Jessica Alba on Asserting Herself, Naysayers and Being Prepared

The Honest Company co-founder shares lessons she's learned, including ones she says she wants to pass along to her kids.
Jessica Alba on Asserting Herself, Naysayers and Being Prepared
Image credit: Courtesy Zico Coconut Water
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It took a long time for Jessica Alba to trust her gut, she recently told Entrepreneur.

That's something most people struggle with, according to a recent survey of 1,000 Americans by Zico Coconut Water that found 72 percent of respondents missed out on an opportunity because they didn’t “go with their gut.” Alba, who's Zico's brand ambassador, is now embracing her role of entrepreneur.

The company she co-founded in 2011, Honest, is valued at $1.7 billion and surpassed $300 million in sales in 2016. It was in talks to be acquired by Unilever, but that deal fell through, and the company replaced its CEO with Clorox Company executive Nick Vlahos and recently announced it will sell its products on Amazon. Honest also settled a lawsuit for $7.35 million that accused the company of mislabeling its products. But the actor and star of Apple's pitch competition show Planet of the Apps brushes off setbacks such as these.

"What happens at my company is no different than what happens at any other [packaged goods] company, it's just doing business and making products," she says. "It wouldn't be a headline if it was anywhere else. I know what we're trying to do. I know we're making a difference in the world."

Related: The Important Entrepreneurship Lesson From Jessica Alba and Sarah Michelle Gellar

Entrepreneur recently spoke with Alba about what she looks for in partnerships, the qualities of people she likes to work with and her reading picks. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Since you're doing this Zico campaign, I figured the first question should be about partnerships. What are the qualities you look for in partnerships such as this one?

When I affiliate myself with a brand, I really look at making sure that I have some type of authentic connection to it. Before I started working with them, I actually drank Zico coconut water. So it wasn't a leap for me to work with Zico. It was a pretty natural fit.

You have your career as an actor and now you're in business also. How do you balance all those things with being a brand ambassador?

I don't know if I need to balance. I think I just sort of wear many hats and I juggle, probably more than I balance. I just kind of tackle each day as it comes and try to stay in the moment and do as much as I can. But, you know, when I can fit in family time with my kid, I'll bring her on a business trip. That's not off limits. I kind of like dragging my kids along and having them see different places and not always live in their bubble and kind of push them outside their comfort zone a little bit.

Creating future entrepreneurs.

I think it just builds character and it will make you a better, more equipped person in the world. If they want to start businesses, they could. It's not easy. Though I appreciate all the different lessons I've learned along the way.

What's a big one that you'd want to give to your kids?

There are a few big ones. I think trust in my gut was something that took me a second to come around to and how important it is. You know if you do have good instincts and good intuition and you feel something, usually that feeling is right.

And then the other one is sometimes I allowed other people's idea of who I am to sort of identify me, in a weird way. So if people thought I was this type of person I sort of fit the mold for them instead of right away saying, "No, that's not me. You're wrong. This is actually who I am."

I always knew I was smart. I always knew I was strategic and ambitious and had a business mindset. If people just wanted to look at me as this actress, superhero bathing suit girl, I just let them think that. Where now I wouldn't allow that. Now that I'm a little bit older, I wouldn't let people assume things about me. You don't have to be rude. There's a tact of course correcting people's perceptions.

Assertive. I don't know if that's the right word.

I mean, I've always been pretty candid and spoken my mind, but I think there's a way to say it, and I'm learning tact with honesty.

How do you approach situations where you think you may be underestimated?

They always fire me up, and I usually approach them with trying to educate myself as much as humanly possible on whatever it is that I'm tackling. If I'm prepared, then I feel like I can kind of tackle anything.

How do you prepare?

Sometimes I reach out to folks who have experience in something or I do my own research. I mean, I never knew how to put together a business plan or build a deck or talk to investors. I didn't know any of that, so I did research on it and talked to different folks and I pitched to a lot of different people that I trusted and I let them poke at me and tear it apart. I took that criticism constructively, and then I just got it down to a point where it was easy and digestible and people knew what I was talking about.

What are qualities you look for in people you promote or want to work with?

You know, actually, having an entrepreneurial spirit. If you have roadblocks or challenges, creatively tackling your challenges and coming up with solutions. The thing that makes me the most frustrated is when people are telling you every reason why something can't happen but they're not giving you any other solution on how to do it, so you're like, you're just a naysayer. Nothing's going to change in the world if it's just filled with people who are telling you why it's impossible and they're not giving any other pathway for it to get done. So that drives me bonkers.

I also like people who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and get in the weeds and ask questions. Also, not get so sensitive when they're getting criticism, because criticism in business is constructive and it should make you better. Hopefully, you'll operate better and execute better post making the mistake. You shouldn't get offended when someone is just guiding you to do it differently or think differently. Those are the qualities I look for in folks.

Related: This Beauty Founder Shares the Secret Leadership Skill to Making a Company Thrive

If you can play any kind of business leader or entrepreneur throughout history in a movie, who would it be?

