There's a lot you don't know about Jessica Alba.
That's possibly because her initial fame from TV and movies in the mid-2000s has died down a bit. But it might also be because tabloid-centric journalism continues to portray her as a ravishing starlet rather than the massively successful entrepreneur she's become.
Alba spent recent years quietly and passionately building The Honest Company into a naturally focused lifestyle brand offering everything from plant-based shampoo to organic baby powder. Widely reported to be preparing for an initial public offering, the company was recently valued at an astounding $1 billion.
Arriving in New York to help kick off Advertising Week, Alba, 33, was featured at a session Monday afternoon alongside her business partner. Together, they outlined their mission, the lessons they've learned, and the public misconceptions that have grown along the way.
Here are four points that she tackled head-on in her presentation:
1. It's not a baby brand.
The inspiration to create Honest began during Alba's first pregnancy when she had a strong allergic reaction to a supposedly hypoallergenic laundry detergent she used to wash new clothes from a baby shower. Surprised, she began to research mainstream products marketed as being safe for children.
"I found out there are a lot of untested chemicals in everything from this particular baby laundry detergent to the biggest baby shampoo, which has a numbing agent that numbs your children's eyes to make it 'tearless,'" she said.
Because this story is so often circulated as the origin story for Honest, many have assumed the Honest product line is limited to eco-friendly diapers, wipes, anti-rash creams and the like. "It's why people keep calling us a baby company," Alba said, "though we're not."
Today, the company has nearly 90 products in four categories: baby, bath and body, cleaning, and health and wellness. In the near future, Alba said, she hopes to expand into beauty and feminine care.
"We're not a luxury or fashion brand," she said. "We make products that families bring into their homes, and it's really built around safety and trust."
2. She shows up for work every day.
Alba knows many people assume she's a celebrity figurehead and that co-founder Christopher Gavigan is the one truly running the business. But she says she's heavily involved in the brand's development.
"I'm at the office every day," she said, though she admitted her Hollywood commitments often require her to make brief trips around the world. "I did six movies in the last year and a half, but it doesn't take a lot of time to make movies here or there."
Gavigan was candid about wishing Alba could spend even more time at the brand's California headquarters. When moderator Nina Tsang, editorial director at Celebrity Intelligence, began a question with, "You have another career, as an actor," Gavigan jokingly interrupted to say: "No, she doesn't. Don't remind her."
3. She believes household chemicals are behind everything from ADHD and autism to obesity and childhood cancers.
When it comes to criticizing her global competitors, Alba pulls no punches. At her Advertising Week session, she frequently and bluntly accused the consumer packaged-goods industry of using toxic chemicals and taking advantage of lax U.S. regulations to avoid disclosing all their ingredients.
"We identified this huge problem—the rise of toxic chemicals in our homes—with the rise of all these serious problems: ADHD, autism, obesity, childhood cancers," she said. "That's not a coincidence, and there's a lot of science backing this. So, what's the solution? Where can you go? What brand can you trust?"
That's a pretty sweeping claim, one many household brands would obviously challenge. But it is true that the scientific community has been advocating for more research into how environmental factors like household chemicals could be related to increasing incidents of autism and other developmental issues.
Alba admits household products likely aren't entirely to blame for all these rising health concerns, but she believes that removing unnecessary chemicals from such everyday items could have a positive impact.
"It's no one thing that leads to all these illnesses," she said. "It's a lot of things."
4. Social media is helping to fuel the brand's product flexibility.
Given Alba's massive social media presence—7.6 million Twitter followers, 3.9 million Instagrammers and 4.8 million likes on Facebook—you'd think the primary benefit of social for Honest would be free marketing to passionate fans.
But Alba said she prefers listening over talking and likes to personally scan responses to posts across social networks. For example, one fan posted an Instagram comment that began "You probably won't even see this" and went on to explain that she loved Honest products but could no longer afford to use them. Alba said she made sure that the woman would receive the product for free as long as she needed.
Perhaps the most interesting use of social by the brand, though, is as a diverse focus group on products.
"We make everything in small batches because we want to be flexible and able to respond," Gavigan said. Feedback shared online from customers is incorporated into each new iteration or products, he said, allowing them to make constant improvements.