Meena Harris know how to build. The lawyer and author grew her sideline from making activist T-shirts into a behemoth of a brand, Phenomenal, which has recently expanded from merchandising to media to entertainment. Now she wants to invest in those who show the same sloppiness with her next, and literal, venture: Phenomenal companies.
The entrepreneur, who is the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, starts the venture firm with partner Helen Min, a former head of marketing at AngelList, Plaid and beyond. The duo met as early employees at Facebook, where they became close friends and eventually tech operators who shared notes on everything from grad school to angel investing. The idea for a joint venture capital firm came about in 2021, months before the recession hit, Harris explained.
“We are very confident in our ability to succeed, but also wanted to start humble and just do the job despite some of the uncertainty around the economy,” she said.
Phenomenal Ventures has already closed a debut early-stage fund totaling $6 million, with investments from companies like 776, Tribe Capital, Slow Ventures, and founders of tech companies including Dropbox, Quora, and Pinterest. About 38% of LPs are founders or former founders. Nearly half of the investors in the fund identify themselves as women and 12% as black.
The new fund allows Phenomenal Ventures to participate in pre-seed up to Series A rounds, with an average check size of approximately $100.00 to $500,000. The company also tapped Zabreen Khan as a partner, who began her investment journey with Andreessen Horowitz and Lead Edge Capital.
The company has invested in 13 companies to date, nine of which were built by underrepresented founders (though Min said they don’t have a specific diversity mandate or quota).
“Every company Meena and I have worked for – as startup employees at Facebook, Slack, Dropbox, Uber, Plaid, Quora, AngelList, they are literally all by non-underrepresented founders – our networks very well reflect those companies and the networks that we that we’ve been a part of for so long to say we’re going to flip that deal stream that’s coming up because of the network that we’re a part of… I don’t think [that] super makes sense, especially not for fund one,” said Min. “Venture is all about leveraging the unique access you have.”
The timing of the company’s public launch is remarkable. The tech industry is going through a reset, as evidenced by the public market struggles and cross-sector layoffs. Funding for female founders is falling. “Funds of all shapes and sizes are still being raised, we know there is money still being deployed and raised, but not many of them are led by solo GPs – even fewer are led by women, let alone by women of color, or people like us who are women of color and are not venture capitalists,” Harris said.
The fundraising process for Phenomenal Ventures’ fund, by the minute, took about a year. “I’m very transparent about this and I wish more people were: We wanted to raise a bigger fund,” she said, adding that they closed the first half of the fund in the first three weeks of fundraising. Then, says Min, the delay froze LPs, impacting the fundraising process.
Ultimately, Harris and Min decided they would stop fundraising after their initial close, focusing on making this a proof of concept fund they could do business with. “There is a real trade-off between the time we spend fundraising and the time we can actually spend on deal flow and meeting founders and helping our portfolio companies, so we decided to call it out,” added Min.
“We are really confident in our ability to succeed, but also wanted to start very humble and just do the job… what the economy looks like.”
Harris said Phenomenal Media and Phenomenal Ventures will operate as two separate legal entities. Optically, the brand overlap certainly helps with marketing; yet the origins of the Phenomenal brand in the e-commerce space mean that the company often gets incoming pitches for physical goods. While Min says they never categorically say no to the DTC category – which has been through tumultuous times in recent years – they tend to invest in what they know: software companies, fintech and the future of trading.
“I think that’s a big surprise to people because we’re women, and then the Phenomenal brand and just kind of a history,” said Min. “But we’re really focused on things that will have venture-like returns.”
For Harris, the company feels like an opportunity to make a “mission-driven impact” on the tech industry she’s been a part of for more than 15 years. She looks at the entire ‘value chain’ of startups, with a company as the first stop.
“With venture, and doing it at this scale, you have the opportunity to make an impact with your LPs, GPs, founders or portfolio companies right down to the employee culture and the end users they serve,” said Harris.