Leadership & Management

Jessica Alba on the Role of Humility in Entrepreneurship

In this podcast episode, entrepreneur Jessica Alba shares how lessons from her personal life informed her business decisions.

May 13, 2022

| by Jenny Luna

“How can I create a solution for people that really has the ethics and values around human health, safety, while also thinking about the planet and sustainability?”

In a vulnerable interview with Alexandra Eitel, MBA ’22, Jessica Alba, founder of The Honest Company, shared how experiencing health problems in her childhood inspired her products and brand. Alba also discussed her philosophy of approaching business with humility and self awareness, in this View From The Top interview.

“You have to be very humble if you want to be an entrepreneur.… Know what you know and know what you don’t know.”

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund.

During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Jessica Alba: You have to be very humble if you want to be an entrepreneur or be part of a business, know what you know, know what you don’t know. And then, you know, surround yourself with people that really support your strengths and your weaknesses.

Alexandra Eitel: Welcome to View From The Top: The Podcast. That was Jessica Alba, founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Honest Company. Jessica joins Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From The Top, a speaker series where students like me sit down to interview business leaders from around the world.

I’m Alexandra Eitel, an MBA student of the class of 2022. This year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Alba. Jessica recounted her entrepreneurial journey from starting The Honest Company based on needs she identified in her own life and then bringing the company to IPO just last year. She also discussed the importance of knowing your customer, her thoughts on Gen Z, and trusting your gut. You’re listening to View From The Top: The Podcast.

On behalf of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I’d like to welcome you to View From The Top. We are so excited to have you here.

Jessica Alba: Thank you for having me.

Alexandra Eitel: We have so much to learn from you here at the GSB about your business savvy and your tenacity in building a truly fantastic company. So, I’d like to start today with the origin of Honest. So much of the company is built upon your personal experience as a child with health challenges, and as a mom who struggled to find products that were affordable and ecofriendly for your own children. So, can you tell us about how these pain points led you to developing a business solution?

Jessica Alba: Yeah, gladly. You know, I think it really was for me filling a need and finding a, a real opportunity to show up not just for myself, but for many people, in a way that I think I, I was seeing that companies that make products that really interact with you every single day and could have an effect on your health and wellbeing over time, they just weren’t really considering I think holistically your health and wellness as the top priority.

And for me, I just felt like our health and wellness — when you go through your life and you are thinking of quality of life and thriving, when your health is compromised and your health and wellness is compromised in any way, shape, or form, it’s really difficult to then live a life where you can thrive and be happy and live life to the fullest.

So when I was a child and I was very sick, and I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t like others, and I was isolated — I had severe asthma and allergies, and every time I had an allergy to something it actually triggered my asthma and I was put in the hospital on steroids. I was in the hospital I would say at least three or four times a year for a week to two weeks, doing steroid treatments and breathing treatments and dealing with pneumonia and bronchitis. And every cold turned into pneumonia, so it was just like a whole situation.

But I wanted to play baseball and soccer and be a normal kid. And so I’d go on the soccer field with a breathing machine, and I would have that next to me. I also had kidney issues and cysts and many different other surgeries on top of that. And all of this before I was 11. So, I just dealt with a lot of health issues.

And when I was pregnant with my first daughter about 13 years ago, I had an allergic reaction. And I had pretty much stayed away from the things that were causing reactions, and I started to really create subconsciously this safe environment where I didn’t, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of the things that would trigger my allergies or asthma.

And then when I was pregnant with Honor, I had an allergic reaction to a detergent that was marketing to parents to use on their babies’ clothing. And my mom said she used it on me, and I didn’t know very many moms, and when I had this allergic reaction I got a flood of the memories of me as a kid and having all of these health issues. And I was like, oh my God, what if my baby is like me? What if she has these sort of issues?

And it really kind of shaped who I am. And I think it builds character to go through difficulties, but if it could be avoided, let’s avoid them, you know? My mother got cancer when she was, I believe she was 23, 22 or 23, and had to have a full hysterectomy, meaning she couldn’t have children anymore. And her cancer was environmentally caused, because there was nothing genetically that was linked to that.

