Actress Jessica Alba is usually seen on the covers of magazines like InStyle, Elle or GQ, but it’s her business acumen — and multibillion valuation of her company — that landed her the cover of Forbes and the keynote speaker spot at the magazine’s two-day conference in New York showcasing leaders in retail, entertainment, media, technology and other industries. Called “The Women’s Summit: Power Redefined, Transforming the Rules of Engagement,” the event is in its third year.
“All of my acting decisions were financially motivated,” said Alba, who is the founder and chief creative officer of The Honest Co. “I knew acting was going to end and I wanted to save a lot of money for the rest of my life.”
She then turned to her own business, which sells stylish, eco-friendly baby products such as diapers, adding that she gets a lot of consumer feedback, which informs how she runs the company.
Alba said she didn’t want her own celebrity to overshadow her brand. “I didn’t put my name and face on the company,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be a celebrity-driven thing. The customers love how it’s transformed their lives.”
Asked how she feels about the $2 billion valuation of her company, Alba said, “I feel like we’re jut getting our toes in the water. We just launched Asia. It feels like a small number compared with what’s possible.”
In a later panel on engagement, Rosalind “Roz” Brewer, president and chief executive officer of Sam’s Club, talked about her background in chemistry and research, and how it influenced her business. “I brought that mind-set with me to Sam’s Club,” she said. “Sam’s has data about members. Retail is highly steeped in execution and operations is the core. Sam’s will be at the forefront of technology.”
Brewer said Sam’s integrated technology can tell stores when a buy-online-pick-up-in-store customer is 10 minutes away, five minutes away and pulling into the parking lot, so their order will be ready.
Millennials were a topic of interest to all on the panel. Brewer said, “Sam’s is a Boomer brand trying to transition to a Millennial brand. We’re talking to customers in a different way. If you look out into the future, Millennials are causing us to grow. They’ll have the buying power we’ll need later on.”
Asked how women can mentor other women, Brewer said, “It’s important as women that we expand the network. I do mentoring circles where I tell people where I’m going to be having lunch and they come and pepper me with questions.”
The theme of girl-power carried through to the afternoon session, during which Gayle King, cohost of “CBS This Morning” and editor at large of O, The Oprah Magazine, questioned Spanx founder Sara Blakely; cofounder and ceo of Rent the Runway Jennifer Hyman, and Ivanka Trump, founder of The Ivanka Trump Collection and executive vice president of acquisitions and development for the Trump Organization.
King went a bit off script when she asked Trump why she decided to go into business, considering she’s a “privileged” Trump, who could “sit and eat bonbons if she wants.”
“Really it was never an option,” Trump replied. She explained that her parents raised her in a “traditional fashion” and she was taught to have a strong work ethic.
Later, she explained that her time in the corporate world made her realize that women don’t dress like the “caricatures” seen in ads. They were looking for versatility and “function” in their clothing at a “reasonable” price, which is why she launched her fashion brand.
Attention to how women are dressing also spoke to Hyman, who explained that after spending time at “60 Minutes” while writing a research paper on the television news business, she realized she was “journalismed out.” It was around September 2011 and she decided to switch careers and move into another distressed industry — hospitality. She took a job at Starwood Hotels, explaining: “In chaos there’s always innovation.”
The executive talked about how hard it was to gain funding, adding that only 4 percent of venture capital funding goes to female-run businesses.
Blakely related a few anecdotes about the challenges of being a female entrepreneur. “One of my greatest strengths is also a weakness and that is as a woman, being underestimated,” she said. “Being underestimated hurt me along the journey and it helped me along the journey.”
How it helped the ceo is to overdeliver when she was given the opportunity, she explained. King asked about mistakes Blakely has made in her business since launch.
“I can tell you one mistake — it’s quite funny: When you go to launch a product or a brand in another country, you should really know the language nuances,” she said. “I was on the BBC in England when I first launched and the man who interviewed me said, ‘So, tell us about Spanx. What can it do for women in the U.K.?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s all about the fanny. It smooths your fanny. It separates your fanny.'”
Blakely leaned forward and explained that, in England, “Fanny means vagina. Do we want a smooth vagina?”
The audience roared with laughter.