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Yahoo Finance Presents: Founder of Phenomenal and Author Meena Harris

On this episode of Yahoo Finance Presents, Founder & CEO of Phenomenal as well as New York Times bestselling author Meena Harris sat down with Yahoo Finance's Jen Rogers to discuss her new book 'Ambitious Girl' as well as diversity in the tech industry and what she is looking forward to this upcoming inauguration day.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JEN ROGERS: Welcome to "Yahoo Finance Presents." I'm Jen Rogers. She's the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign and a best-selling children's author. Meena Harris joins me now. Hi, Meena.

MEENA HARRIS: Hi. How are you?

JEN ROGERS: I am doing pretty well. You've got a lot going on. That's one thing I learned about you doing research. You're a real multitasker.

Let's talk about the children's book. So your first book, "Kamala and Maya's Big Idea," was inspired by your aunt, of course, now Vice President-elect Harris. What's the inspiration behind your new book, "Ambitious Girl"?

MEENA HARRIS: Yeah, well, it was inspired by my aunt. It was also really inspired by my family. And my second book, same thing. It's the family I was raised in.

And it's also the family that I'm now raising. I have two daughters who are two, almost three, and four. And it was really becoming a new parent and taking very seriously the responsibility I felt to pass on the values and lessons that I learned growing up in my family, which I now as an adult and as a parent, realize was a very unique family. It was all women, really strong, powerful women who are just in the world doing great things. And I had a front-row seat to that.

And for the second book in particular, I had-- my world view was basically female ambition. That's all I saw every single day. And therefore, I was taught early, early on that ambition was a good thing, right, that it meant purpose. It meant determination. It meant having a dream and a vision and going for it.

And when I got into the real world and the working world and now as a parent, I realized that society does not view ambition, or rather, female ambition, so positively. And I really wanted to think about how to pass that on to my daughters in a way that would give them the tools and the language to really reclaim that word in a positive way and to know it and learn it in the same positive way that I did. So those values and passing that on to my kids was very important to me.

And as a new parent also, I just saw firsthand the power of children's literature, right? Especially for young, young kids, it's often the way that they're learning about the world for the first time is through family and through books. And being able to pass on those values and lessons, to share them with other children that I-- especially on this topic of the power of words and language, I think all of us need that. I think women, I think grown women and adults need it too, frankly. Right, so yeah, that really just influences my worldview and everything that I do, is my family and my kids.

JEN ROGERS: I do think-- I read it with my eight-year-old daughter. There's something for her to take away from it. But I think even successful women wrestle with ambition. I read in an interview that at one point, you had felt like you were on a treadmill checking off prestige boxes. So Stanford University undergrad, Harvard Law School-- do people think you're ever too ambitious? Do you think that? Do you wrestle with it?

MEENA HARRIS: I mean, there's-- I think there's different ways of framing that. I'm sure there are people who think that I am too ambitious or too this or too that, right? I mean, that's my joke, is I'm going to do an ABC book of all of the words that we use to critique women who are daring to succeed and achieve in the world and, of course, critique women in ways that we do not men, right? It's a double standard.

I think that that-- the quote about me kind of checking these prestige boxes, I think it was more-- it's not about being too ambitious. I think it was more about pressuring myself to achieve in what I now look back on as sort of a more traditional career path. And part of that is I had really incredible role models and examples in a certain space, which was social justice, which was public interest law, right, lawyers. And so it's really no surprise that I went to law school.

But it took me a while to sort of find my path. And I don't mean that I sort of just discovered this recently. I've always known that I'm creative, that I'm entrepreneurial. I was always that kid trying to sell things all the time. I had like seven jobs throughout college and law school. We've known this. But it took me time to sort of get off that treadmill.

But I actually think it's a really important point that I would not change anything about that path. And I think that especially for women, especially for women of color who are doing something that is not traditional, that is not, right, or maybe has never been done before, having those credentials have been critical to my success. Having those experiences, foundational experiences has been critical to what I'm doing now.

And should that be the case, that we have to have really, really long impressive resumes to live out our dreams and to pursue our passions? Probably not. But, I mean, it's the reality, right? And so when I have young people who are asking should I go to graduate school, should I consider this, I think it's very dependent on individual circumstances. But I would never change anything about my path, even though it kind of took me a little bit longer to get to where I am today.

