Jessica Alba is more than an actress -- she's a successful entrepreneur. She joined Fortune's Pattie Sellers on stage at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit to discuss her family, her inspirations, and her new company.
Below is an unedited transcript:
MODERATOR: Okay, this is so exciting. Oh my gosh. This is my favorite part of the summit also, and when you’re with us tonight at dinner I hope you all get the vibe that we try to project at this event, which is that power is really about what you do beyond your we say job description, but, you know, your school assignments and what you’re told to do by your teachers and your parents.
And Jessica started acting at 12, right?
JESSICA ALBA: Mm-hmm.
MODERATOR: And we’re going to be talking about kind of expanding your power beyond your job description, and not only creating a company and growing a really interesting business but doing it in a way that actually contributes to the world and makes mothers’ lives and babies’ lives and families’ lives better.
So, I’m going to ask a few questions, and the sort of underlying purpose of this, not the main purpose but the underlying purpose is for you to see how we do what we do, which is journalism, and ask questions. And my number one piece of advice is that when you’re trying to get to know someone either onstage or offstage, there is no stupid question, and often the most basic questions are the best questions.
So, Jessica —
JESSICA ALBA: That’s good advice. I’ve never even thought about that. Good to know.
MODERATOR: And, you know, you actually show a lot of confidence when you ask the stupid question, that you’re not worried that they’re going to judge you.
JESSICA ALBA: See, that’s a problem I have.
JESSICA ALBA: Yes, I’m always like apologizing for myself for sure.
MODERATOR: That’s very interesting.
JESSICA ALBA: Yes, it’s terrible. It’s a terrible habit I have.
MODERATOR: It’s a girl thing.
JESSICA ALBA: Is it a girl thing?
MODERATOR: It is a girl thing.
JESSICA ALBA: I mean, I’d like to blame it on something.
MODERATOR: I mean, we are raised to be, you know, kind of pleasers —
JESSICA ALBA: Right.
MODERATOR: — and not — you know, not sort of threatening and be supportive. So, I think it has to do with that. We could have a whole conversation about that, but we’re going to talk about you.
JESSICA ALBA: Okay.
MODERATOR: So, Jessica, you’re from a military family.
JESSICA ALBA: I am.
MODERATOR: Tell us about that.
JESSICA ALBA: Well, my mother grew up in a military family. Her mother and her father and her grandmother and her great aunt all worked in the Navy, and then my father when he was blessed with the information that I was going to be born, when he was 18 — 19 years old, he joined the military. My mother was 18, and he wanted to get an education, and he wanted to support his family, and so the military allowed him to do that. He went into the Air Force. We lived on a couple different bases.
MODERATOR: Where did you live?
JESSICA ALBA: The ones that I remember, one was in Biloxi, Mississippi, and then the other one that was sort of the more formative years, it was like age five to nine, was in Del Rio, Texas, Laughlin Air Force Base. And so that was kind of where — I was really sad to leave when my dad decided to get out of the military, because you get — I mean, it’s really like such a safe environment, and everyone on base becomes your family. And so I was — I knew nothing else, and I remember like begging my dad, please let’s stay, don’t go, and he’s like, you know, your mother and I have different dreams beyond this, and we want to go and explore those.
MODERATOR: And what did he do and where did you move then?
JESSICA ALBA: He started a real estate company in southern California, and we moved — my grandparents owned five houses. My grandfather, you know, he became very successful and had a bunch of properties, and so we got to live in one of them. And that’s where I lived until I was 16.
MODERATOR: So, your parents left the military, your father left the military when you were how old?
JESSICA ALBA: When I was nine.
MODERATOR: When you were nine.
JESSICA ALBA: And then when I was 11 I said I wanted to be an actor, and I entered a contest and thank God I won the contest because the grand prize was to get these free classes, because we didn’t really have any money. We shared — we actually had my grandparents’ hand-me-down car that always backfired. It was really embarrassing. (Laughter.) It was a Buick Regal. (Laughter.) It had those like bench seats where you can fit like six people in the front. We fit six people in the front really well.
And so, you know, so finances were — were difficult for us, and so winning this contest and having the classes paid for was huge, and really I wouldn’t be where —
MODERATOR: So, you took acting classes and then what was your first big break?
