Enthusiasm is infectious, unstoppable, a primal force of nature. Kind of like malaria. Those of us born with a natural immunity to it are called pessimists—or journalists. (The terms are pretty much interchangeable.) We are adept at spotting the canker in the rose, to paraphrase Shakespeare, and truth be told, we strain to see it even when it’s not there.
That is why I feel sorry for any journalist who has to profile Jessica Alba, an actress of uncommon beauty who has become an extraordinarily successful and savvy businesswoman. Her enthusiasm is genuine, her success is earned, and her disarming smile and sweet demeanor make you ashamed of all the mean questions you wanted to ask.
Launched in 2012, Alba’s Honest Company (she is a cofounder and the chief creative officer) has grown into a robust online subscription business that markets a whole host of household and beauty products positioned as safe and mostly naturally derived. Honest was valued by Fortune this year at $1.7 billion, making it a real live unicorn, a term generally reserved for start-ups valued at $1 billion or higher. (Though “real” and “live” are probably not the best modifiers of “unicorn.”) Recent history shows that those hypothetical billions can evaporate into bankruptcy as fast as you can say “dot-com bubble.” But Alba’s business seems robust: Aside from its loyal online following, Honest works with powerhouse retailers, such as Ulta Beauty (for beauty), Target, Costco, Nordstrom, and Whole Foods, to name a few.
Alba is perfectly composed and ladylike, sipping a glass of rosé in the plush restaurant of the New York Edition hotel on Madison Square in New York City. I am sweating like a pig (actually, pigs don’t sweat much, which is why they wallow in the mud to cool off, but I digress), having sprinted across town, knocking over several members of the clergy, pregnant women, and gawking tourists along the way, only to arrive 15 minutes late. (I’m sorry about the clergymen and pregnant women; the tourists had it coming.) Noticing my, um, glandular condition, Alba takes pity: “Is the fireplace hot for you? Why don’t you sit here?” she says, gesturing to her own place. She is gracious and tries not to stare at my sorry, drippy state. Though why a big gas fireplace, the mantel of which can only be described as faux baronial, is blazing away on a sultry summer evening is anyone’s guess.
I think about this as I try to formulate a relevant question for her about the direct relationship between luxury and carbon footprint—so glaringly obvious at that very moment—and try to will myself to stop sweating, which of course has the opposite effect. My mind wanders to those stories about Richard Nixon cranking up the AC in the White House as the world closed in on him so he could gaze into a roaring fire for solace. I do not bring this up.
We’re not here for my free associations but to talk about Alba’s new ventures: a line of hair-care products under the Honest Beauty umbrella, new palettes of makeup colors, a jeans collection in collaboration with DL1961, and oh, yes, an action movie, Mechanic: Resurrection, costarring Jason Statham. If this is the part where your eyes begin to glaze over, I completely understand. It sometimes seems as if every actress or reality-TV oddity or millennial with more than 1,000 Instagram followers has a lifestyle brand.
Alba is aware of the saturation. I wonder aloud whether she’s ever considered that if she didn’t have the background she has in such a looks-based profession, if she weren’t as beautiful and glamorous, her passion for natural products wouldn’t translate so readily: “Are people buying into your lifestyle because of who you are, not what you make?” “I think it’s a double-edged sword,” she says without betraying the slightest annoyance at the question. “It also makes people skeptical when they see a celebrity attached. Sometimes it makes you interested, but sometimes it could be really bad: Are they just doing it for money? Is this just an endorsement? The products have to be great. Yes, I have a platform because of what I do, and I have access to media in ways that other people don’t, so I can spread the word. [Customers] may be interested because of that and try [the products]. But you can’t convert people because they’re interested. What’s going to convert them is [realizing], ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing.’ I get messages all the time about our products. We change people’s lives.”
She proudly tells the story of a woman who sent her a message on Instagram saying: My daughter suffered from really bad eczema. She’s six years old, and it made her feel bad about herself. We switched over to your laundry detergent and your shampoo, and now she walks around like a normal kid. All her rash has gone away. “That changed a six-year-old’s life,” says Alba with obvious pride, “and that’s real.”
I am genuinely interested in Alba’s business experience and how this 35-year-old actress with no college education and no formal business training has built such a powerful enterprise. And I gradually realize that my initial notions are pretty much completely wrong.
Misconception #1: Alba is a dilettante who breezes in from time to time to sprinkle fairy dust about the office and isn’t really involved in product development or day-to-day operations.
Reality: “When you’re a founder of a company, there’s really nothing going on that you’re not part of…so when it comes to the design of the site, the display ads, our marketing strategy, I’m part of all those discussions and involved in all those creative assets.”
Misconception #2: She slaps her label on preexisting products from eco-friendly manufacturers and markets them.
Reality: “We don’t own our own factories. We find best-in-class manufacturers, and then I go work with their chemists to create our formulas, or we make our formulas in-house. It’s a very rigorous process of quality assurance and quality control. We have a sourcing department. We have a product-development and R&D department—those are the chemists. And then the product-development creative is on my side. So I say, ‘It needs to feel like this; it needs to smell like this; it needs to perform like that; it should be delivered in this type of package.’ And then I work with the creative-marketing team. It takes about 18 months to make it and to test it. And then I work with my retail team and the online team so the product feels exactly the same online as it does [on a shelf].”
Misconception #3: Alba is an environmental absolutist who thinks all chemicals are evil.
Reality: “Everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical. I’m not against chemicals. I care about human health, and I want whatever is safest and healthiest. Some people can have very extreme points of view. I created the Honest Company because I’m not extreme. I couldn’t identify with people who wanted to do everything completely 100 percent from nature. I don’t have a garden growing my own organic fruits and vegetables. I don’t have an organic farm where I’m raising my own livestock. That’s not my reality. So I want the best options that work for me without me feeling like I want to compromise on health or safety. Honest is about that happy medium, and not extreme.”
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More sanity: She has had her two daughters, Honor, eight, and Haven, five, vaccinated. She firmly believes in modern medicine and all the benefits it affords. At work she surrounds herself with experts and, she says, is learning every day how to translate her formidable instinct about what products people want into a solid business practice. She believes that even when a beauty line, for instance, is aspirational, it still needs to be attainable. Put another way, she is very sensitive to price and doesn’t think a “foundation has to cost $75 to be good.”
Sometimes a person inadvertently tells you something about herself, something completely off the cuff, that goes to the core of what inspires her, what drives her, what gets her out of bed and into her stilettos. It’s the non-BS answer that she’s not necessarily supposed to reveal, but in a moment of honesty, she does. As a journalist, it’s your job to sniff it out (with varying degrees of success). On the rare occasion, and with the rare celebrity who decides to drop her guard, the results can be particularly refreshing.
And that is exactly what Alba did near the end of our time together. I had finally stopped dripping, and it was in response to a question about what motivates her.
“A, I’m a hustler. B, I’ve been working since I was, like, 12. I’ve lived all over the world; I’ve worked all over the world with adults and seen all these different dynamics. I’ve been part of a lot of businesses’ marketing strategies, and I see how they utilize someone like me. I love learning. I’m a sponge. I haven’t lost my thirst and desire to learn. Every day is different, and I’m working toward something that I feel really good about. So it’s supergratifying.”
Hustle. Work freaking hard.
Be endlessly curious. Be grateful. Be satisfied. And do it all again.
It’s a recipe for happiness that even the most sour-eyed pessimist has to (perhaps grudgingly) admire.
Hair, Davy Newkirk; makeup, Ozzy Salvatierra; manicure, Ashlie Johnson. Prop stylist: Evan Jourden. Fashion stylist: Beth Fenton.