Jessica Alba: Billion-Dollar Baby

How the former teen star stayed grounded amid all the Hollywood hot air and built a nearly billion-dollar empire of environmentally friendly products

by Allison Glock
Jessica Alba cover
Narciso Rodriguez embroidered wool dress;
Photograph: David Slijper

The Honest Company offices in Santa Monica are a hive of earnest positivity. Many of the employees on the diverse young staff of 338 smile as they bustle past, their skin bright, their clothes smart, unfussy. The spacious lobby is decorated like a cozy living room, with a vintage credenza, flea market table lamps, a worn copy of The Honest Life, the best--selling book by Honest founder and actress Jessica Alba, resting on the coffee table. Further in, the loftlike interior of the former toy factory features wood-accented walls, exposed brick and a floor-to-ceiling display of succulents sprouting from sweet little pots.

“Sometimes my CFO gets irritated about it,” Alba, 34, declares with a barely perceptible shrug as we stroll past the wall of greenery. She’s dressed in snug jeans, a white T-shirt, a long white cardigan and white suede bucks, managing to appear simultaneously laid back and pulled together. “Someone has to come every week to water and put them in the sun for a day, and that costs money.”

Never mind. Alba had a vision for the work space, and that vision included plants. “We needed something alive. We couldn’t just have pretty pictures,” she explains amiably. “And so when he’s like, ‘Do we really need the live succulents?’ I say, ‘Yes, yes, we do.’”

In 2011, Alba’s concept for the Honest Company popped into her head plain and fully formed. She wanted to create an e-commerce site that sold eco-friendly home and baby products. After enlisting the help of environmental-health expert Christopher Gavigan, her cofounder and CPO, e-commerce innovator Brian Lee, her cofounder and CEO, and business developer Sean Kane, her cofounder and president, she secured investor seed money, and in 2012 the Honest Company was born. It began with the manufacturing of 17 products, ranging from diapers and wipes to detergents and stain removers. In its first year, Honest took in $10 million in sales. By 2013, with virtually no advertising but strong word of mouth, sales skyrocketed to $50 million. Today the company—whose 117-and-counting products are now also available through retailers such as Target, Costco and Whole Foods—is valued at nearly $1 billion.

Alba says the figure isn’t actually that impressive (but it’s certainly enough to support a few succulents). “When you look at the marketplace that we’re playing in, it’s trillions of dollars,” she explains. “Window cleaner alone is a billion-dollar business, just to give a bit of perspective, because people get so freaked out by our valuation. Also, it doesn’t feel tangible yet, because I’m still hustling.”

Next up, Honest will deliver beauty and feminine care products. “We are doing an organic tampon, but it won’t be in a cardboard applicator,” says Alba. “It’s in a plant-based plastic compact applicator, which is the first of its kind.” The company gets as many as 5,000 calls a day from customers who have suggestions and wish lists. As a result, says Alba, “I’m working on skin care, hair care, mattresses, air filters, paint. Our customers really want paint.”

Even before she launched Honest, Alba says she knew those passionate consumers were out there—although not everybody was convinced. “When she originally approached me with the idea for the company, I didn’t completely understand what she was talking about,” admits Lee. “Then I had my first child, and I saw how my wife changed. She started shopping at Whole Foods, making organic purees for our baby. And it hit me that raising children is such an awakening for so many moms. You hold your child for the first time, and you want to do anything you can to make a safe environment for them. That’s the moment I knew Jessica was on to something.”

First published in the May 2015 issue

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