Sabrina Elba: "Not everyone is going to agree with you"

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Sabrina Elba on her entrepreneurial journey sabrina elba

Sabrina Elba describes herself as “dream heavy”. It is a beautiful turn of phrase, one which neatly gives explanation to the breadth and variety of her career. The model and UN Goodwill Ambassador trained to be a lawyer, was a former beauty pageant winner, is co-chair of the European Board of Global Citizen and, in 2022, launched S’able Labs – a Melanin-inclusive skincare brand – with her husband, the actor and “serial entrepreneur” Idris Elba.

Yet this evocative description of Sabrina was once used against her. Though S’able is, what she proudly describes as “a family company,” they did originally toy with the idea of seeking external funding.

“I don't think anyone really believed in the idea as much as I did,” she says, Zoom-calling me on a busy morning, during which I discover that she is not only immensely good company, but a woman one would imagine it is very hard to say no to. Passion and drive emanate from her. “Trying to convince someone of your idea is exhausting. It did always make me feel a little bit like I'm a young Black, dream-heavy women sitting in front of you, but you just don't see my dreams as much as you'd see someone else's. I always had that in the back of my head.”

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S'able Labs

She is thankful, she says, that they were able to fund the venture themselves so that their vision was never compromised. This fierce independent spirit has come to typify a brand which staunchly goes its own way.

“I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from my journey as an entrepreneur is that not everyone is going to agree with you,” she says. “You don’t have to judge your idea by their opinion. Trust your gut, trust your instincts, and if it's something that you want to see in the world that you genuinely feel is missing then it should have a place.”

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Sabrina Elba attending the Schiaparelli Couture show in ParisJacopo Raule - Getty Images

S’able Labs is certainly that, a genderless brand which breaks down barriers in every respect. By catering to overlooked melanated skin it shrewdly asserts that it caters for all ‘hue-mans’, while its collaboration with Farm Africa means it protects the livelihoods of the individuals who grow the ingredients they use.

“Idris and I are both involved in the rural agricultural sector as part of our work as Goodwill Ambassadors for the UN,” she says. “I remember saying to some of the farmers that I met on a field trip once; ‘Oh, I can't wait to buy ingredients from you. We're starting this company.’ Then the lab says, ‘No, people don’t source ingredients direct that way.’ So, I figured out a way that we could.”

“We found a B Corp lab who would help us, and which has actually become quite impassioned by continuing to help us find new leads and new communities to source from,” she continues, noting that they can now trace back each ingredient to communities they know. “That makes us even more excited because it’s not just helping these people, it's investing. It's investing in amazing, rural communities.”

Elba strikes you as someone who is fiercely passionate about and enormously dedicated to making those heavy dreams of hers a reality, which makes it all the stranger when she admits that becoming an entrepreneur, least of all a CEO, was never something she thought possible. She credits her husband with igniting her creative fuse. “The man has 1000 dreams a day and he is resolute about making them all a reality,” she says, laughing. “It is so contagious. He really did inspire me to realise that the worst that might happen is that it just doesn't happen, and you move on. But you must try, or it never has a chance.”

When starting out, she admits to feeling imposter syndrome and self-doubt, but has since learnt to see them as tools of instinct rather than pitfalls. “I think the doubts that I've had, even in the last 18 months since we launched, have only opened my eyes to bigger possibilities, or helped me avoid really catastrophic problems that we could have faced,” she observes. “I mean, they say when you first learn to drive that the worst thing you can have is too much confidence, right?”

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Idris and Sabrina ElbaPietro S. D'Aprano - Getty Images

While Idris became a source of inspiration in the nascent days of the business, finding other Black beauty CEOs was a harder task. It's why she takes the responsibility of her own position of representation very seriously. “To think I might have made that space for someone motivates me to keep going and to make the company the best it can be,” she says. “I'm thankful that I can be in that position, because I know how rare it is.”

For someone who never considered the business route, she has taken to it with aplomb. She is thoughtful and erudite about the importance of putting together the right team, of insisting on transparency in their sourcing and real sustainability in their packaging, as well as learning to take her time. She is conscious that many may have viewed her venture with Idris as “just another celebrity skincare brand” and so she insisted that S’able work as hard as possible to swerve that association.

“If someone hasn't created something out of passion, it can be very obvious,” she agrees. “I think consumers are so much smarter than people believe them to be.” The clearest indicator of this is that Elba is so clearly a woman with a dream who became an accidental entrepreneur to achieve it. A celebrity vanity project this is not.

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