So, when I looked, I took sort of a reflection on my childhood, my mom’s health and wellness, now I’m bringing this little person into the world and thinking about quality of life in a different way. I was told I wasn’t allowed to eat deli meats, and I couldn’t use my Retinol on my face because it could possibly affect the baby and her health and wellness.

So I started looking at ingredients and thinking about my health differently, and hers obviously. And I learned about lots of untested and potentially harmful chemicals that we use and are exposed to on the daily. And a lot of it is in beauty products, hair/skin products, makeup products, fragrances, home detergents.

And so then I was like, oh my goodness, every single day we’re being exposed to all of these potentially harmful chemicals, and we don’t even know it, and we don’t even know how it’s affecting our health. So then I was looking at, I looked at data and was trying to understand the research around the rise of illness. And there was a pretty parallel path in the industrialization of these chemicals and them being put into consumer products and beauty products, and that rise really paralleled the rise of many illnesses that people are dealing with.

Because, they’re hormone disruptors and they’re endocrine disruptors, and they’re linked to things like various cancers, learning disabilities, and also the way that it affects your hormones. It’s basically like giving your body steroids, and it really screws up your hormones, men and women, the exposure to a lot of these chemicals.

So I was like, how do we not know about this, and how is this even allowed in this country, with all of the — you know, shouldn’t there be a governing sort of practice or rules or standards? And in the UK, they actually make companies test chemicals for safety before they’re even allowed to be brought into the marketplace in personal care and beauty. And in this country, the way that the system is set up is, it has to be proven to kill enough people before they’ll even look into it being dangerous.

And so I was like, what? So basically, like, we’re just being tested on? And I was like, that is so messed up. And then people who live in sort of like different circumstances, where they don’t, they can’t necessarily control their environment and their shopping habits, because they’re just trying to survive and they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, like I grew up, and a lot of black and brown families as well are disproportionately affected by the exposure to a lot of these chemicals.

And so, I was just like, whoa. And so I legislated for chemical reform to try and at least get our standards in this country to be more like Europe. And I — sorry, not legislated, I lobbied for the legislation for chemical reform, excuse me. And I did it twice, and basically, as you know, during COVID, our health has been politicized. And it’s basically whatever opinion someone wants to decide is truth becomes the truth versus facts. And so, I was like wow, this shouldn’t be about a political party, this is just common sense and human health.

Anyway, frustrated with the system, I was like well, how can I create a solution for people that really has like the ethics and values around human health, safety, also thinking about the planet and sustainability, and then obviously I think the last and most important piece of the puzzle is really showing up for people and meeting their needs no matter where they live in the country. It shouldn’t be oh, I can only, I afford the most expensive things, and so I can shop at like a Whole Foods or whatever type of grocery store, but everyone else is sort of left out. And I was like, that just isn’t fair.

And also, I felt like there weren’t a lot of companies that stood for health and wellness that also spoke my language. I don’t know, I just feel like I love beauty and design and I love beautiful things in the home, and I just felt like there was a way to show up in a beautiful way but still have the ethos and values and ethics that I have as a person.

So that’s really where the business came from, and the idea, and that’s how it started.

Alexandra Eitel: Well, I love the intergenerational aspect of it, of watching your mom go through something, experiencing something yourself, and then trying to create a solution for your children. That’s obviously a really wonderful brand story.

But obviously not everyone was sold in the beginning. So I’m curious, how did your business pitch evolve as you experienced some initial naysayers, or some nos?

Jessica Alba: Yeah, I mean, I think you have to know your audience, know their capacity. And originally I was pitching this idea to start this business with people in entertainment, not knowing that the very business model in entertainment is incoming calls and licensing deals, right? And it isn’t starting from the ground up and investing in a concept.

Now I think Hollywood has gotten a little bit more savvy, and I would say the success of my company has moved the business to be a little bit more open to different ways of operating. I also think that because the shift in access to content and the internet and habits changing and consuming has changed so dramatically over the last, I mean, 20 years, but really 10 years. So the business Hollywood has had to also try and figure out where they fit in that. And I think they’re still challenged, because they’re holding onto a lot of the old sort of systems.

