Hollywood actress Jessica Alba was pregnant with her second baby when she was running, sometimes flying, from one investor meeting to the next, pitching Honest Company, her organic beauty and baby care brand that this week listed with a value of roughly $2bn.
The mum-of-three, best known for her leading roles in blockbusters Sin City and Fantastic Four, launched her toxin-free range in 2011 after the birth of her first child had prompted her to seek out natural products.
Sales rose rapidly and the group garnered a reputation as a unicorn — a start-up valued above $1bn. But in 2015 and 2016 Honest was hit with lawsuits, facing accusations that some of its products contained synthetic and potentially toxic ingredients and so were mislabelled “natural”.
“When the brand goes through harder times, it’s hard not to take that personally but [Alba] showed a really high level of resilience,” said Christopher Gavigan, who co-founded the business with Alba and entrepreneur Brian Lee. “I give her a tonne of credit for where we are today.”
Alba has retained a 6.1 per cent stake, which was worth about $130m at the end of Honest’s first trading day on Tuesday. Since then, however, the stock price has dropped about 10 per cent.
Alba, who turned 40 last month, compares the ups and downs at her company over the past decade with motherhood, dubbing Honest her “other baby”. “It’s all about raising that child to be a great human being and that’s exactly how I feel today,” Alba told the Financial Times.
For Alba, Honest’s mission of making products safer is personal. Growing up, she spent years in and out of hospitals battling asthma and undergoing several surgeries. Twice, Alba has lobbied US lawmakers in Congress, pushing for tighter toxic chemicals regulations.
Philip Landrigan, a paediatrician who researches the effects of toxic chemicals on children’s health, remembers being struck by Alba’s “intellectual curiosity” when she supported a philanthropic venture at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. “She didn’t strike me as just a Hollywood person,” said Landrigan. “Her personal roots with this issue go very deep. She’s not superficial at all.”
Alba was born and raised in California and her parents dropped out of school when her mother fell pregnant. Her father, of Mexican descent, joined the military, and the fledgling family lived off $14,000 a year. Her parents’ work ethic, Alba said in a speech at the University of Southern California, “really taught [her] what hard work and discipline was all about”.
Alba started work aged 12, when she landed her first acting roles. Her ascent to Hollywood began with the 2003 hit Honey and she has since starred in more than 30 films, which have grossed almost $2bn worldwide, according to movie database IMDb.
The persistence she used to help navigate Hollywood, Alba said, had equipped her with the stamina needed to survive as an entrepreneur. “I had to deal with a thousand no’s,” she added. “That’s a similar kind of circumstance as an entrepreneur. You have to push those doors open, especially as a woman and a woman of colour.”
Eric Liaw, a general partner at venture capital group IVP, one of the first investors in Honest, recalls a seven-month pregnant Alba pitching the idea at his office near Palo Alto, California.
“Someone in her position is probably used to people coming to see her when they have something they want to talk about,” Liaw said. “[Her dedication] made it clear to me that it wasn’t just some celebrity marketing deal, which it’s not. The vision is hers.”
Alba said, in a letter to prospective investors, that the previous controversies were an “honest moment” for her, admitting that the company’s “rapid growth was compromising” the business.
Honest is unprofitable, but revenues rose from $236m in 2019 to $300m in 2020, a level last achieved in 2016, and losses narrowed to $14m from $31m.
The group has paid out almost $10m to consumers as part of two court settlements, and reformulated or updated 90 per cent of its product range and committed to transparency as it seeks to rebuild its reputation.
Alba, who has featured in only two films in the past five years, has stepped back from her role as chair of the board. She will retain the position of chief creative officer.
Will this mean a return to acting? “As long as it makes sense and . . . it would be fun,” said Alba, “ . . . then I’ll consider it”.