“You get out of it what you put in.” with Lena Harris

You get out of it what you put in. For most people, myself included, there is a mental barrier that stops us from achieving our dreams. Some of the barrier is made up of doubt, and I think the other aspect is feeling like you don’t have the time or the willpower. A valuable lesson […]

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You get out of it what you put in. For most people, myself included, there is a mental barrier that stops us from achieving our dreams. Some of the barrier is made up of doubt, and I think the other aspect is feeling like you don’t have the time or the willpower. A valuable lesson that I’ve been able to take away from this experience is that when you own a business, you can put as much or as little effort into it as you like.

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lena Harris, a 20-year-old Boston native. She currently attends Barnard College, where she studies Economics and Spanish. She is a passionate social justice advocate, and has always been an active member of her various communities when it comes to speaking out against injustice and standing up for marginalized identities. She founded apparel company 195essential in 2020, turning her passion into action, through its business with a purpose model.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Hello! My name is Lena Harris, and I grew up in Boston, MA. My family has always valued acceptance and understanding of people and their identities, instilling me with this attitude. Growing up in Boston as part of an interracial family meant, since childhood, that I have been surrounded by a diverse group of people with varying identities and experiences. At home, my siblings and I were constantly reminded of the importance of education; our parents made sure that we engaged in discussions about a wide array of topics, ranging from race and politics, to gender and global warming.

Not only did my family teach me to have kindness and respect for others, but they also led by example, starting generations before me. My grandparents were civil rights activists during the 1960s movement, working towards racial justice and equity. While they had little to their name, they gave what they had, helping to open the Haley House Soup Kitchen in Boston that continues to serve our local community today. Their giving didn’t end there. My grandmother moved on to teach for decades, and my grandfather worked in the hospital as an operating room technician. As for my parents, my mom is a special educator, who fights for access to quality education for students with disabilities, and my dad has been involved in many organizations seeking to create better community outcomes for underrepresented people.

I grew up surrounded by open minded people, who saw injustice in their communities and took action against it. So while I have always had an enthusiasm for social justice because of my identity as a young, queer, woman of color, my passion also stems largely from of my family’s legacy of social service. I want to follow in the footsteps of my family, and contribute something positive to the world.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

I have always had a passion for social justice, and 195essential is a continuation of my work towards creating social change. We are a business with a purpose, born out of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to support our local community. At the beginning of the lockdown in March, I watched as community members deemed “essential workers,” stepped up to do their jobs under extraordinary conditions.

Nurses, doctors, teachers, and other members of the community were finally being recognized as people who are essential to the functioning of our society. People who had once barely scraped the surface of our purview, like those who bag our groceries or pick up our trash, were now under the spotlight, and their sacrifices were commended.

195essential is asking people to think about the important questions that this pandemic has raised: How do we define essential? What is essential? Who is essential? What things are essential to life? We hope that these questions ultimately lead people to the conclusion that we are all essential, which I believe this pandemic has proven.

Though it is thoughtful that people are now taking the time to recognize the importance of every day workers, it shouldn’t take someone risking their life for others to see them as worthy and valuable in society. The people who clean our hospitals, who farm our produce, and carry our mail have always been there, doing their part to keep our communities running smoothly, and they should have always received the recognition that they deserve.

I participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations this spring and throughout the summer. During one of the marches I saw signs that said “Matter is the minimum.” That really spoke to me. This is at the heart of what we stand for at 195essential. Black lives matter, there’s no doubt about that. But these signs indicate that we need to push the narrative further. Black lives don’t just matter, they are essential to our neighbors, to our communities, to our country, and to this world.

For all of the tragedy and damage that this pandemic has caused, I hope that we as a society can take away a newfound appreciation for those around us. I want people to look around them and remember the people and things that they once took for granted, so that we can come out of this time with growth and gratitude. 195essential recognizes that each and every one of us plays an essential part in this world (the “195” stemming from the fact that there are 195 countries in the world), and when we work together towards a common goal, extraordinary things happen.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I remember back in February of 2020 hearing about the COVID-19 virus that was slowly spreading through China. My friends and I were sitting in the dining hall discussing it, but we thought we were safe from the dangers we saw in the news, worlds away at Barnard College in New York City. But weeks later we were forced to go home, sad, a little scared, and completely unaware of what was to come.

