I caught Jessica Alba on the phone just as she was about to jet off to Thailand to shoot a new movie. She explained how hard it was saying goodbye to her two children at home that morning — and then got down to business.
These days the actress has a busy schedule behind the camera, but she’s also focused on the entrepreneurial side of her life — growing her natural, non-toxic family essentials brand, The Honest Company, into an international, multi-faceted lifestyle brand.
Alba co-founded The Honest Company with Brian Lee in 2011 and today it’s valued at $1 billion with over 300 employees. The company announced in August that it’s heading toward an IPO. She’s also learned the realities of becoming a business woman, and it’s not always pretty. The company is currently in a trademark dispute with a competitor, Cosmedicine. Alba has a new partnership with Girls who Code, the organization dedicated to educating young girls in STEM areas.
Last week Alba invited 100 teenage girls to the company’s Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters for an open house and will give 20 of them internships. In our interview, Alba reflected back on her own aspirations as a young girl and business woman. She spoke candidly about challenges she’s faced as an entrepreneur and her big plans for the future. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Why did you decide to partner with Girls who Code?
Well I’ve always been passionate about really anything that has to do with giving women and children better choices and better chances at life and empowering them, whether it’s through education, or products or mentorship. This is a perfect blend of it all. When I was looking at the stats, by 2020 there’s going to be roughly 1.4 million jobs in tech and three jobs for every comp science grad, but only 18 percent of those graduates are going to be women. Also technology has given me an opportunity to be an entrepreneur and to see my dreams come true. I never would have been able to launch the company and had that success without technology. To be able to empower girls with tools and fulfill their personal job [aspirations]; it’s amazing to be able to be in that position.
How did the open house go?
We invited about a 100 girls to come to an open house to check out the office. Then we will choose 20 of them for a seven-week summer intern program in technology. They were so sweet, they were thoughtful and connected and excited about the opportunity and it was just cool to have them here. When you’re in an office environment you don’t often get that type of young energy, a different type of critical thinker. I was a little nervous they weren’t going to like it or think, ‘Oh this is so lame,’ but I think overall they liked it. I don’t come from a traditional business background and our office is pretty unconventional.
What do you mean? What is the office like?
It’s very homey and has a lot of light. It’s warm and it’s not really formal. It has an energy and a lot of talking. There’s a lot of people in one place. It gets a bit chaotic. It just has a lot of energy — we call it organized chaos.
When you were a teen, did you ever think you’d be running your own business today?
It wasn’t out of the question. I’ve always been pretty independent. My mom really encouraged me to not have limitations for what was possible. At their age I had already been acting for a few years and had already taken on a lot of responsibility as a young person. It’s funny to think back to 15, 16, 17 years old and to put myself in their shoes and how I would have perceived this experience.
What do you wish you could go back and tell a younger you?
One of the girls asked me that question. I was so insecure when I was their age, in a weird way, especially with boys and peers. I was insecure about not having a private, traditional education and so many different things I felt funny about. I would just tell myself that I was good enough, as long as I tried to be better, tried to learn, worked hard and I was nice to people, that it would all kind of fall into place. And it did, it took me 30 years to figure that out.
Why do you think more girls need to pursue careers in STEM?
What I found when I started this company and when I went around raising money for it, it’s one of the places that age and gender don’t matter. It’s all about your product and how it performs. Either it works, or it doesn’t. It’s an equal playing ground for them to work in. Also there are just not a lot of women out there creating stuff for women. I think it would be better for all of us if there was just that women’s touch on everything from grocery shopping to clothing shopping to appliance shopping to learning about a new method for putting a baby to sleep. All of these things done through a woman’s perspective would be different than [if it were done] by a man or data analytics company. I did so much when I built this company that came from my gut as a woman, and what just felt right. I found that [to be the case] from talking to a lot of successful entrepreneurs — that’s where they operate from. If girls did that more and were fearless in their choices and had the tools to do it, the world would be better place.
Can you think of an example of a time you followed your gut and it helped the business?
Launching online instead of through traditional retail. I had different business partners and they wanted to go through [a more traditional] retailer. It just didn’t sit right with me. I let that go and started all over again two years into that investment. This is a very innovative way to launch a company and it’s driven success.
What is your long-term goal for the business?
I’m really excited about going international and being a global brand — giving everyone access to beautiful products. I’m also excited about going into more categories. We’re launching feminine care, organic cotton non-toxic, with the first comfort applicator and panty liners that are all really safe absorbent materials. The packaging is very cute, not embarrassing to buy, and you can also have it delivered to your door. We’re also launching an organic food line for infants and young children. So that’s exciting and we’re also working on a beauty skin care line. Every vertical will have its own look and feel styled for that demographic. I’ve been really busy. Launching products is easy — it’s building it, finding the right manufacturers, getting the design right and all of the marketing that is hard.
It sounds like you’re still very involved in the company.
It’s kind of a problem. I’m still a bit of a micromanager. I’m so opinionated, I don’t know I feel like I’m always kind of compromised. I always feel like something’s missing. I try my hardest every day and I find when I go to bed early and wake up early, I feel the most productive.
What’s been the most challenging part of creating The Honest Company?
The unknowns and operationally, the logistics. It’s very difficult, the front-end technology has to match the back-end, which has to match the messaging online [to alert] the warehouse when to pack each box — It has to be precise.
Have you learned a lot about the tech side of things?
I’ve learned a lot of the tech side. I’m certainly not a coder. I wish I knew how to code. I sit with my tech team and go through wire frames. It matters — I care about it, I’m obviously passionate about it and the passion also inspires people who are working here. If I was sitting on my butt not doing anything it would be different, but they see me doing everything from hanging up pictures on the wall to giving them notes on wire frames to packing boxes and throwing them in the parking lot to see if they break with a new bubble wrap.
Do you think your kids will follow your footsteps and become entrepreneurs?
It’s certainly a very energetic and interesting work life. They get to see their mom and their dad — my husband is an entrepreneur as well — they’ve seen both of us have an idea and create something. For them to see what we’ve created — that’s probably pretty cool as a kid. I don’t know if that will inspire them or make them think, ‘No thank you, that’s too much work,’ (laughing). I’m a very creative person and I feel like one of my kids at least will get the creative bug.
What advice do you have for young women starting their careers today?
The only way you can measure your success is by reflecting and seeing what you want out of the experience. And the journey is just as much a part of the success you seek out. You do need to be very real with yourself on results and whether that’s paying off, and if it’s not, move on.
This article originally appeared on Bizwomen