But yeah, so I guess I was pitching this idea to the wrong audience, that’s first and foremost. Then I started pitching it around to different people outside of my scope, and I would say while as an entrepreneur you’re so excited and you see your end goal and you know you’re moving toward that end goal, you have to make it palatable for what can happen here and now and today. So it’s like, you want to sell the dream of this going to be a global brand that stands for the health and wellbeing of people and the planet, and we’re going to make, not only build community and educate people on how they can live a better life, but we’re also going to create the solution for them, and it’s going to be in various categories around home detergents, around bath and body products, around baby products, and around skin and beauty products.

For me, I had to distill my idea down to the thing that was trendy and hot in the moment, where investors were excited to invest into these new business models. And I knew that I didn’t want to take this concept to a retailer because I didn’t want the retailer to then — because when you take your concept and your idea and you build inside of a retailer’s environment, they essentially get to take the reins and mold it into what fits into their business model. And you often will compromise on your values, especially when you are right out the gate.

I also knew I wanted there to be a charity component, you know, and I thought that was really important. And I also really wanted there to be diversity and inclusion just embedded in the values and the practices of who we are.

So, all of those things I would say are just very new concepts, especially back 10 years ago. People hadn’t really seen successful businesses that had values like that. I mean, there’s like, they’re very few and far between that hit on all of those things. And so, I had to figure out, like, know your audience, distill the concept down to what is hot in the market, that people are excited to invest behind, and make it, get your elevator pitch down, because I had a 100-page deck with like, everything from like home paints and furnishings and detergents all the way through to, you know, beauty products and then brands that sit in different price points and distribution …

Alexandra Eitel: You had the whole kitchen sink.

Jessica Alba: I mean, I had the whole kit-and-caboodle. And so, I had to really distill it down to at the time, what was hot was a predictable subscription business model. And I partnered with essentially the guy that had paved the way for that business model to come to life. He founded LegalZoom and another business called ShoeDazzle. And so, I partnered with him and pitched him the business, and he turned me down. And then, he came back about 18 months later and I pitched him again, and at that point he had had a kid and saw his wife change her beauty habits, change what she allowed in the house, threw out all their detergents in their home, the cleaning products, and basically was shopping from a very small and curated set to provide a healthy environment for their little child.

And so he was like, oh my goodness, okay, so people do change when they have kids and they start thinking differently about ingredients, chemical exposures, the planet, and those types of values. I would say now, so when I partnered with him, then we basically went and pitched, you know, Sand Hill, on Sand Hill like five or six companies and VCs, and we got five term sheets by the end of the day. And I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and I was told by my doctor I wasn’t allowed to fly anymore. And that was my second child. I was pregnant, because it took me actually three years to get to that point.

And yeah, I think it’s like, you have to be very humble if you want to be an entrepreneur or be part of a business, know what you know, know what you don’t know. And then, you know, surround yourself with people that really support your strengths and your weaknesses.

Alexandra Eitel: Yeah, I love that point about knowing your audience, and how his life circumstances changed how he acted as an audience member to receiving your pitch. And just that little moment of his wife experiencing exactly what you were talking about was all they really needed to see the benefit for the company.

So at business school, in all of our classes, we’re constantly reading case studies to learn about pivotal moments in a company’s history. So, we talked a little bit about the pitch. We can fast-forward to Honest Co. is now an amazing company. What do you think would be the inflection point that you would choose if the GSB were to do a case study?

Jessica Alba: It’s interesting. I would say going from and operating from like a start-up and, you know, that’s like a high-growth start-up with that sort of high-growth business model, and really transitioning into a more steady-state growth business model, and building the foundational principles to operate like a business that could be around for 100 years. Because the people that you bring in, and that can get capital to start a company, are very different people that usually I would say 99 percent of the time, is usually a very different team than that can operate and build out foundational principles for a company that could stick around for 100-plus years.

