Photography by Mike Rosenthal.
Jessica Alba is sick. She has been fighting a cold for weeks. She shows up for our cover shoot with tissues in hand and a medicinal tea at her lips. Today is an unseasonably freezing and wet day in perma-sunny L.A., we’re shooting on an almost completely outdoor set and Alba is meant to be wearing the spring looks, designed for balmy climes and definitely not for standing with the sniffles trying to look glamorous in torrential rain. Also, one of her daughters has been sent home from school with a tummy bug, and she’s on the phone with the vet because she just found out that her dog has cancer. (Cue cutest moment on the shoot, when Alba asks Honor via FaceTime if she’s still feeling sick and the eight-year-old answers, “Yes, I am,” throwing in a dramatic but not-very-stomach-flu-related faux cough for effect.) The 36-year-old was up late last night editing how-to beauty videos for the Honest Company, the body-care and household-essentials business she co-founded in 2012, and she’s tired, but Alba’s not one to cower away from life—even when it gets as real as this.
This is no ordinary cover shoot anyway. In business terms, the Honest Company is considered a “unicorn” (i.e., a start-up valued at more than a billion dollars or, in the Honest Company’s case, a rumoured couple of billion dollars). So between getting her hair and makeup done and being styled by the ELLE fashion team, Alba, like any entrepreneur, spends an inordinate amount of time running her company via her phone, and this—more than acting—has become her day job. Anyone else, with all that going on, would have buckled under the strain. But not Alba. Even with the gods against us, she’s the consummate professional, shivering and sipping her herbal concoction between shots and, when we finally give her a break, taking time out to curl up on a sofa with ELLE to talk business, motherhood and the not-always-very-glamorous realities of “having it all.”
The Honest Company is doing so well. How do you juggle being both an actress and a businesswoman as well as a mother to Honor and five-year-old Haven? “I don’t think I juggle any of it very well, to be honest. I always feel like something’s being compromised. But my kids are my priority, and I do feel like having happy kids allows me to be present in other parts of my life. If they weren’t happy and healthy, I don’t think I’d have the capacity to do anything else. That really opens me up so I can have my company and focus on that when I’m there, and when I do get the opportunity to do something in entertainment, I can be open to that stuff [too]. It’s just time management. No two days are the same, and, you know, you just have to try to prioritize, as much as possible, the family time.”
The struggle for any working parent always seems to be about being present in whichever part of your life you’re in, at any given moment. “But I think even stay-at-home moms have a hard time figuring out how to prioritize time. I mean, time management is a bitch no matter who you are, you know, and I think actually staying at home, taking care of the house, raising the kids, all the after-school activities—I mean, that’s a full-time job. And then by the time you have any ‘me’ time, you’re sleeping, and then you wake up and it’s all that all over again. I commend moms who stay home and take care of the house and take care of the kids, because I think that’s never-ending. It’s great because you do get to see every tiny little moment, but at the same time...I don’t think it’s just working moms who struggle with time management; I think it’s anyone who has a personal life and is trying to figure out how much of yourself you want to give to other people, how much you need for your own sanity.”
At the Honest Company, you employ hundreds of people. How does that compare to the more solo job of acting?
“You know, entertainment is incredibly collaborative. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into your work before you end up filming anything, and all the preparation is to set yourself up so you can take risks and be fearless, try things out, have fun and, ideally, not be stiff and not have awareness over the performance but just be completely present in the moment. That’s a totally different creative side of myself. Running a business is very different because it’s about, more than anything, the people—who your employees are and their career trajectories and their hopes and dreams, keeping them happy and motivated and being able to lead them in a thoughtful way so they have a North Star to look to but also have their feet on the ground to get the day to day done. It has been such a lesson for me because, as an actress, I normally jump from one environment to the next, but here, you know, I’ve been with the same people—a lot of the same people—every day for five years.”
Did you feel comfortable stepping into a leadership role? “It has taken time for me to figure out the type of leader I am and even be comfortable with that notion of being a leader and owning my power as a woman and a leader. It’s definitely something I had to learn. I wasn’t comfortable with it for a few years; I feel like last year was a big lesson for me in embracing it and owning it in a different way by just spending time with my friends who have started companies and are entrepreneurs and also interacting with women like Sheryl Sandberg and Mary Dillon [CEO of Ulta Beauty, one of the fastest-growing retailers in the United States]. Spending time with those types of women made me feel like I deserve to have a seat at the table.”
