Jessica Alba’s parking spot at the Honest Company, the four-year-old consumer-products start-up in Santa Monica, California, that wowed the tech community with a $1.7 billion valuation this summer, has a bright-green sign bearing her name. Before founding Honest, Alba was best known as the actress in roles such as a hip-hop choreographer with a heart of gold in 2003’s Honey and a strong-willed stripper in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City franchise. I arrive for a tour at 3:32 P.M., and what transpires in the next 26 minutes is either a peek into Alba’s career as one of the tech world’s savviest businesswomen or the greatest performance of her acting career.
Alba’s cobalt-steel desk is part of an open-plan office that houses some of Honest’s almost 500 employees, all of whom have smiles on their faces and most of whom look to be in their 20s. “We hire a lot of people right out of college,” says Alba, whose current age, 34, makes her older than the office average. Next to Alba’s computer are towers of diapers featuring adorable cartoons. “It’s ‘the Paris collection,’ so we’re looking at French flags, the Eiffel Tower, a French bulldog that says ‘Le Woof.’ ” Alba approves the diapers but flags the tower’s salmon-colored packaging because the hue may skew too feminine for parents of boys. Behind her are new logo samples, each one a different shade of peach, but she’ll go through those later. She shows me a cozy, dimly lit room with scented candles where new mothers can pump their breast milk in private. And, in the hall, she overhears a conversation about a gifting suite the company may host at New York Fashion Week. She had hoped to create an editors’ lounge for makeup touch-ups and 15-minute massages but wonders if the $25,000 expense justifies the reach. (A single post viewed by her more than six million Instagram followers makes more of an impact.)
“Where’s the music up in here? Where’s RiRi and ‘Yonce?,” Alba shouts when we’re in the on-site photography studio. A mixed-race model with millions of adorable freckles is being photographed for a skin-care package and blushes when Alba gushes about her “modern beauty.” Alba suddenly checks the time and rushes the end of our tour, which includes the showroom, where new products are merchandised; the art department, where packaging is developed; the customer-service department, where employees answer up to 3,500 calls and e-mails per day.
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Director James Cameron, self-described god of the movie industry, gave Alba her big break in 1998 when he cast her as the lead in the short-lived TV series Dark Angel. He isn’t shocked by Honest’s success: “If you went back to the day I met Jessica and told me, ‘This girl is going to build a billion-dollar company,’ I would’ve said, ‘I believe it.’ ” Cameron’s production company auditioned more than 1,000 actresses for the part before he discovered her. Something about her glamorous sour puss made him press Pause. “She was slumped over with her hair in her face and a look of defiance. But when the camera hit her—wham!—there was such punk attitude.” (Alba admits she was a broody teenager—she has no Jell-O commercials in her credits.)
Dark Angel was set in the future (at the time, 2009 was the future), and her character, Max Guevera—a government-created, genetically enhanced super-soldier who escapes from a secret lab—presented Alba with more than a threat of stardom. “This was a $125 million production, and we were resting it on the shoulders of a teenager,” Cameron remembers. “She totally stepped up to the plate and didn’t fall or falter.” Alba worked 86-hour weeks in Vancouver, did many of her own stunts, and, Cameron adds, “never backed down from a fight. Early on, she had real integrity.”
Alba’s father, Mark, was in the U.S. Air Force and moved the family to Biloxi, Mississippi, and Del Rio, Texas, before settling in Southern California’s Inland Empire, where he started a real-estate company. Of her mother, Cathy, Alba says with pride, “There was nothing [she] didn’t do. She was the manager of a movie theater; she went to cosmetology school; she was a bartender, waitress, and then my manager.” Cathy began working at Honest last year and trains retail partners as a senior brand educator.
When Alba turned 11, most of her family—brother, four cousins, aunt, aunt’s sister, aunt’s sister’s boyfriend, and her mother—attended an open casting call at the Beverly Hills Studio. Thousands applied, but it was Jessica who received a year’s worth of acting classes, which she condensed into a summer so she wouldn’t miss school.
Alba’s childhood was marked by two things: illnesses—many of which she can now identify as asthma and allergy-related—that landed her in the hospital often, and a burning desire to leave a mark on the world, which at the age of 12 meant becoming a devout born-again Christian. “I was seeking a purpose,” Alba says of her years as a member of a conservative Christian youth group. “I wanted to exist for a reason.” This lasted until she was 17, when, she says, she was turned off by the boundaries and labels set by fellow churchgoers. That year, she attended an acting workshop in Vermont and “fell crazy in love with a cross-dressing ballet dancer who had a baby and was bisexual. I was like, ‘There’s just no way he’s going to hell!’ ” Acting opened her to a new world of creative people and a community where she belonged. “I felt like, at the end of the day, God is love and everyone is human.”
Returning to California, Alba made a pact with herself: “If I wasn’t going to get a big job by the time I was 18, I was going back to school.” According to plan, she was cast in Reef Twinpin Reef Reef Twinpin BrownTan BrownTan Dark Angel in 1998, and she set out to approach her career “like my own Hollywood business.” She sought tentpole franchises, such as the Sin City films, 2004’s superhero thriller Fantastic Four, and her role as a crazy/flirty pharmaceutical rep in 2010’s Little Fockers. She gave her publicist a dictum that for every placement in a men’s magazine (such as one of *Maxim’*s hottest women) she wanted coverage in three women’s magazines. “People doubted me as an actress, and that’s something that drove me. I was not going to be pegged as an action-comic-book fangirl.” Hollywood wouldn’t be the only industry that underestimated Alba.