Alexandra Eitel: I love that. And speaking of teams, actually, an instrumental part of your team is your current CEO. I’m curious, how did you find him, how did you, how did he convince you that he was the right person, that he was really going to be able to carry your vision forward as CEO?

Jessica Alba: Nick worked at Clorox, and actually, you know, when we were starting the business and when we had such high-growth, and being a digital-first business and building community, it was such a different approach, and the values and ethics around health and wellness again was also such a different, in the way that we went about it, was such a different approach to the way a lot of the big CPG companies operate.

And so, we’ve had all of the big companies knock on our door, and you have to take those meetings. And so he had spent time with us and looked at us, you know, years before, and really sort of like understood our business model. And then, when we were at a time to bring in a new team to really like build those foundational principles, I think because we had, he had historic data and understood the mental model of what needed to be true — and also, he had done it with Burt’s Bees, when they brought Burt’s Bees into Clorox. And you know, he really has a very like creative approach to business.

And I think you can’t have someone who’s so stuck into what they know, but you need to have someone who’s really genuinely open and curious to building out what the business needs at that moment. And he really felt like he was grounded in, and having conviction about that.

But then also I would say the other big piece of it is he really lived this life. These values are very meaningful to him and his family. He’s a father of four, two sets of twins. And his wife and him and the kids, they live very much these values, and these are the types of products they have in their home, and this is how they live their life. So, just those, the purpose and the mission of the company really resonated with him.

Alexandra Eitel: I love that. Well, an amazing moment that you had last year was when you took the company public, so congratulations on that.

Jessica Alba: Thank you.

Alexandra Eitel: I’m curious, did the IPO feel like a moment to pause and appreciate all your accomplishments, or was it a wakeup call that new challenges and opportunities were ahead of you?

Jessica Alba: You know, for me it was like both. I would say that every time we hit a different sort of transition or milestone, at this point I feel like I’ve been through it all. And you’ll see, guys, when you start your own businesses, what I’m talking about.

And yeah, it almost felt like we’re starting from zero again, and building the foundation of what it means to be and operate like a public company. And now, like, we’re building those building blocks and those foundational principles again, but in this new space.

Alexandra Eitel: I love that. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention your previous role and current still role in Hollywood, and where I learned, at least, at your talent agency, CAA, branding, your personal brand, is everything. And I’m curious what learnings carried over from that world to the business world.

Jessica Alba: I’m now at UTA, but yeah, I would say that your personal brand as someone in Hollywood, but then even someone like you or any of you guys sitting there, you can’t — you guys are living in a very kind of, it’s almost like welcome to the party of being exposed. You guys are living a very digital reality, and people can unearth who you are and your past and your life, if anything, is much more on display, I would say, than any other generation and will continue to be on display.

And so, where you go in your life, and who you surround yourself with, and how you align yourself along the way will have an impact on your future opportunities. And so, I think for me, I was always very cognizant of that from a very early age, and I think it’s just something to be mindful of, you know, depending on what your aspirations are, making sure that you own all of your decisions and you are honest with yourself along the way.

And I’m not saying don’t make, don’t be fearful, but just be aware. And I think a lot of people don’t always think of step three, four, and five. They just see the shiny penny in front of them and they get excited. But I always think of three, four, and five, because I didn’t have a backup plan. I didn’t grow up with a safety net. I had to create my own. So I just, I think I just operated with that in mind when I was building out, or making any decision from age 12 on.

Alexandra Eitel: Right, yeah, and important to note that it started so young, and social media and everything has changed so much. And you’ve been adapting since you were 12, which is amazing.

I’d love to talk about the future of where Honest is going. You recently launched the Daily Defense collection, which is a line of skincare products designed to defend against environmental pollutants, which is so incredibly important. I’m curious, how do you …

Jessica Alba: Those screens, who knew that screens could affect your skin? My God.

Alexandra Eitel: The screens that are currently blasting stuff at us right now?

Jessica Alba: All day, yeah, all day, every day.

Alexandra Eitel: I’m curious how you predict future trends and continue to build products for the future.

