There are celebrities with lifestyle brands, and then there’s Jessica Alba. In just three and a half years, the actress turned entrepreneur has transformed The Honest Company, the line of eco-friendlier personal-care products she cofounded, into a big—make that very big—business. Though any Target shopper can get a sense of the company’s success simply by scanning the shelves, the stats are staggering: more than 120 products, including household cleaners, toothpaste, vitamins and diapers, all formulated without toxic chemicals. Alba and her cofounders have raised an estimated $222 million in outside investment; sales ballooned to a reported $150 million last year; some 350 people are on the payroll. Expansions to South Korea and China are in the works. The company is now worth a cool $1.7 billion.
At this point, the 34-year-old Alba hardly needs to prove that she’s serious. Still, she’s the first to admit that her drive runs deep. “I’ve always been business-minded,” she says, sipping lemon-cucumber water while seated at a conference table in the company’s airy, bustling offices in Santa Monica, California. (A devoted bargain hunter, she found the vintage table herself on Craigslist.)
It’s a busy Wednesday morning, and Alba, as per usual, is in work mode: The Honest Company honestly is her 9 to 5. She’s casually chic in a loose black tunic, faded skinny jeans, black d’Orsay flats and delicate gold-and-diamond jewelry; her side-parted bob is appealingly messy. As she discusses the business’s string of new initiatives, she speaks with the authority of a seasoned executive.
The story of how Alba hatched the idea for The Honest Company demonstrates just how determined she can be when she sets her mind to something. In 2008, while pregnant with older daughter Honor, 7, with now-husband Cash Warren, she broke out in hives after using baby laundry detergent. Alba turned to the Internet to find out why. “I was horrified by the realities around the use of chemicals, and also the link that these chemicals have to a lot of illnesses, from obesity to lung disease to cancer, allergies, eczema—all of it,” she explains. “I was bringing this little person into the world and I thought, I want her to be healthy.”
She approached Christopher Gavigan, former CEO of the eco-focused nonprofit Healthy Child Healthy World, about sourcing safer household essentials. “It was challenging to find products that were accessibly priced and effective,” she says. “I was like, ‘It’s just gotta be easier for people.'”
Since then, Alba has immersed herself in the world of entrepreneurship with energy to spare. She created a 50-page business plan. She hired Gavigan as a consultant, eventually persuading him to join her as the company’s cofounder. She wooed the rest of her team of executives, a process that took years. And she has spent many a late night digging deep into the science behind her trade. “My husband complains about my research,” she says, laughing. “I just go into a hole of Google. He’s like, ‘The light! In the corner of my eye!’ But it’s hard to turn it off.”
Alba’s limitless sense of hustle comes from seeing herself as an underdog of sorts. Growing up on Air Force bases before settling into a modest home in the Los Angeles suburbs, she was a “sickly kid,” afflicted by asthma and bouts of pneumonia; she had to carry a breathing machine to her soccer games. Nevertheless, her family had an up-by-the-bootstraps mentality. “I was on a swim team, and I was chubby and slow and dead last—a full two laps last. I was crying and couldn’t breathe,” she remembers. “My mom and dad were like, ‘You started this, you’re going to finish it!’ My parents made me stick to stuff, pick myself up. It’s painful to go through, but I appreciate that tough love.”
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