There were more than 1,000 IPOs on the U.S. stock market in 2021. Among those companies, only seven were female-led, said Jessica Alba, who took the business she cofounded, The Honest Company, public in May of last year.
“I feel very passionately that there’s something that can be done in this space,” she continued, sitting in her office in Los Angeles. “And I’ve gone deep in my team in understanding how bad it is, really, for women.”
She has the stats in mind.
“It’s 0.6 percent of the companies,” she said, of female-led initial public offerings in 2021. “Over 60 percent of people who come into the workplace are women, but only around 14 percent end up in leadership.”
If women participated in the workforce in the same way men do, over the next five years, they could contribute $4.3 trillion to the overall economy, she said she recently learned.
“Yet we have no support system to allow for that to happen,” she went on. “Why? We’re just leaving money on the table.”
She’s actively looking to unpack the issue.
“All the women that I speak to and that have helped me, they all have families,” she said. “So, it’s not like, ‘Oh, when you have a baby, you don’t want to work anymore.’ That’s fake news.”
COVID-19 set women back, she added: “Because not only are women caretakers of children — expected to be caretakers of children — they’re also expected to be caretakers of elderly. Over 60 percent of people who are taking care of elderly are women. And then when you look at even the jobs, I think it’s 89 percent of teachers are women, yet most of them, if not all of them, can’t afford childcare for them to work. And so how are they supposed to be in the workplace if they can’t afford childcare? Even the childcare workers, they can’t work because they can’t afford childcare.”
It’s complex, she said, but we’re reaching a breaking point.
“As we are 50 percent of the population, what can we do to say, ‘enough is enough?’” said Alba. “What do we have to say to say — the government doesn’t control our choices? You can’t control our bodies. If you’re not going to have oversight over what chemicals we’re exposed to, and there’s no standards and practices really around that in a way that ensures our health and safety, why are you then overreaching when it comes to the choices we get to make with our health care, with our bodies, specifically as women?”
A mom of three, it was in 2008 while pregnant with her eldest, Honor, that the actress — known for starring in Fox’s 2000 series “Dark Angel” and appearing in films like “Fantastic Four” and “Sin City” — imagined launching “clean” yet design-conscious and affordable baby products. She did so four years later, partnering with entrepreneurs Christopher Gavigan, Brian Lee and Sean Kane for The Honest Co. Transparency and sustainability, being “good for people, good for the planet,” were the brand values — common touchpoints for businesses today, but much less talked about a decade ago.
“When I really understood the lack of oversight on industries that make products, having to think through the human health aspect and having to think about the impact on the planet, and also the third thing, which is really standing for fairness when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion, when I just really understood the world around me and had that context, I then knew that there needed to be somebody to show that it can be done,” she said of launching the company.
Honest has expanded tremendously, now offering three categories of goods: diapers and wipes, skin and personal care under the Honest Beauty banner, and household and wellness. With an omnichannel approach, the brand is found in about 32,000 retail locations across the U.S., Canada and Europe.
“I always thought getting to a revenue number was a goal, but it’s not,” she said of business today.
“It’s really the health of the business. And how sustainable is the growth? And then, how can you expand, whether it’s going deeper into the categories you’re in or expanding into new opportunities? And it’s really leaning in on what makes us not like everyone else, instead of trying to, you know, fit us in a box of being like them. And I think the tendency, especially as a public company, is to feel like you need to operate the way that the analysts categorize you, against the competition. But I think the more we lean into what makes us us, the better over time we will be, and we just need to be OK with that. And that’s a learning curve for leadership. And obviously, it takes more than one person to think that way. You need everyone to think that way. And that isn’t going to happen overnight.”
She’s inspired by leaders who are “not feeling like they need to adhere to models that were right for companies 50 or 100 years ago and are OK with paving the way and being pioneers,” she said, mentioning Jeff Bezos, who she knows personally, and companies like Google, Tesla and SpaceX. “I always look at people who are doing who are renegades and who are doing something that had never been done before.”
Mary Dillon, Diane von Furstenberg, Tory Burch, Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg are some of the women she’s turned to for advice through the years.
“I don’t shy away from pulling somebody aside and asking for advice, to be honest,” she said with a laugh.
Today, at 41, Alba is in a new phase in life. She wants to make a greater difference, as a woman and person of color.
“The more we can make information accessible, that people know and feel empowered that they can make an impact, make a difference, I think then they will,” she said. “They will vote in the politicians that stand for their ethics and values, and they’ll root out the corrupt systems that are keeping us living like this.…We employ those people. We put them in those positions. If we wanted to change, we just have to decide. But I think a lot of people feel like we get so distracted being in fight or flight mode, just trying to make ends meet, scraping along in society. It’s hard for anybody to get that bird’s eye view. And I think that those systems are in place to keep us in that scarcity, that fight or flight. And knowing that we can then say, ‘enough is enough.’”
With more diversity at the top, “we would probably have more people questioning practices,” she continued. “And you would probably have better outcomes for all, including the companies.”
“The people who get treated the worst, historically, are people living in unfavorable circumstances, people of color, primarily. And also women and children. So, my passion has always sat inside of the bucket of women and children. And as a woman of color, you know, and person of color, I can empathize,” Alba said. “In a way, it puts me in a seat of empathy and compassion as I’ve lived or my family members have lived a lot of these experiences. So, I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve had a seat at that table, so I can directly relate to why it needs to change and have the perseverance to make sure it does…That certainly is one of the reasons why I started this company. Because if you think of the people who are most affected by being exposed to toxic chemicals, and how it affects their health, it is Black and brown communities and people who are living in poverty. That’s not right. Just because you’re not making the same amount of money as somebody else, why are you walking through the world with unfairness? There’s no reason for it. Not in this day and age.”
It’s no surprise Alba’s transition from actress to entrepreneur has become the blueprint for Hollywood agents looking to diversify their clients’ revenue stream. Alba is well aware. Asked what’s most fulfilling in her journey as an entrepreneur, she said it’s looking back at how much she’s accomplished.
“Sitting in rooms across from my agents back in the day, and them sort of being so condescending and so—” She lets out a big sigh. “Infuriating. And later, they then are all trying to build models inside of their agencies to support, essentially, their clients building out brands or having visions around this kind of thing, using Honest as a business model to aspire to, when they basically looked at me cross eyed, or they just sort of looked down at me and kept it moving. It’s funny, some agents took credit even, who basically laughed me out of rooms. And, yeah, just knowing that that was the beginning and then seeing where I am now. It’s pretty cool.”
Personally, too, she’s entering a different chapter.
“For such a long time, I was so tactical,” she said. “It was like brass tacks, data. That side, this very masculine side of me. And, frankly, it really served me for a long time. That energy really protected me and allowed me to achieve so much. But I’m really interested in exploring the Yin, the female, the feminine, being softer, being more emotional.”
Pausing, she added, “And not feeling like I need to do everything all the time. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. And I think exploring the softer side, whatever that looks like, it feels more creative. It feels more gentle. It feels like there’s more self-worth and self-care.”
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