JEN ROGERS: It's never a straight line--

MEENA HARRIS: Exactly.

JEN ROGERS: --getting there, if you're going to get someplace good, at least. The main character in "Ambitious Girl" is a young girl of color. And recently, we've had a lot more focus on Black girls' treatment in schools. And according to a report from The Education Trust in New York, in New York City, Black girls in elementary and middle schools were about 11 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers in 2017.

We have a lot of talk now about tone policing. And in the book, you write-- there's a part about being too loud or too assertive. Are you concerned at all about how ambitious girls are perceived by either teachers, by their administrators, by people in their schools?

MEENA HARRIS: Absolutely. Thank you for mentioning that. I think it really drives home the point that language has power, that these biases and tools of discrimination and oppression, when we use them unequally for different groups, exist in all spaces, right? And absolutely, you just talked about something which is a huge, huge issue, where Black girls, Black children are penalized in school and punished in school in ways that simply does not happen for non-Black children.

And there's a term that connects this to the criminal justice system, which is often the outcome, which is the school-to-prison pipeline, right, that you are penalizing girls for their behavior, for breaking dress code, right? There's a whole body of study and work around this. It's super important. And it goes to the point of this is just one way of trying to break that down and to dismantle, right, what are-- what is bias and racism and sexism in all of these different systems?

And the point is it's important for teachers to read books like this for themselves to see young Black girls as ambitious and as successful, and the main character, the speaking character, the protagonist whose eyes through whom you are viewing the world in the story. And for that reason, I've also said in that way the book is not just for girls. It's not just for women. It's for boys. It is for men.

Right, we have to believe in that. We have to see it. We have to normalize Black women leaders, Black female leadership, right, which is what we are intending to do in the book. And again, in all spaces, we have to see this everywhere. I'm trying to do my part, right, through children's literature. But it is a small way of really starting to change those perceptions.

And then also, it's just the fact that we are not represented, right? If you look at children's literature and the need for diversity, just three years ago, in 2018, there was a study that found that there were more kids' books that had animals as main characters than there were books that had Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous human characters combined. And of those books that had human characters, I believe it's something like over 50% of them were white boys for the main characters, right?

So the images that we're showing our children, the images that teachers and educators and parents are reinforcing, has an impact on all of us. And it's not just about Black children, like my daughter, being able to see themselves represented on the pages of these books, because by the way, that's what it looks like in the real world, right? We just elected the first female, first Black vice president in the history of the country. So let's put that in books. Let's show that to our children.

But again, it matters for all of us. And when we don't do that, when we don't have representation, that is when the status quo creeps up and says, oh, well, that's-- that's too much. That's never been done before. So therefore, it can't be done.

Right, we have to be ambitious. It's almost sort of like if you dare to do these things in the world, you have no choice, right? It's about asking why, why is certain-- why are certain communities not represented? Why are certain voices not at the table? Why are certain communities not on the pages of kids' books, and doing the work to build more equity in representation in all spaces.

JEN ROGERS: And you're definitely doing the the representation part through literature. You have your message that you've been doing with your work that I see on your shirt as well. You did work in tech. And I want to ask you about that, so at Facebook and Uber. And honestly, I was thinking a little bit about the tech industry when I was reading "Ambitious Girl," because, as you said, we're going to have a woman vice president.

But the numbers are actually kind of disheartening out of Silicon Valley. I mean, and not just for women, if you looked at Facebook's 2020 data, the company grew its percentage of Black employees in tech rolls from 1% in 2017 to 1.7% in 2020. Meanwhile, they're adding tens of thousands of jobs. So why do you think the tech industry-- you're out there in the Bay Area-- struggles so much with diversity, having been there?

MEENA HARRIS: Well, I'll start by saying yes, it is a huge issue. It is a problem. And we need to solve it. However, it is not just the tech industry. It is truly all industries, right?

I mean, we're right now talking about children's literature. It is an issue in the publishing industry. It is an issue in children's content, right?

Look at who is writing and illustrating books. Look at who is making decisions about who gets access to be able to publish a book, right? So these issues exist everywhere. And it's why the BLM protests from last summer were so monumental in really forcing this conversation and reckoning in a way that I, as somebody who has been in tech and has been involved in these conversations around diversity and inclusion forever and ever, I have never seen people step up in that way.