A lot of the business leaders that are sort of the most known were men. Whether in entertainment or consumer goods or in any industry, really. I think [Salvador] Dalí was a fascinating entrepreneur. He's one of the first artists who commercialized his work and did housewares and stuff. He did everything that you shouldn't do as an artist, like really kind of capitalize or exploit your brand before you're dead. Because usually it's not until after they're dead that they become the thing. It feels like he lived a really full life as well. I like these really kind of quirky, unconventional, like you didn't expect them to be as multifaceted, entrepreneurs or creative people.

When you started Honest company there were fewer companies offering the kind of safe and natural products it offers. Now they’re more prominent with even larger companies and startups popping up.

It's a trend. And I think we're at the forefront of this trend of safer, better for you. We're delivering a value proposition that's resonating with people. The fact that we grew as quickly as we did and we actually took market share from the biggest players really kind of shook people up. I think that reflects that we're delivering to the consumer what they want and we really have our ear to the ground.

It's taken [the competition] some time to figure that out. Now, can they execute like us? Probably not. We're much smaller. We're much more nimble. We are also ecom first, so we understand the distribution path that all of them are going to get to in the next 10 years. We launched that way, so it's just in the fabric of who we are as a company. I think as long as we stay sort of on the leading edge of the health and wellness space and really targeting that new mom, I don't see a ton of folks that can do what we can do, actually.

Is it more about being adaptable to the trends but also kind of sticking to that mission?

We're at the forefront of creating what the trend is. I think we're not trend followers, we're more trendsetters, and we are creating what the consumer wants before she even knows that she can't live without it. That's more in line with who we are and what we're delivering. And it is disruptive, especially in the [consumer packaged goods] space, and we are more malleable and nimble than the big guys.

You also have the increased attention, obviously. How do you deal with the setbacks and criticism?

To be honest with you, it's more tabloid fodder than it is a reality to the business, and it's just sensational headlines. Because what happens at my company is no different than what happens at any other [packaged goods] company, it's just doing business and making products. It wouldn't be a headline if it was anywhere else. It happens to be a headline because people want to sensationalize me and the writer can get some more people reading their article if there's a negative angle on it.

I think there's also a sensitivity around -- you know, there are very few female entrepreneurs out there, and it feels a lot like entertainment in a weird way, like they want to build you up and smack you down, build you up, smack you down, build you up, smack you down. So I've kind of been through it.

I know what we're trying to do. I know we're making a difference in the world. I know we're actually impacting people's lives in a significant way. And if we can influence the marketplace and get other players out there to be more transparent and more responsible in the way that they deliver products to people with a health focus -- awesome. Everybody wins.

What's your top productivity tip?

Oh God. I rely heavily on my calendar and alerts to get from one meeting to the next. That and I think having people around you who are way more productive than you are kind of forces you to up your game and stay on top of stuff. So I don't surround myself with people who are just like me, [but] with people who are pretty much opposite of me. Where I might be a little bit late always, I surround myself with people who are on time and very structured. I like to be a little bit more loose and I tackle business in a more creative way, so I just surround myself with people who are incredibly structured.

Do you have any morning routine habits that you think help you in your day-to-day?

I go through phases of working out. I think that always helps if you, first thing in the morning, work out for 45 minutes. Other than that, it's, I do silly things like pick out my clothes the night before and my kids clothes so I don't have to think about them in the mornings. I'm just like, shower, dressed, breakfast, out the door. Like everything's just kind of set up. I'm into routines. I don't want to sit there and try on 50 outfits in the morning. I don't have time for that. I do kind of have a uniform. I have my shoes that I know I can wear all day and I have certain outfits that I know I can just be in the office and they can go day to night.

Related: The Success of 'Wonder Woman' Speaks Volumes About Opportunity

What book has been most inspirational for you?

Before I started the company, after one of my potential business partner relationships fell apart and I didn't get the business plan that I had spent a year and a half paying for -- it wasn't the vision that I wanted it to be -- I was really sad. I was like, "OK, I guess I'll throw in the towel and this is it,” and I read a book on Eleanor Roosevelt's style of leadership. [It's about] how she had faced so much adversity and how she had so many challenges and she just consistently paved her own way and figured it out and really never allowed anything to get in the way of her really fully realizing her dream or her ambitions or just doing the right thing. And hers was a lot around social issues, of course, but I just loved how scrappy and creative she was at tackling challenges.

Right now I'm reading Good to Great. I just finished Start With Why. They're probably all like, "oh yeah, that's lame, like every person in business school has read those," but I didn't go to business school, so I'm just having to put myself through it. I also really enjoyed Phil Knight's book. It's encouraging knowing that I'm five years in and just reading about where Nike was five years in.

It's an ongoing process, and you're always evolving and learning, and there's going to be no shortage of things that are going to try to keep you from fulfilling your dream and what you know you can do. You just have to push through. Those who push through are the ones that are going to be successful.

Edition: July 2017

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