Jessica Alba, Gloria Steinem Talk Gender Equality at Work

The billion-dollar company founder and famous feminist were in Philly on Thursday.

Gloria Steinem and Jessica Alba at the PA Conference for Women. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images. Courtesy of the PA Conference for Women.)

Gloria Steinem and Jessica Alba at the PA Conference for Women. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images. Courtesy of the PA Conference for Women.)

You may know Jessica Alba from movies like Sin City and Fantastic Four, but these days she’s mostly consumed with her company The Honest Co., a retailer of organic diaper, bath and body products that has a $1 billion valuation. That’s billion with a “b.” Now she’s gracing the covers of Inc. and Forbes magazines — rather than Glamour or Cosmopolitan.

On Thursday, she joined feminist and author Gloria Steinem in Philadelphia for a talk at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. Alba shared her story of being a fast-rising entrepreneur. Steinem offered theories about how women can succeed in today’s American workplace.

Let’s start with Alba. Her pivot from actress to company founder, started with an allergic reaction she had from a supposedly all-natural laundry detergent her mother recommended.

“What I found is that there are a lot of untested, potentially harmful chemicals in everything in and around my home, including this laundry detergent,” said Alba who was pregnant with her first child at the time. Then she realized that shopping for expensive products from sources all around the world just wasn’t feasible — so she launched her own company to provide them to the public.

Since she’s a famous actress, it was easy to get investors excited about her company, right? Wrong.

“I actually spent my own money for about three-and-a-half years while I was refining how I was going to go into the marketplace. My original business plan was 100 pages long and included paint, air filters, water filters and makeup — any product that was in and around your home. … I pitched it to my business partner [Christopher Gavigan] and he turned me down.”

She went back 18 months later with a 20-page plan with a much smaller product line and won her partner’s support. “By then, he had a kid of his own and had another one on the way. He saw that his wife had changed her shopping habits. She started caring about buying organic food and having safer, healthier products to clean with.”

Alba also identified one big parallel between her climb in the business world and her rise in the Hollywood: rejection.

“In a weird way, when people would say ‘no’ or would doubt me, it fueled me to prove them wrong. I just felt like in life – certainly as actress — you literally live off rejection. That’s just part of the game,” said Alba. “In business as well, the more people didn’t believe in me, the more I was determined to find the truth and to make it happen.”

(But Alba’s company is facing two lawsuits over its sunscreen not working properly and that some of the items in her products are actually unnatural or synthetic. She didn’t address that during her talk and didn’t take questions from the audience.)

Steinem on the American Workplace

When Alba asked Steinem why gender inequality in the workplace continues despite becoming more and more of a hot-button issue, Steinem said it’s got plenty to do with greed.

“A lot of people are making a lot of money off the fact that we are not paid at all for work we do in the home or we are underpaid for the work we do outside the home,” said Steinem. “It’s going to take major rebellion and major legislation to change that.”

She recommends attributing an economic value to caregiving work that would become tax deductible.

“We could have legislation, as other countries do, that attributes economic value to the replacement level to all of the caregiving work that mostly women do,” said Steinem. 

On equal pay, she said it’s important to make sure it’s not just a women’s issue because making changes would put “something like $400 billion into the economy every year and it would be the single greatest economic stimulus this country could ever have.”

She also said it’s a win-win that both sides can agree on.

“Since the poorest children are in female-headed households and need government services, they would need fewer government services — and that would save tax dollars.”

Alba cited a stat from the U.S. Dept of Labor stating that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. But only 18 percent of computer science graduates are women.

Steinem said: “Girls need to see women doing technology. They need to know that a woman invented the computer language, that a woman invented the router on which all of Cisco is based. Sandy Lerner is her name. We need to stop saying there is a ‘math mind’ or a ‘history mind’ and realize that people learn in different ways.”