And I think the key is that you have to stick with it. You have to. And it's the work of Black Lives Matter and activists to hold these powerful institutions accountable, to say, hey, in 2017, you committed to doing this, and here we are three years later. What's going on and why is that the case?

And then, of course, as well inside these companies, you need to have leadership that is taking this seriously. I think that-- to answer your question more directly with tech, I mean, there is just-- it's a big, deep-seated problem. But I think to look at it from the lens of tech in particular, I think that we in tech have this culture of building and doing through the lens of product launches, right?

And so you have a whole sort of schema in the way that you're putting out products. And it's from launch, right, and then you get it out. And then you're done. And it's sort of this immediate gratification, right, that you kind of-- you put the input in and you get the output.

But that's not how creating diverse spaces and inclusive spaces works. It's not something that happens overnight. And it's not something that happens in the course of a product launch. And I think it's it's really changing the culture around understanding that if you're taking this seriously, not just about policies and practices-- it's not just about putting people in leadership, putting people in leadership who have decision-making authority and Budget to make a difference on this stuff, it's also about baking it into every single thing that you do from day one, right?

I look at this in the context of privacy, which is my previous space when I was practicing, consumer privacy and cybersecurity. And we have this concept of privacy by design. And the point is that if you create a product and you launch it and you don't think about consumer privacy from the very beginning and it becomes an afterthought, like oh, oops, we created Facebook and we forgot about protecting people's data or how this could be used in a bad way, that is a problem, right? You have to be thinking about this from day one and bake it into every single thing you do and really have it be a part of the DNA of what you're building.

And so I think for tech, we need to shift. And again, this is but one way of solving this. But you have to really understand that it's something that has to flow through everything, right?

And again, there's this culture of-- at Facebook, for example, where I was early on, move fast and break things. When you move fast and break things, that is a recipe for that happening at the expense of things like culture and diversity and inclusion. And yeah, sometimes it takes slowing down. Sometimes it takes-- maybe you're not breaking things. Maybe you're unpacking things.

I don't know. Sorry for this terrible metaphor. But there's often this sort of-- this urgency, right? We've got to get this thing out. We got to do this. We don't have time to spend six more months finding a hire that is, ideally, a candidate that comes from an underrepresented community. We don't have time.

And the fact of the matter is you actually probably do have time, right? You have to make that decision and decide that it's important enough to slow things down a little bit, right? I'm dealing with this right now myself with building my company. It's very important to me. And yeah, I need certain things and help. And I may have to wait, because I'm committed to hiring under-represent-- people from underrepresented communities.

And I carry with me those experiences in the tech industry seeing how these things happen. And I've seen it over and over and over again, right? It's a classic situation where you're moving too fast and you're not prioritizing things that later become sort of an oops or an afterthought. And then it becomes much harder to change at that point.

JEN ROGERS: I wish I had more time to talk with you about all of these issues. Before we go, I just-- I mean, "Ambitious Girl," it comes out the day before this most historic Inauguration. It's going to look very different than it has in the past. How are you feeling about that day? And what will it be like for you personally and for our country?

MEENA HARRIS: I feel hopeful. I think for me, one of the most inspiring aspects of all of this is that yes, I have a personal connection. And it's very special. But we, as a family, are experiencing what families all over the world are right now. And I have parents who send me photos of the little girls looking up at the TV screen. And that's what's happening in my house, too.

And it's just a beautiful, wonderful, long, something that we should have-- I had hoped would have happened a long, long time ago that is finally happening. It's historic. It's important. And I think on this whole topic of representation, it inherently will open the door for more women of color to achieve. And it will normalize ambition, female ambition, not hiding it, not letting society tell us that we cannot be-- telling us that we're too ambitious, that that is just not a thing, as far as I'm concerned.

And ambition is going to be on this world stage, female ambition. And it has succeeded. And I think that that is just good for all of us.

JEN ROGERS: Meena Harris, the book is "Ambitious Girl." You've got so much more going on. I hope we can talk with you again as you continue your journey, not in a straight line. All right, thanks so much.

MEENA HARRIS: Thank you.