JESSICA ALBA: And then at the end of the — at the end of the acting classes that you do an audition for like agents, and I got an agent, and then two months later I got my first job. And luckily when I got that first job it was a job that got me my SAG card, which is kind of difficult to get. And so I was lucky enough to get that.
MODERATOR: So, what were you doing at age 16?
JESSICA ALBA: I was doing Never Been Kissed, and then I was doing Idle Hands, and I was ridiculously insecure, and I got dumped by two guys in a row. (Laughter.) That was me at 16.
MODERATOR: Why were you insecure, and what got you over your insecurity?
JESSICA ALBA: I think I just knew that I wanted — I knew who I wanted to be. I had this vision, and obviously aspirations for who I wanted to be, and I wasn’t really sure how I was going to get there. And I was in the process. And so when you’re in the process and you’re hustling and doing anything you can, and you’re crossing your fingers that you’re making the right decisions, you know, I think that was part of the insecurity.
Obviously growing up on movie sets and being tutored was another sort of insecurity, because I never really could relate to anyone in my peer group. And quite frankly before I started acting, I never had either. And so I guess there are some things that go along with that.
MODERATOR: And what did you want to be back then at 16? What did you want to be at 16?
JESSICA ALBA: I wanted to be successful. I wanted to reach for the stars. I wanted to — really my mission was to represent a community or a woman that wasn’t represented in pop culture. At the time, a lot of women who were represented as leading ladies and people for young women to look up to, they were sort of stereotypical female characters.
MODERATOR: And what was the image that you wanted to project?
JESSICA ALBA: I wanted to project the women that I grew up with, a multicultural sort of woman, diverse in thought, as strong as a man but still a woman, and gosh darn it, I wanted to be a superhero. (Laughter.) I was like, why are all the men superheroes, why are all the women the damsels in distress? (Laughter.) I want to be a superhero.
MODERATOR: A lot of Most Powerful Women in this audience have asked that question, too. (Laughter.)
What’s the closest you’ve come to sort of achieving that “I want to project the superhero?”
JESSICA ALBA: I think becoming one. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: I love that.
JESSICA ALBA: In Dark Angel. Dark Angel was the first one. I had an action figure. I was like, okay, that’s superhero status.
MODERATOR: That is superhero status.
JESSICA ALBA: And then when I did the Fantastic Four, that was really, you know, the first superhero movie that had a woman that wasn’t the evil nemesis but was actually, you know, aspirational and a hero, and on par with the men.
MODERATOR: So, when you answered “by becoming one,” I actually thought you were being serious, like by becoming one, a superhero. You are a superhero. You are a superhero to these girls. I mean, look at —
JESSICA ALBA: No, I was taking that literally; I was being funny. (Laughter.) Sorry, my humor falls on deaf ears. Smart people. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: But look at what you’ve done. You’ve had a very, very successful acting career that you are well-known throughout the world, and you became a mother, and you have two daughters now who are four and one, is that right?
JESSICA ALBA: Yep.
MODERATOR: And there was a moment when you kind of rethought what you want to do with your career, and tell us about that — not give up anything, but add to it.
JESSICA ALBA: Yes, yes.
MODERATOR: Tell us about that moment.
JESSICA ALBA: I think I had like you guys, you know, I’m sure it will happen for you at some point, but I sort of went through like my midlife crisis thing at like 26. (Laughter.) And I started to, I don’t know, just I was — I became quite introspective and reflective about my life and my choices and my family and work and everything. When I — I got pregnant at 26 as well, and it was really my daughter was such a blessing, because a lot of questions and a lot of turmoil that I had just sort of like melted away, and I was like, oh, this is what I should be doing. And I felt so grounded and so centered and so much more like a woman than I ever had before.
And when that happened, I looked around at the world and I was like, gosh, I’ve been blessed with so many amazing things in my life, but the one thing that is quite different, quite special is access to the media. It can be quite exploitive and people do endorsements and stuff, and they do it to make money and dah, dah-dah, dah, and I was like, how about turning that into something that I actually do care about? I’ve always been very passionate about women’s issues and children’s issues, people who don’t necessarily have access to everything in the world and how to support them, and the planet.
