Jessica Alba wants more women leaders at The Honest Company

Jessica Alba: 'It's necessary' to have more women leaders
Jessica Alba: 'It's necessary' to have more women leaders

Jessica Alba is trying to solve a problem many business owners face: getting more women into leadership positions at her company.

As one of few women in an executive role at The Honest Company, the actress turned entrepreneur admits "it's tough when you're the only woman in the room." She's working to empower more women so they, too, can get a seat at the table, she tells CNN's Poppy Harlow in a new podcast episode of Boss Files.

Women make up 65% of The Honest Company's 400 employees. However, only three of nine executives there are female, including Alba.

"I just felt so alone," says Alba, reflecting on being one of the only women in a leadership role during her early days at the company.

Alba, now 36, knew she wanted to start a company that made safe, organic products. She says she had an allergic reaction to baby detergent while cleaning onesies for her first child.

"I just felt like how the heck could something that's marketed to babies specifically, and all of that, give me this type of reaction. Like what's going on?" Alba recalls.

So she started researching online and eventually made her way to Washington D.C., lobbying for chemical reform on Capitol Hill, and later partnering with three other co-founders -- all men -- to launch The Honest Company.

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Jessica Alba and co-founder Christopher Gavigan on Capitol Hill in 2015.

The mother of two, who has a third on the way, co-founded the consumer goods brand in 2011. When she was raising her initial seed funding she was pregnant with her second child, and pitching to a room full of mostly men.

Alba also says many potential investors didn't take her seriously because she was a celebrity.

"It made me more determined... Everyone pretty much thought I was nuts," the Golden Globes nominee admits. "Being successful in entertainment doesn't mean you're going to be successful in business."

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Alba says she worked with her co-founders to make the board more diverse, but they initially had other priorities.

"It's not that they didn't want to, it's just, we were thinking month-to-month about financial goals and that's more important than building a long-term vision and strategy," she tells Harlow.

The Honest Company tells CNN that Alba and Brian Lee, a co-founder and former CEO, sought out women to join the board but it was challenging to get anyone -- women or men -- to commit to a VC-backed startup.

Lee, who left his post as CEO in March, did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.

Today, Alba says she is committed to changing the company's demographics. She hired a new CEO, Nick Vlahos, who is restructuring the company's management team. And she is devising ways to help women at the company build their career paths and get to that "C-suite executive capability."

"We're going to have a curriculum and a program and a mentorship in-house, inside of The Honest Company, for women specifically. It's necessary," Alba says.

The Honest Company's Chief People Officer Janis Hoyt, is among the women hired under the new leadership.

"We're taking an opportunity to really focus on women and how they are represented, especially in the VP level and above," Hoyt says. "As we've grown from a startup to a more structured consumer, products, goods company, we're able to focus on that now and move in that direction."

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The Honest Company recently launched its first employee resource group, Women Excelling in Leadership and Living. "This group is really here to shed light on some of the bias that plays out in workplace, but also how can we offer professional development and growth and really support the network of women," Hoyt says.

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A recent McKinsey report finds that companies with more gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their industry averages.

The Honest Company, which is based in Santa Monica, California, launched with 17 home products and now makes more than 100, including diapers, cleaning supplies and personal care products. The company reported $300 million in sales in 2016.

The brand has also encountered some hurdles, including getting hit with several lawsuits. It recently agreed to pay $1.55 million to settle a nationwide class action lawsuit that claimed the company misled buyers about some ingredients in its laundry detergent and dish soap.

"We have to be more stringent on the way we communicate our marketing materials," Alba says.

She argues that the company sometimes faces more scrutiny from the press because she is a celebrity.

"We've had exchanges before they write articles. And I say, 'Why don't you bring in X, Y, and Z company, that is dealing with the exact same thing?' And they're like, 'Because they're not Jessica Alba,'" she says.

During her toughest moments as an entrepreneur, Alba says she often would seek inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership style. "She was a huge inspiration for me," she later told CNN.

"She did so many things for so many different people and groups of folks, and she was just one woman," Alba says. "One person can move mountains if you have the perseverance and the determination and the vision to make it happen."

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