The Honest Company’s origins are now tech-world legend. When Alba was pregnant with her first daughter, Honor, now seven—husband and father is Cash Warren, a Yale graduate and a producer and tech investor—her friends threw a baby shower and she received a closetful of new baby clothes. When she washed her unborn baby’s onesies with a detergent her mother had recommended and broke out in hives, she was hysterical. “I was thinking, what if my baby has a reaction and I don’t know? What if her throat is closing? I had all this fear and anxiety because I was always so sick as a child.” That night she Googled every ingredient and discovered that some toxins can be labeled as “fragrance.” Her mission was clear: “I wanted safe and effective consumer products that were beautifully designed, accessibly priced, and easy to get.” Great idea, but how to implement it?
Alba hired author Christopher Gavigan (husband of actress Jessica Capshaw)—whose book, Healthy Child Healthy World, addresses the numerous toxins that children are exposed to in typical household products on a daily basis—to consult on Love & Honor, the original name of her company. At the same time, she began her research: she discovered that in the U.S. the F.D.A. has banned fewer than a dozen harmful chemicals, whereas in Europe more than 1,300 chemicals are deemed unsafe for household products. In 2011 she appeared on Capitol Hill to ask members of Congress to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act.
By the time Alba had a second daughter, Haven, in 2011, her company was still not off the ground. Her husband introduced her to his childhood pal Brian Lee, a start-up entrepreneur who co-founded LegalZoom.com (which was sold to Permira, an investment firm, for $200 million in 2014). He passed on her idea. Two other potential investor deals fell through as well, but Alba was undeterred. “Actresses are used to rejection,” she explains.
Eighteen months later Lee had a baby of his own, and when his wife started manically researching their household cleaners he saw a need in the marketplace. By then Alba had refined her concept and changed the company name to Honest. “In the time between the first and second meeting, my wife had changed our whole life. Jessica’s goal to make safer products for the family resonated with me.” Finally convinced, Lee brought on Sean Kane from PriceGrabber.com to be the president and co-founder, and, with Alba and Gavigan, Honest’s own Fantastic Four was formed. “We are a mission business,” Lee says. “Our mission is to make safer homes for everyone.”
In 2012, the company’s first year, sales reached $10 million. It launched with only 17 products, in the diapers-and-wipes category, all of which were delivered to subscribers’ homes on a monthly basis, or à la carte. “Running out of diapers? That’s a parent’s nightmare,” Alba says. This year, with more than 135 products (toothpaste, nipple balm, vitamins, detergent, etc.) sold both online and in 4,400 retail stores, plus the fall launch of HonestBeauty.com, sales passed $150 million. The company weathered its first crisis, in September. It was accused in a class-action suit of selling an ineffective new product, a sunblock. “We learned we need to get in front of our product with education,” says Alba, and adds that Honest will organize a safe-sun tutorial next year. Last year’s Series D financing round raised $100 million, certifying Honest as a “start-up unicorn,” the term the tech industry applies to companies that reach a $1 billion valuation in less than five years. (Honest did it with two years to spare.) The company launched in Korea in 2015 and is planning to move into a number of international markets.
Honest’s success has given Alba a platform that her work in movies didn’t. Of her first trip down the Academy Awards red carpet, in 2006, she remembers thinking, “If I talk to anyone for too long they’re going to know I don’t belong here.” Now she’s not so worried. “I stopped caring about people liking me so much.” When I ask how she splits her time between being a successful businesswoman and a good parent, she shoots back, “Let me ask you something: how many men get asked that question?”
Warren says Alba’s confidence has replaced her insecurity about never having attended college. “This is the first time she knows she’s smart. She wakes up thinking about Honest; she goes to bed thinking about it.” Last year, she was on the covers of Shape and Forbes magazines at the same time, the latter of which had a headline that read: AMERICA’S RICHEST SELF-MADE WOMEN. (The article claimed that Alba is worth $200 million and owns between 15 and 20 percent of Honest, though she quickly declines to confirm any personal finances or financials of the company.)
“When someone asks if there’s a company that I didn’t invest in that I wish I had, I always say Honest,” says Kirsten Green, a venture capitalist at Forerunner, which invests in the brands Bonobos, Warby Parker, and Reformation. Green says Alba has redefined the celebrity business model, distancing it from a famous person’s unattainable aspiration and replacing it with a real connection to consumers. Celebrities need to do more than just pose with a product, and many of them—such as Reese Witherspoon, who started the company Draper James, which Green has invested in—are eager to follow Alba’s lead.
A few weeks after my office tour, Alba is navigating through West Hollywood’s back streets to get us to the Grove, a posh outdoor mall where she’s setting up an Honest pop-up shop. It’s the company’s first stand-alone space, and Alba wants to test the waters of brick-and-mortar retail. Behind the Peninsula hotel, Alba points out her first apartment and recalls her early days as an entrepreneur. “If it was easy, everyone would do it. You have to be a little bit crazy; you have to have gumption and tenacity. A lot of people give up at the first roadblock. But, for entrepreneurs, if there isn’t another road, we create it. We break concrete; we throw dynamite; we figure it out.”
We arrive at the Grove, and Alba is in boss mode again. She questions the placement of the artwork and uses a rag to clean off a display. “What about uniforms?” she wonders. It’s decided that all-white uniforms would look like cruise staff and all-black are “too Sephora,” so she settles on a denim-on-denim. Her next stop is Sprinkles cupcakes, to confirm that gluten-free treats will be on hand at the opening party. On her way out, she notices that posters promoting the pop-up aren’t facing the right way. Without missing a beat, she tosses down her purse and starts lugging the signs herself. Do you think Steve Jobs would’ve done that?, I ask her. “I don’t know,” she says as her face explodes into a big Hollywood smile. “But I’m doing this my way.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the name of the venture-capital firm behind brands Bonobos, Warby Parker, and Reformation. It is Forerunner, not FourRunner. The class-action lawsuit was brought in September, not June.