Being home from college with newfound free time, while watching the state of the world and the country worsen, I knew I wanted to do something to help. Living in Boston, a medical hub, I saw so many friends and family being called into action to deal with the pandemic head on. I saw frontline workers, heroes of our community, and wanted to support them as they put their lives at risk for the sake of others. An immediate relief that we thought we could provide was to help feed them. We partnered with an organization that was providing quality meals to hospital staff in Boston, by designing t-shirts to be sold to donate to their cause.

However, I soon realized that there were so many other ways that this pandemic was affecting people. As the quarantine weeks went on, I read more and more news about the disproportionate effects of this pandemic on Black and brown communities, low-income communities, on women, on the LGBTQ+ community, and on those with marginalized identities overall. To me, it seemed like the pandemic was highlighting the worst, most unjust parts about our country, proving that discrimination was alive and well.

I went back to the drawing board, and explored ways that I could make a larger impact and draw attention to the multiple issues that were happening at once. The initial cause of providing relief from COVID-19 was still our foundation, but I saw an opportunity to support not just the efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s immediate effects, but also to draw attention to the preexisting issues that made the pandemic worse for certain demographics. Soon we were donating to BAGLY (Boston’s Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth), to support their efforts to provide necessary resources to LGBTQ+ youth, as well as the Four Womxn Fund, which was providing economic relief for Black womxn in New York. Our mission grew from supporting essential workers to supporting marginalized communities and identities because much of the suffering caused by this pandemic can be traced to systemic discrimination that existed well before.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

In my mind, it was less a question of whether or not I was going to step up and “do it,” it was more about how. Being a young person with social media, I have constant access to news and information. Seeing the impact of the pandemic on so many different people on multiple media platforms really got to me. As various funds labeled “support a mother in New York struggling to feed three kids” and “donate to a young trans Black woman who needs to pay rent” started to pop up all over social media, I chipped in what I could here and there. However, being on a student budget, I felt like what I was able to contribute monetarily was limited, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of people who were in need of support.

I approached my dad, knowing that both of my parents are fortunate enough to have jobs, and knowing that we could be in a position to support others in need. My dad immediately supported my instincts to help others by brainstorming some ways that we could positively contribute to covid relief. Being the entrepreneur that he is, my dad proposed that I think bigger than simply donating to organizations. He helped me envision a way that I could create a larger impact through a business model, and 195essential was born. I had never started a business before or even had the desire to do so, but I saw a need, and being the action oriented person that I am, I acted on it.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I started out with a basic business concept — a business with a purpose aimed at supporting essential workers through this pandemic. However, in order to take this idea to the next level, I needed much more than a plan. One of the most crucial steps that took this project to the next level was creating a solid team. After coming up with the idea for 195essential, I knew that between my dad and I, we had a strong base, but we would need the support of other people in order to really bring this project to fruition. I was lucky that my father knew some people who had worked with him on previous ventures, so we contacted them to gauge their interest.

Sure enough, they were excited about the project and eager to join. Collaborating with a group of people made the entire process smoother. As a team, we are able to bring all of our various strengths and skills to the table, and to produce much more tangible results. Not only are we able to accomplish more, but we could produce at such a higher level than we had before because we now had the expertise of true professionals.

What I love most about my team is that we are diverse in race, gender and age, which allows for a wide range of perspectives that we bring to each project. I think it’s valuable to have people working together from different backgrounds because it makes for a cross cultural learning environment, and it keeps us open minded. I feel honored to work with such an incredible group of professionals, and I wouldn’t have been able to take 195essential to the level that it is today without them.

