Nothing could have prepared Jessica Alba for launching a company--except, perhaps, being told she wasn't good enough.
Six years ago, the Hollywood actress hatched a line of nontoxic household products including laundry detergent, soaps and diapers. Then a new mother, Alba had balked at some of the chemicals used in existing alternatives--include sodium lauryl sulfate--which once caused her to have an allergic reaction. So she founded the Honest Company on a simple premise: Every family should have access to healthy, affordable products that also look nice on the kitchen counter.
Fast forward to 2017, and her brainchild is valued at $1 billion, with annual sales of roughly $300 million. In addition to one-off sales, the Honest Company bundles products into a monthly subscription package, delivered straight to customers' doorsteps.
But getting there was far from easy. In a 2014 conversation with Inc., Alba conceded that few investors believed in the potential of the business at first. "Everyone I approached was skeptical," she said. Yet she was undeterred, in part because she was already very familiar with that attitude--and knew how to bite back.
"As an actress, as good as you ever are, there are a thousand 'noes' before you get your one yes,'" Alba said, in conversation with restaurateur Mario Batali at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City this week. "I developed a thick skin from age 12. I was told I wasn't good enough, I wasn't pretty enough, I was too 'Latin,' I was too exotic, I wasn't a leading lady. I got the same thing when I started the business." The skepticism, she noted, was at least partially due to her gender.
Hollywood and Silicon Valley may operate differently, but they share some of the same flaws, as rampant allegations of sexual harassment across sectors have recently shown. (Just look here and here. And here.) "[Business] is a whole different world, but the same when it comes to the lack of diversity," said Alba. "I didn't anticipate that."
What helped was joining a network of other female entrepreneurs. "We have a community," Alba continued. "We band together and help each other out, especially with raising money."
To be sure, the Honest Company has faced a series of high-profile setbacks as of late, which Alba insists have been grossly exaggerated. Last year, the company came under fire for allegedly using chemicals that it had pledged to avoid (a lawsuit was settled for $1.55 million this summer.) And in June, the company settled a second lawsuit that claimed it fraudulently labeled dozens of products as natural, plant-based, or chemical-free.
Meanwhile, the Honest Company was reportedly in talks to be acquired by consumer products giant Unilever late last year--though the deal never came to fruition, and Unilever bought Seventh Generation instead. In 2017, the Honest Company replaced its founding CEO Brian Lee with Nick Vlahos, a Clorox veteran.
Of the allegations, Alba insists that it's nothing out of the ordinary. "It's salacious when you put my name in a headline," she continued, clearly vexed. "Class action lawsuits happen all day long with all sorts of businesses everywhere. And the way it works in this country is you can sue somebody for absolutely anything, and there are no ramifications if it's not true."
In the wake of these scandals, though, Alba has changed her approach to the business in one way: "It made me more determined to stay focused on what we're doing," she said.