And then when I had an allergic reaction to a baby safe laundry detergent, I was like, that’s crazy, how am I allergic to a baby detergent? And then I looked and I researched, and I read a book called, “Healthy Child, Healthy World,” and when I read that book it revealed all of these toxic chemicals that are in baby products, that are in household cleaning products, that are in everything from the mattresses that are on your beds to the stuffing in your couches, and how actually inside a home it’s more polluted than outside.
And I was like, what is this all about? And I grew up with allergies and asthma and all these health problems.
And so I went on this journey of eliminating all of these things out of my life, all the toxic chemicals, and I conceptualized this company, I was like, gosh, I really wish there was one company that was transparent that made, built products that didn’t have toxic chemicals in them, because the tearless shampoo that I grew up on has a chemical that numbs children’s eyes and it also has carcinogens in them.
And all the cosmetic companies, and I was working for one at the time, they do a lot of work for cancer research and all of that, but they have tons of toxic chemicals that are carcinogens in their ingredients, even lead in their lipstick.
MODERATOR: So, we have five minutes left, and I want to make sure — I don’t mean to interrupt you, Jessica, but I want to make sure that we get some questions.
JESSICA ALBA: I’ll wrap it up.
MODERATOR: The Honest Company is —
JESSICA ALBA: The Honest Company.
So, getting all this information and trying to hone in and focus on what I could do about it, and really make a difference, I knew that in the world if you really want to make a big difference and make a real change it’s to make money, because at the end of the day all the biggest players and everyone that can change anything in government and change anything socially is to be a successful business at whatever it is you do.
And so I created this company called the Honest Company, and we’re a family lifestyle company, and we provide everything from household cleaners to personal care products to diapers and wipes that are all completely nontoxic, high performance. And we’re very eco. Yeah, so that’s what I’ve been spending a lot of my time doing. It is my third baby, and we work with nonprofits as well. So, a portion of everything that anyone buys goes to a baby in need.
MODERATOR: You’re the president, and you have how many employees?
JESSICA ALBA: We have 63.
MODERATOR: It’s big.
JESSICA ALBA: But I — you know, it was an idea for three and a half years, and I had a lot of people slamming a door in my face and telling me I was nuts, and there was no way that anybody could do this.
MODERATOR: What’s the best advice you ever got?
JESSICA ALBA: Partner with people that are smarter than you, understand your strengths and weaknesses, and surround yourself with people that complement your strengths, but could support your weaknesses.
MODERATOR: That’s great.
We’re going to take time for two questions from the girls, the high school students. We have one right here. And just identify yourself and ask the question.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Bailey.
MODERATOR: Stand up. Thank you.
QUESTION: I’m Bailey. Hi. My question is, did you find it hard to adapt after becoming like a non-active duty military family?
JESSICA ALBA: Yeah, I did. I lost my accent quite quickly, because we were in southern Texas, and before then we were in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the girls in the IE were not very nice to me. So, that was tough.
Too like people just not really understanding what it was like to be on a base. And it’s also, like I said, a community and a family, and to not have that anymore and have to go out and try and make friends, I mean, you have like automatic friends, everyone who lives nearby, just kind of like live at their house and they live at yours and it’s such a sweet and close-knit community. So, it was hard.
MODERATOR: One more.
JESSICA ALBA: And the PX. (Laughter.) You can get everything there.
MODERATOR: One question from over here. Yes?
QUESTION: I’m Amber.
JESSICA ALBA: Hi, Amber.
QUESTION: What’s the one person that you can count on who has supported you through everything?
JESSICA ALBA: My husband, Cash. That’s his real name. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: And what has he done to support you?
JESSICA ALBA: Gosh, everything from telling me not to get discouraged, because there were so many times — I mean, it really did take me three and a half years to find my partners, to helping me hone in and focus on the business. He gave a lot of constructive criticism but encouraged me to keep moving forward.
MODERATOR: That’s the best kind of encourager.
JESSICA ALBA: Yeah.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Jessica. You are the perfect guest for this group. It really is wonderful on so many dimensions. So, thank you for sharing your story.
JESSICA ALBA: Yes, of course.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ann Taylor. You all do look fabulous.
JESSICA ALBA: Yes, very fashionable crowd over here.
MODERATOR: And thank you for being with us; you’re got to have a ball tonight. (Applause.)