For my part, I’m doing this as much as anything for the learning experience. Someday I will be able to look back at this time in my life — and of course I would love at that point for 195essential to be a huge, global organization — but at the very least, I will be able to say that I did something, and that is a rewarding feeling.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

For our essential voter series t-shirts, we had original designs created by young, BIPOC artists that showcased themes of voter suppression, Black Lives Matter, and the history of voting in the United States. To add to the power of the artwork, we partnered with a nonprofit organization called “Seed the Vote,” which is aimed at supporting grassroots organizing to end voter suppression in swing states, donating 50% of our t-shirt proceeds to their cause. We were thrilled to be able to support such crucial activism, and when they asked us if they could create posters out of the artwork from our t-shirts, we happily obliged.

Weeks later, when many states had started in-person early voting, Sydney Medina, a friend of mine who is also one of the artists of our voter series shirts sent me a link to a Now This News article titled “Young People Have Already Doubled Their 2016 Numbers, With A Few Days Left to Vote.” Along with the article she asked, “Do you notice anything?” I read the article about the record number of young people who were turning out to vote, and thought to myself that it was positive to see so many people engaged in our democracy. I looked at the article again, and this time, focused on the photograph, which displayed a polling line full of young voters holding signs. Finally, I saw what she was referring to, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. All of those people were holding the posters with the artwork from our t-shirt on it saying “Your vote matters!” Days later, my aunt sent me another picture of someone holding up a sign with our artwork on it. Once again I was watching the news that showed people dancing in the streets to celebrate Joe Biden becoming the President-elect, and saw our “End Voter Suppression” artwork in someone’s hands being waved in the air triumphantly.

Our designs had popped up all over the country, and it felt so rewarding to see complete strangers resonating with our work, and the work of our talented artists. It’s an incredible feeling to think that what started as an idea can show up weeks later on a major news channel. I was humbled and grateful for the opportunity to see our mission coming to life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

The funniest mistake that I made certainly didn’t feel funny in the moment, but looking back on it, I can definitely chuckle. 195essential also offers a business-to-business model, in which a company can hire us to produce t-shirts for them. In the first few months, we were contracted to produce 50 shirts for a local business that would say the word “essential” and their company name on it. We designed the shirts, they approved it, we sent it to the printer, they got printed, and were finally shipped to the company.

We checked in to see how they felt about the finished product, and they told us that they were really happy with the shirts, they loved the design, and they enjoyed the soft material. They even shared with us that their employees were wearing them often, and sometimes in place of their assigned uniform, which felt like a huge compliment. I was thrilled that one of our first orders had been a success, and I couldn’t wait to see what else we could do.

About a week later, we were contacted by the company, and they said, “We are still very happy with the shirts, and we are really enjoying them. However, we just thought you would want to know, the word ‘essential’ is spelled without [the letter] ‘n.’” At first, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or crawl in a hole, and I sort of did both.

After apologizing profusely, I felt so lucky that the company was very understanding, and that the overall quality of the shirts had outweighed the silly mistake that we had made. Looking back at it, I am able to laugh at the fact that it went through all of the stages of production, from designing, to approval, to printing, to shipping, and it took until the shirts were finally distributed and on people’s bodies for someone to notice that there was a missing “n” in the word essential. The experience was a good lesson about quality assurance, and still to this day we laugh about it as a team. So take it from me, always double check your work.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My dad is certainly someone who I have always looked up to, and though I would never admit it to his face because I would never hear the end of it, he’s one of the smartest people I know. To think that my dad started his life as a Black orphan in Boston in the 1960s and is currently the founder of multiple businesses is astounding.

My dad grew up in an adopted home with a lot of love, but his life wasn’t always easy. He was adopted by an interracial family, so growing up during the 1970s in Boston when the majority of the country was still largely segregated was a powerful experience, but certainly had its challenges. His family didn’t have a lot of money, so he learned how to be resourceful and make the most out of what he was given. He had a passion for business that took him very far.

