientist. I love saying that: I met a rocket scientist. I love her story because she started out pursuing her degree at a community college, which I think really speaks to the importance of access to education.

Then Susie is a racecar driver. These women are the definition of badass, but they’ve also figured out how to harness the power of technology, and their varied experiences are powerful to see. What I wanted to do by featuring Laura, Aisha, and Susie was show the variety of opportunities for women in technical fields. As a parent to two little girls, I wanted them to see these careers as real and accessible to women.

Speaking of, “if you can’t see it you can’t be it,” how did watching your mother’s career influence your choice to go into law, and why did you ultimately choose to change your career path?

I joke that growing up in my home was very much like the opening scene of Wonder Woman, where there are all of these incredible women running around and saving the world and helping each other. It’s something that I appreciate even more so now as a parent myself. Of course, we’ve let a few men in along the way. I have many more privileges than my mom and grandmother did, and I’m trying to pass the values those women gave me onto the next generation.

My mom was a teenage single mother, so I had a front-row seat to her whole life. I saw her graduate from college. She was in law school when I was four, and if she wasn’t able to get childcare she would sometimes have to take me to class. I watched her graduate from law school. Then as she started her career, I saw her use her role as a lawyer to carry out the values I was raised with. She was always trying to create a better community. So it’s no surprise that my upbringing taught me the power of the law as a tool — I learned about it in real-time. 

As I pursued a traditional career path, first in law and then in tech, I realized it wasn’t for me. I had these wonderful role models in law, but I didn’t fully understand that a career in business, media, or content creation was available to me. I’m a little bit different from my mom and my aunt. When I realized law wasn’t my calling, I felt very lucky that I was able to explore and figure out what else was out there. I had the privilege of being able to make that type of career pivot. It takes financial stability to be able to say, “I’m going to leave a salaried job with health insurance to go out and try to do my own thing.” That choice should be available to everyone, not just a privileged few. That’s why I find Aisha’s story so inspiring — she stayed committed to her goal of becoming a rocket scientist because she was so passionate about it. 

What’s next for you?

I don’t know! We have a ton of exciting projects that are in development right now at Phenomenal, including a Broadway show that we’re co-producing. I think in the past five years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the unknown. I know this sounds corny, but I’m betting on myself. I’m going to figure it out and see where life takes me, and it’s going to be awesome.

In Her Element is available to stream on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.