Jessica Alba: You know, a lot of it comes from I think trusting my gut and my intuition. It’s weird, like, I don’t necessarily need McKinsey data to substantiate where I, what I feel or what I know. And oftentimes, I feel like I can be — and not everything is a home run, but if you need a Bain or McKinsey study to validate your marketplace opportunity, it’s often a little too late, because the trendsetters did it three years before it became a trend that would even become a case study or a study at all.

And so, I would say that keeping your feet on the ground and really understanding the pain point or the needs that you are filling in whatever business you’re creating — for me, it’s being very consumer-centric and very personal. I always start from that place, and then I do my research from there around sort of like what other companies are doing things like this, or what other, like our sensitive skincare line. All of us want benefits in our skincare. We want brightening, and we want, you know, our fine lines to go way, and we want our discoloration to go away. We want to have those skincare benefits in our skincare.

We just don’t, we’re not looking for something that’s just sort of like, put this on your face and it’ll be a shield, and there you go, and it’s better than having this rash. Now, I’m allergic to a lot of those products, even the gentle ones that the dermatologists recommend, so I couldn’t even use those. So I was like, how about we have a skincare routine that works for people with really sensitive skin, but actually like does something for you.

And our head chemist, she has very sensitive skin as well. And so, that’s, you know, just something where we were like hey, if you get rashes, if you have sensitive skin—a lot of people who break out a lot also have very sensitive skin — there’s nothing for you. And you’re sort of just left in the dust.

So I was like, this would be a cool one to be able to create a full solution where you can have exfoliation, brightening, really hydrating. We have a lightweight moisturizer and a heavier moisturizer, so it’s for different types of skin, it doesn’t clog your pores — you know, all of those things.

So, that’s another, a lot of it comes from the personal. And then, you look at the marketplace and you see how many people are doing it. And then, there’s other things where you’re just like hey, this is table stakes. You need to have X or you need to have Y in order to really, like, be in this category. So, it’s a blend.

Alexandra Eitel: Yeah, I love how your ideation process for new products kind of always goes back to how you started Honest itself, which was based on problems you experienced yourself. And obviously you’re not the only one to experience those.

Jessica Alba: Right.

Alexandra Eitel: So, we started this talk with a TikTok. You are a parent to Gen Z kids and a marketer, and I’m curious because we are always talking about Gen Z, and I feel like articles are always Gen Z this, Gen Z that. As a parent and as a marketer, what is something you think we’re getting wrong about that generation?

Jessica Alba: I think we try to overcomplicate it. And the gap of understanding feels so wide, and I think there’s sort of like a frustration in the way that like, they’re moving at a pace and are going to continue to move at a pace that is beyond any other generation, just because in the digital age, you know, before you had to reimagine your business sort of like every five years. And then, I would say about 10 years ago when I launched Honest, it was like oh no, you’ve got to reimagine your business and how you operate and the way you do it like every three years.

Now I would say it’s like every year you’ve got to reassess and reevaluate and reimagine. I think that because they’re so young, maybe it’s hard to trust that they know what they’re talking about and allow them to take some leadership and hand the baton on. Like, know what you don’t know.

And also, like, if something is meant to appeal to them, it doesn’t necessarily need to appeal to me or to you, right? And sometimes, it’ll appeal to me and it’ll appeal to you, but I think, you know, that is one thing that I feel like when you’re running a business or when you’re trying to understand a demographic, you feel like you should also be on the same page as them. But it’s totally okay that they think the way they think and they respond to things differently than you, and you don’t need to take it personally, and know that it’s okay for you to have your differences.

What I appreciate about Gen Z, and I actually don’t think of it as being an issue, is just that they love authenticity, they are values-driven, and the brand values are meaningful to them. And the more that you really show up authentically, the better. I think the businesses that are in trouble in appealing to Gen Z are the ones that are trying to be tricky.

Alexandra Eitel: Well, a clear theme of today for sure is knowing your audience, and you clearly know this audience as well. So much about Honest Co. is educating the consumer. You’ve been doing that since before you even started the company.

