Beauty Roots

Meena Harris On Beauty Ideals, Building Community, & Betting On Herself

The Phenomenal Media founder chats about her new partnership.

Originally Published: 
Meena Harris tells Bustle about celebrating her Indian & Jamaican heritage, favorite Ulta Beauty pro...
WikiCommons, Leon Bennett/Getty Images

In Beauty Roots, Bustle chats with diverse celebrities and creators about how their heritage has influenced their beauty routines. Here, Meena Harris talks about celebrating her Indian and Jamaican culture, creating safe spaces for self-expression, and partnering with Ulta Beauty.

Growing up, Meena Harris was always taught that beauty is about how your actions can positively impact others, not what you look like. “I really think about the beautiful Toni Morrison quote,” she tells me over Zoom. “‘Beauty was not simply something to behold. It was something one could do.’ That definition is definitely what my family taught me — to define beauty as something that's about sharing with others, through things that are beautiful to you [and] that bring you joy, [like] through cooking or the arts,” she says. “I was raised in a home that emphasized all of those things.”

Harris, as many might know, comes from a long line of influential people who have championed underrepresented communities: her grandparents, cancer researcher and civil rights activist Shyamala Gopalan and professor of economics at Stanford and civil rights activist Donald Harris; her mother, lawyer and policy maker Maya Harris; and her aunt, Vice President Kamala Harris. They all taught Meena that building power through creativity, self-expression, and community to make the world a better place is what makes someone truly beautiful.

As a New York Times bestselling author and the founder and CEO of Phenomenal Media, Harris is committed to uplifting the stories of underrepresented groups. Now she is taking a message of inclusivity further by partnering with beauty shopping mecca Ulta for the launch its Beauty& campaign.

A huge creative endeavor, the Beauty& campaign encourages everyone to define beauty on their own terms and includes the launch of the brand’s first-ever podcast, a limited edition T-shirt collection, and a $200,000 donation to the Jed Foundation, a national non-profit supporting the mental health of teens and young adults.

For her part, Harris joined New York-based artist Timothy Goodman and Chicago-based artist and muralist Emmy Star Brown in designing limited-edition T-shirts for beauty lovers that encapsulate the campaign’s message of inclusivity, self-expression, and self-care.

Below, she shares more details about her culture, the partnership, and beauty ideals.

How has your Indian and Jamaican background influenced you?

It's probably through food, music, and the arts; that was something that was always emphasized to me. Whether it was me doing classical South Indian dance for 15 years, enjoying my grandmother's home cooking, or Jamaican beef patties — which are an obsession.

What do you want to teach your daughters about beauty and celebrating who they are?

Broadly, really thinking about underrepresented communities and how you can use the power of connection, community, and culture to create visibility [and] give voice to yourself.

Even though we still live in a world where that's it’s necessarily the norm for everyone, making it more and more possible to be comfortable celebrating your heritage. I've had so many people tell me that seeing others [celebrate their culture] and seeing it visible, made them feel more comfortable expressing it in a public [and] visible way.

[Also] exposing them to images and representation that they may not be finding in kids' books. The whole reason I started writing [children’s books] was that I was reading the classics and most of them have a white boy character as the main character, not a little Black girl with textured hair that looks like my daughters.

How did this partnership come to be?

It was being inspired by the message. Setting that example for others in the industry is really important. From where we sit as a smaller brand, it's still somewhat rare to find like-minded partners that are actually committed to [inclusivity] in a meaningful way. Coming out of 2020, a lot of people made bold proclamations about their commitments to diversity and inclusion equity [and] a lot of people walk[ed] back from those. There [were] a lot of changes that have happened over the last three years and showing that ongoing commitment and finding creative ways — whether it's through this campaign or other ways of engaging our consumer community — is essential.

How have you been able to create the safe space for yourself amidst online negativity?

I think all of us are human. I — and we all — have different experiences. I definitely have had to develop tougher skin in that. I think if you're a woman living and breathing, let alone a woman of color on the internet with opinions, you are targeted for something. It's still about you having that fundamental belief in [your]self; confidence and betting on yourself. Yes, that comes from within, [but] it also came from being raised in a family that built me up. [They] gave me that confidence and gave me the tools; we’re still living in a sexist, racist world [and] we need tools to navigate that.

What advice would you have for others struggling to find those tools?

I often talk about the power of community and knowing that you're not alone. There’s a lot of shared experience and power in each of us. It's also nice to have a community that we know is alongside us and supportive, whether it's people in the comments or other people online.

TikTok, as an example, feels like there's something for everyone. If you don't grow up in a community that has people that look like you, you surely can find somebody on TikTok these days. [With] all of the niche, micro-nuanced interests or lived experiences that all of us have, we're finding more ways to connect.


Are there any beauty brands inspire you today that speak to that same message?

Live Tinted. It just did a great partnership with [Netflix’s] “Never Have I Ever,” [the series] showing Hindu religious cultural aspects or [Indian] dancing on screen. I did not have [that] when I was that age. [It’s] an example of an emerging brand that Ulta has supported and given more of a platform to, which is so important. Tracee Ellis Ross’ Pattern Beauty is a big one. I use Pattern Beauty on my girls.

How has your beauty routine changed over the years?

I historically have been — to an extreme — the person that was like, “I know what I like. I'll use the same thing for 20 years.” I had a big rebirth during [lockdown] where I've become much more interested in trying new things [and] learning about ingredients.

Looking at brands that are founded by women and women of color — those are things that are really fun for me, both as a consumer and as an entrepreneur. There's just so much new stuff to try and it's been really fun to explore and be more creative.

This article was originally published on