My dad always has his hands on multiple projects, and it seems as though his entrepreneurial spirit is always taking him somewhere. Even though he worked long hours, he always made time for our family, and I recognize the impact of that time he put aside for us when I think back to my childhood memories.

Growing up with my dad, we were always being taught life lessons, even though it was my mom who was the teacher by profession. He made me read the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and write up a page about the top five lessons that I took away from the book. At the time I found the assignment tedious, but now I can appreciate that my dad was teaching me an important life lesson on success.

There are so many pieces of wisdom that I have learned from my dad and that I will continue to learn from him. But out of all of his lessons, the one he always drilled home was, “You give til it hurts, and then you give a little more.” I will always live my life by those words.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I am proud to say that, as an organization, 195essential has successfully collected and distributed over 1,500 pounds of food to those in need from July to November of 2020. During the first few weeks of the Massachusetts state mandated quarantine, with many people thrown into unemployment, and children who would have been getting fed at school now stuck at home, rates of food insecurity increased dramatically. In May 2020, the U.S. nonprofit Feeding America reported that overall rates of food insecurity increased by 59 percent due to the pandemic.

As a business aimed to support our community through this pandemic, we felt a need to address the problem of food insecurity in any way that we could. We partnered with a local farm in Rhode Island that would normally supply food to the employees of a nearby corporate office, and now had unused food that they didn’t want going to waste. We were able to pick-up the fresh produce, and deliver it to the Brookline Food Pantry, who provides food to the Brookline community.

The pantry was overjoyed to receive the produce, because they told us that more and more people were coming to them in need of fresh food. We were happy to be able to support our local community by providing an essential resource to families in need of assistance. At the end of the day, our goal is to have a positive impact on the world, and I believe that this experience of distributing food is a concrete example of our mission.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There are so many things that I could talk about, but in the interest of staying on point, I will be concise:

  1. Number one, I think it’s crucial that politicians pass the next round of COVID-19 relief, to provide necessary resources to families in need. Not bailouts for giant corporations, but funds for the average United States citizen who is struggling to maintain their livelihood through this pandemic. The relief should reflect the true needs of communities, and adequately provide those resources in an equitable way.
  2. Second, as a community we need to reevaluate our priorities. During the peak of coronavirus cases in the spring, underfunded hospital staff were forced to battle this pandemic in makeshift PPE made from trash bags. Meanwhile, police across the country were given military grade weapons and gear to disrupt peaceful protestors combatting the very same brutality that they were met with. Here in the United States, bars and restaurants are open, but the large majority of the schools aren’t. We need to rethink our morals, and our priorities so that we can educate our youth and heal the wounds that this pandemic has caused.
  3. Finally, I believe that as a country, we can all learn to be more compassionate. Seeing how the world responded to the pandemic versus how the United States responded, I noticed such a stark difference. The collectivist mentality that other countries have taken to deal with this pandemic has made them much more well equipped to handle it. I read something recently that said that if the CDC had marketed mask wearing as saving yourself as opposed to saving others, many more Americans would be alive today. It’s a disheartening notion to think that as a society we are so self absorbed that we can’t do a simple task like wearing a mask to save the lives of others. I want us as Americans to think about this virus, and ultimately end it as a collective effort that is more than just you and me. My hope is that we will all eventually recognize that dealing with this crisis goes beyond action at the local and state level; a global effort will be the most effective. At the heart of 195essential is the idea that as an entire world, we must put our minds and hearts together to eradicate this virus, and heal the many wounds that it has caused.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It is hard to create a following. I remember during the first month of having our Instagram account, I would follow people that I knew and tell them that 195essential was my company and that I would really appreciate it if they would follow us. I felt like I was on Instagram for hours sending direct messages, liking pages, following people, and at the end of the day I would look at our account and realize that only ten people had followed us. The process of getting followers was frustrating at first because it seemed tedious and time consuming for little in return. After a while, I started to get the hang of guerilla marketing, and I noticed it paying off as more and more people were noticing our page. The progress of gaining a following was certainly slow, but it taught me a good lesson on patience and persistence.
  2. It’s okay if people aren’t as excited about what you have to offer as you are. I am very passionate about this project because I’ve put in so much time, effort and thought into it, and I believe that it is a good cause. However, other people might not be as interested and I have learned to accept that. At times it can feel a bit disheartening when your product isn’t well received, and it’s totally normal to feel that. What I grew to understand over time is that it’s important is to always listen to the people in your corner who are cheering you on, and to use their positivity to motivate you.
  3. There’s a lot for the asking. Networking is important, people appreciate young people who are doing positive things, and you will be surprised at how many people are willing to help you. One of my family friends knows the owner of Brooklyn Industries, a New York based apparel company. My team and I were lucky to hear from her about the ins and outs of the industry, as well as important tips and tricks. As a small business that is new to the game, it was so valuable to have someone established guide us towards success. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and support, because in my experience people are not only willing, but happy to take the time to help you.
  4. You get out of it what you put in. For most people, myself included, there is a mental barrier that stops us from achieving our dreams. Some of the barrier is made up of doubt, and I think the other aspect is feeling like you don’t have the time or the willpower. A valuable lesson that I’ve been able to take away from this experience is that when you own a business, you can put as much or as little effort into it as you like.
  5. Learn to evolve while maintaining a mission. What I mean by that is the world around us is constantly changing, and it’s important to adapt to your surroundings. Business is much more of a fluid process than I expected, and I had to learn to go with the flow of the times, and react to the topics that were post present. A lot of business is understanding what your audience would like to see, and sometimes that means changing your initial plan to match the current demand. Understanding how to mold your ideas to fit the desires of your customers while keeping your goals centered is crucial skill for success

