Leading Lights 2021: Jessica Alba on The Honest Company
When The Honest Company launched its IPO in May, it was the culmination of more than a decade-long journey for Jessica Alba. Like a lot of founders, she started her company as a personal mission — how to source sustainable, healthy baby, personal, and home care products — and turned it into a thriving enterprise.
Jessica could have taken the easy route and lent her name and fame to someone else’s products. But she chose the more difficult path, that of the entrepreneur. She knew that her vision of the company was something only she could fully realize. She turned Honest into a billion dollar company and helped to change how lifestyle products are conceived, marketed, and sold.
For Lightspeed’s Leading Lights 2021 conference I spoke with Jessica about her journey, the decisions she’s made, and the obstacles she’s overcome as a female entrepreneur operating outside the mainstream.
Let’s talk about the genesis of the company. Where did you begin?
It started when I had my first child. That’s when I realized how fragile life is. I was now responsible for raising this little person who relied completely on me for her health and happiness. At the same time I was learning about all these harsh chemicals in everyday products that can be linked to ailments such as cancer, obesity, and learning disabilities. I thought, ‘Now that I have this information, what can I do to protect my child?’ That’s when I decided to build a lifestyle brand around accessible products that are both good for people and for the planet.
As an actress, you were able to speak directly to your audience through social media. How did that contribute to The Honest Co’s success?
Before I started the company, my fans knew me because I had been in superhero movies and I was the face of global beauty brands. Magazines, entertainment, and news shows were the ones telling my story. I worked hard to build a social media following that allowed me to create a narrative for myself that I could control. My social media presence allowed me to connect with a community of moms, with whom I could develop and refine ideas as I built the business. When we launched, that felt like a natural way to promote Honest. And the brand was authentic to what people saw was important to me as they’d gotten to know me through social media.
What were some of the obstacles you faced as a woman starting your own company?
For many years I was the only woman in the boardroom. In these environments, the people in the room only know what they know. I had to be the voice of the customer, I knew my audience better than anyone else. When you’re representing half the population but it’s still one voice of nine in the room, you have to remind them who’s buying these products. I needed the board to understand that maybe I’m not the most seasoned entrepreneur, but I’m coming at this from a genuine place.
You’ve made diversity a key priority. How does Honest Co. benefit from that?
If you look at the data, it’s clear that businesses with more diverse leadership get to solutions faster and are more successful. But you can’t just say, ‘We’d love to hire more women and people of color.’ You have to put in the infrastructure around hiring practices and skill development. That’s why we started Honest University, to help our team achieve both their professional and personal goals. We also have several Employee Resource Group’s in place to support our D&I efforts, such as Black Leadership, Allies and Community and Women Excelling In Leadership & Living, to name a couple. As of December 2020, 53% of our leadership team are women and nearly half of our workforce are people of color. Of our nine board members, five are people of color and three are women. Having a leadership team in place that reflects the world around you is really important.
Several companies have expressed interest in acquiring your company. Why did you choose to stay independent?
When you’re a true disruptor in the marketplace, others are curious about how it’s done. A lot of companies court you in order to learn your secrets. Copycats are great, so long as they’re really making better products that are healthier for people. That’s a sign of real success, because you’re actually changing the marketplace. But we decided that being independent was the best path toward fulfilling our mission and becoming a brand that can stand the test of time.
How did the pandemic impact the company?
During the pandemic people wanted clean alternatives for sanitizing and disinfecting. We already had a hand sanitizer, but we were able to innovate quickly and deliver sanitizing alcohol wipes, disinfecting spray, and other environmentally conscious cleaning solutions. People were also looking at social media in a totally different way and we were able to act quickly to provide our consumers with what they were looking for. Mental health became a priority and we built a community around self care. As a digital company, we could pivot quickly without having to rely on retail trade in order to market to our customers. For us, it’s really about our content that builds our community.
What helped you keep going when first starting out?
There were people in the early days who brought a lot of value. Surrounding yourself with the right people is important. You also need relentless drive. You’ll work weekends and you won’t get a lot of sleep. You need to have that kind of work ethic, drive, and grit, as well as a vision of what’s possible that keeps other people inspired to follow your lead. For me, our mission to inspire everyone to love living consciously was my north star and I stopped at nothing until that was realized.