What else has helped you develop that sense of worth as a woman in business? “Just being comfortable in my own skin and knowing it was me putting in the hours, the hard work, learning about what I did and didn’t know, doing deep dives in research and surrounding myself with experts—people smarter than me—and not being afraid to ask questions or for help but at the same time owning the fact that it was my idea ultimately. I didn’t have a typical career trajectory in business—I came from a completely other business, and I had to learn to embrace that instead of being embarrassed about it, because it’s powerful to have the background of working long hours in a professional setting since I was 12, with all adults and all the different dynamics that go along with that. I just try to be productive and stay open and curious and always try to better myself.”
How much of it was completely new to you? Reading spreadsheets, doing business plans—is that something you just learned as you went? “Yeah, I learned all of it as I went, and I partnered with someone who is a serial entrepreneur, so by being in business, I got to learn a lot about business. It’s like if you want to be an actor or a director or a producer or a writer, sometimes you’ve just got to do it. You can go to film school, and I think that’s totally valuable, but there’s also something to be said for just picking up a camera, or your phone, and making stuff. You learn as you go, and that has kind of been my way of education. I learned business by doing it and partnering with people who are experts and learning from them and then breaking down how to read a spreadsheet or a business model or what an AOP is...you know, all the business acronyms—especially in technology! There are billions of terms, and you’re just like, ‘What? What does that stand for?’”
Do you feel more at home in business now than in the entertainment industry? “I think, even a couple of years ago, people still viewed me as an actress or a celebrity, but I feel like now more and more people view me as a businesswoman. My brain is business. I’ve always thought that way, even when I was in entertainment, but now I have an actual business to apply the way I think and break down information.”
Do you mean in the sense that you’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit? “A business mindset, yeah. I’m very logical and pragmatic, utilitarian in the way I think. I didn’t become an actress because I like to be the centre of attention; I became an actress originally because I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin and I loved to tell stories and I felt best when I could be somebody else—and then that I could make a living doing that was such a blessing. Then once I was around 18, I saw a real opportunity for women of colour and women in general to be more in a position of power instead of just being the girl or a damsel in distress, to actually be the hero and the reason why people were even showing up and going to the movies.”
In the TV series Dark Angel, you got to play such a strong female character at a young age. As a mother, especially of girls, what sort of people do you hope your children become? “I just want them to focus on what’s important, like using their brains, having humility, being grateful, having compassion and empathy—I think those are the most important things that I try to instill in them. [Dark Angel] opened so many doors and certainly opened my mind and my heart to what’s possible. I thank Jim [James] Cameron every day for putting me in that position.”
How do you relax? “I hang out with friends, I go to the movies, I go to restaurants.... I don’t have a lot of downtime, but it’s usually at night. My days are pretty packed.”
Do you have any rituals to get you through your day? “Everything is rushed. It probably would be better if I did have rituals. I keep trying to enforce structure, but it all just kind of falls apart because everyone around me gets overwhelmed; you need to have people who are structured and into rituals around you, but I don’t have too many people like that in my life, so it’s tough.”
In my house, everything lasts five days. I’m like, “We’re doing a gratitude journal every night!” And then five days later we never think about it again. “Yeah, nothing lasts, but, you know, the intentions are there. I like to take baths whenever I can, and when I’m not too tired, Cash [Warren, her husband] and I will watch a show, but every night is different. I have a tough time fitting it all in, to be honest. Usually my days are, like, every half hour is taken and I have to eat in meetings, if I even remember to get lunch. And then it’s 7 p.m. and I’m like, ‘I need to be home right now,’ and then I get home and it’s a cuddle with the kids and wash my face and put on my pyjamas and then, ‘Wait, I have to eat dinner.’ Last night, I didn’t eat dinner; I just went to bed, because it all ran so late and I had to be up early, so....”
Do you have many “pinch me” moments? “It’s weird, I don’t. I feel like I’m so in the weeds and I’m such a grinder and so in the moment of the day to day—I don’t spend a lot of time removed from it and seeing the bird’s-eye view. But I do pinch myself when I look at my kids and I see who they are as people and the way they think about the world and themselves and how, just, sweet they are and smart as well and confident and with...no egos, you know? They really are good girls, so they make me feel proud.”