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would simply ask people, if not you, then who? If you don’t step up and make a difference, then who is going to do it? But I think that my generation in many ways already understands this. Since I was born in 2000, I am a part of generation Z. We have gone through so many life altering experiences in our young lives, from having the first Black president of the United States, to the introduction of mass technology, to social media, to frequent school shootings, to having Donald Trump as the president, to the Women’s March, to the Black Lives Matter Movement, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I believe that as a generation, we have been uniquely positioned to fight injustice and positively impact our society. We have more access to technology and information than any other generation before us. The social media platforms that have been developed within our lifetime are conducive to bringing people all over the world together, making it easier to organize masses around a cause. I believe that we are already using so many of these new tools to our advantage in creative ways that promote change. My generation is resilient, and we aren’t afraid to use our voices and platforms to ask tough questions of our predecessors that need to be answered. I am proud of my generation, and I have hope that we will be the agents of the long-lasting social changes that our world so desperately needs.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Someone who I admire, and who deserves so much recognition right now is Stacey Abrams. I remember when Stacey Abrams first emerged onto the national stage during her gubernatorial race in 2018. She created a lot of buzz as a passionate, smart, and thoughtful politician who kept the best interest of her people in mind, and I instantly became a fan.

She serves as a role model to me because of her ability to come off of a devastating loss, and fight against the system that had mismanaged her election. I commend her strength and resilience for the two years in between her election loss and the presidential election, during which she organized grassroots efforts to end voter suppression in Georgia. She rallied her community and mobilized Georgians to the polls for the presidential election, to cast their votes in record amounts. What I admire so much about Stacey Abrams is that she took a loss and turned it into a win for others, and for her community.

Stacey Abrams is also a co-founder of the financial services firm Now Account, that provides support to small businesses by helping them to grow. As a co-founder of a small business myself, I appreciate her efforts to bolster small businesses, and recognize them as vital parts of our communities. On top of it all, something that people might not know about Stacey Abrams is that she is the author of award winning romantic novels!

Stacey Abrams embodies the fact that Black women are the backbone of this country, and while many of us have always known this to be true, I saw a lot more people opening their eyes to this reality because of her. I would be honored for the opportunity to talk to Stacey Abrams because I know that I, and this country have a lot to thank her for.

How can our readers follow you online?

By visiting our website at 195essential.com!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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