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Jessica Alba's Honest Company Gets Behind Girls Who Code, Hosts Summer Program

Eighty young women participated in Girls Who Code's first summer immersion program in greater LA.

Diana Lannes

Actress and entrepreneur Jessica Alba has built a $1 billion consumer brand on a simple premise — to make products that are good for the people who use them, and good for the environment.

A similar create-a-better-world philosophy informed The Honest Company’s decision to support Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology.

“My dreams, in creating this brand and in it coming to life, would not have been possible without technology. It really evened the playing field for me to give everyone access to these safe and healthy products, no matter where you lived,” said startup co-founder Alba in an interview from the company’s Santa Monica headquarters. “So I just feel like, if we could in any way shape or form inspire girls to be entrepreneurs, to participate in the creation of the future, the world’s problems can be solved.”

Alba launched her Hollywood career with her Golden Globe-nominated performance as the star of James Cameron’s sci-fi TV series “Dark Angel.” She would go on to land roles in such films as “Fantastic Four,” “Little Fockers” and in the “Sin City” movies, though pregnancy set her on a different path as an entrepreneur bent on removing toxins from baby products. The company operates its own e-commerce website, and derives about 75 percent of its revenue online — though its products also are sold at Whole Foods, Nordstrom, Costco and Target.

The Honest Company hosted one of the Girls Who Code’s first summer immersion programs in Los Angeles, with 20 girls at The Honest Co. and 60 across three other companies, AT&T, Google and The Saban Foundation. The high school students who participated in the seven-week course studied programming languages, met with mentors and heard guest lecturers, and took field trips to Walt Disney Studios, the Gibson Dunn law firm and The Honest Company’s warehouse.

Brian Lee, chief executive and co-founder of The Honest Company, said he hopes Girls Who Code will inspire more young women to pursue computer science degrees.

“I would give almost anything to hire more and more women, but they just don’t exist in this field,” Lee said Thursday in an interview at his company’s HQ headquarters. “So we thought, whatever we could do to foster that in these young women, we want to be a part of that.”

In a lounge area where the flower-stenciled wallpaper bears affirmative slogans like “Together we can make it better!” Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani talked about her life as the daughter of a political refugees who fled the violence of Idi Amin’s Uganda for the United States. Though her parents are engineers, she never studied computer science.

“I came from a technical family,” said Saujani, holding her 5-month-old son in her lap. “I was one of the girls who was not interested in that. I didn’t think tech was the way to go.” said Saujani.

Over time, her lack of programming skills became a source of frustration to Saujani. The one-time congressional candidate and former deputy public advocate of New York City said she wished she could harness technology to assist immigrant communities. “I couldn’t exercise my creativity,” she said.

That frustration led to the creation of Girls Who Code in 2012. The organization has grown exponentially, from 20 initial participants to some 10,000 young women in 39 states, who by the end of this year will have participated in its summer immersion program or Girls Who Code Clubs. Saujani said 90 percent of those who complete the summer program go on to major in computer science or a related field.

Saujani attended The Honest Company’s graduation ceremony, held in a parking lot outside the company’s headquarters, where she lauded the work of the high school students, teachers and company mentors. She singled out one student project of particular note. A Web application called Un-Bordered features a game in which players take on the identity of a 17-year-old Latina high schooler whose father is deported, and who must decide whether to leave the country with the rest of her family or stay and continue her education.

“I remember when I built Girls Who Code, I had a bunch of friends who were undocumented talk about their work,” Saujani said to the program’s graduates and their families, who were seated in rows of white folding chairs. “It’s come full circle to see you guys build a game called Un-Bordered. You’re using our experience as daughters of immigrants to make this world a little bit better.”

One of the four young women who developed Un-Bordered is Alondra Torres-Navarro, herself a 17-year-old immigrant who was smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 4. She and her mother are now lawful permanent residents, thanks to the Violence Against Women Act, which affords protection to refugees who flee domestic violence. But she wrestles with the weight of her family obligations and her desire to continue to pursue her education at the Cate School, a private boarding school in Santa Barbara.

“I’m really enjoying my time there,” Torres-Navarro said. “It was a tough choice, but it’s much better in terms of my opportunities, and I’ll be able to give more back by getting an education.”

Alba took the time to pose with each of the graduates as they collected their participation certificates — she even agreed to do reshoots with some of the young women to capture the right image. In an interview before the ceremony began, Alba mused about how struck she was by the quality of the students’ work, and their maturity.

“Creative people are very different. They’re all a little bit odd, which is great. I mean, those are my people,” Alba said with a laugh. “I was surprised by how poised and together these girls are, and how intelligent they are.”

Lee and Alba joked that they were quite different as 15-year-olds.

“I was definitely taking my parents car, when they left me home,” Alba laughed. “For joyrides to Carl’s Jr.”

 The Honest Co. hosted 20 girls for a summer Girls Who Code program.
The Honest Co. hosted 20 girls for a summer Girls Who Code program.
Dianna Lannes.

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