As many of us here are looking to start new businesses — some of them might be quite complicated, deep tech, web3, what have you — what lessons can you share about what works best in educating your consumer?

Jessica Alba: Make it entertaining. If it’s boring for you to watch, it’s going to be boring for anybody to watch. Like, you know what I mean? If it’s boring to read it, it’s going to be boring for everyone. I think more and more because we have so much, it’s almost like the volume of content, it is so daunting and overwhelming and is only going to get more daunting as we start to integrate AR into our day-to-day, and as we integrate more of the web3 into our day-to-day with wearables and all of that. We’re going to almost have information overload.

And so, having really short and sweet, pithy ways of communicating, no matter if you’re a software company or not, even a B-to-B. I would say when we’re, you know, choosing partners for, you know, B-to-B type of partners or something that will help a function for, you know, in our company in some form or fashion, we’re always looking at how difficult is it to integrate. And usually the difficulty has to do with how boring it is to understand it and to apply it, you know? Making your materials as consumer-facing as possible is important, even for software companies or B-to-Bs.

Alexandra Eitel: That’s great advice, thank you. You’ve shared incredible advice with all of us, and we’re all super grateful for your time, and you’re also an incredible model for so many founders from underrepresented groups and for women. So, thank you for being here today.

I could go on forever, but we do have some questions from the audience. So, I would like to turn it over to our first question from [JY].

JY: Hi, Jessica. I’m originally from Singapore and moved to the Bay to attend the GSB. I’m an aspiring entrepreneur, so super excited to be here. And my question for you is, what were some of your biggest fears in building The Honest Co. and how do you overcome them?

Jessica Alba: Maybe my biggest fear was not connecting with my truth, in a way, and allowing people who had trust and a history in business sort of take over the narrative or run the business in a direction that I intuitively knew wasn’t right.

And I felt imposter syndrome, because I didn’t have a traditional business degree and background. And so, it took me a hot minute to really like step into my skin as a person. And I think the more I’ve trusted my intuition and my gut and stood in my truth, the better I feel in everything, right — in business and in life. I would say that was my biggest fear. It’s scary when you’ve never done it before, right?

JY: Absolutely. Thanks for sharing.

[Kristen Lim]: Hi Jessica. My name is Kristen Lim, and I’m also an aspiring entrepreneur looking to do something within the beauty space. I’m also a power user of Honest products, and I can’t live without my [Magic Balm].

And I’m so impressed with Honest’s growth. In just the first year, you’ve achieved $12 million in revenue, and this grew to a staggering $150 million in revenue just two years later. And at the GSB, we use the [Lean Startup Methodology for Product Ideation]. And I know from the talk that you talked about Honest’s product ideation starting from your own pain points. But I’m curious as Honest continued to scale how the product ideation process evolved?

Jessica Alba: Yeah, I mean, I would say that it started from a very pure place, and then I allowed, I sort of gave away my power and my truth for a little while, and I allowed for it to be a bit of a mosh pit of everyone wanting to chime in and not having clear roles and responsibilities and boundaries defined.

And you know, I think I’m still a work in progress when it comes to that, but the biggest thing is really like, again, trusting your instincts, knowing what needs to be true in order for you to have a real authentic positioning in the marketplace. For me, I knew, my gut was telling me from day one we needed to have an in-house lab and in-house team and a regulatory team and also a sourcing team, because that was the only way we were going to have true differentiation in our formulas that can meet the standards of conventional or exceed them.

And if I was just going to operate like other companies, it just, there was no way to get there. It was just going to be too many hurdles. And so I went through all the hurdles, but that is the biggest thing, is just know what needs to be true for you in order for you to have a real authentic position, and also a reason for you to even exist. It’s a crowded marketplace, so why are you here, and what are you doing that’s materially different?

Kristen Lim: Thank you so much.

Alexandra Eitel: You’ve been listening to View From The Top: the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Alexandra Eitel, of the MBA class of 2022. Lily Sloane composed our theme music. Michael Riley and Jenny Luna produced this episode.

You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website, www.gsb.stanford.edu. Follow us on social media @StanfordGSB.

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