Jennifer Garner on Helping Lead Her Own Start-Up: ‘I've Gotten Much Better at Having Hard Conversations'

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This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

If you ask Jennifer Garner about her success, she'll give you a simple answer: "It's baffling to me, honestly."

The actress is most known for her long list of TV and movie credits, including "Alias," "13 Going on 30" and "DareDevil." But in 2018, Garner took an entrepreneurial turn, becoming the co-founder and chief brand officer of organic, cold-pressed food company Once Upon a Farm, which sells fruit and veggie blends in more than 10,000 stores nationwide.

The 50-employee company brings in an estimated $10 million in annual revenue, according to research firm Owler. (Once Upon a Farm declined to comment on its financials.)

The career shift — Garner hasn't stopped acting, but she's scaled back a little on her on-screen efforts — may seem surprising. Yet, she says, this isn't the first time that a dream has, against the odds, pushed her in a new direction.

And every time it happens, she says, she falls back on a relentless work ethic she learned growing up in Charleston, West Virginia.

"I don't know that I have such a drive and ambition," Garner tells CNBC Make It. "But I am a worker bee."

That trait comes in handy when you're a brand-new entrepreneur, especially now for Garner at age 49. Start-up life is challenging, she says, adding that being a "total beginner" can be ultimately rewarding because it allows you to learn at a rapid pace.

Garner is also a longtime ambassador for Save the Children, a London-based humanitarian nonprofit. Last month, Once Upon a Farm partnered with Save the Children to provide one million meals to children in need by 2024.

Here, Garner talks about how she launched her acting career, transitioning to entrepreneurial life, handling bad days and being a working, single mom to her three kids.

On launching her career: Being a Hollywood actress was never 'my dream'

Somebody said once, "How you do anything is how you do everything." That's how I was born feeling.

I was put into one ballet class [as a kid], and I didn't look up until after college. I was put into one swim team rehearsal, and I didn't stop until somebody said, "You know, you can stop."

I don't question these things. I just do them.

[Being a Hollywood actress] wouldn't have been my dream. As a little kid, I wanted to be a school librarian — I loved my school librarian, and I still do. I just texted her yesterday.

I was lucky to have parents who didn't impose their ideas on me. When I went to college [at Denison University] as a chemistry major, my mom said to me, "Why aren't you switching your major? Just study what you love. You can always go back and become a doctor or a lawyer."

I came out with a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts). I remember thinking how forward-thinking my parents were to give me that freedom.

After I finished college, I worked at all these different summer stocks [seasonal theaters]. I worked at a theater in a strip mall in Florida. I drove to New York to audition for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and ended up getting a job at the Roundabout [Theatre Company] understudying. All of a sudden, I was like, "OK, I live in New York now."

So I'm very open to a dream being like, "Alright, sure. Let's try this."

On waiting until her 40s to become an entrepreneur: 'I'm the most ignorant person in the room'

I had been looking at brands to join [as a co-founder] for a while. I've actually had several false starts, because I was pretty picky: The more I tried to find one, the more I realized how much [time] I would need to invest.

Once Upon a Farm, which was teeny tiny when I came around, was a no-brainer. It solved a problem that I had as a mom, and that I didn't see anyone else solving — using technology called high-pressure pasteurization, or high-pressure processing, to make kid products [that retain their nutrients and taste while still killing harmful bacteria].

Being an entrepreneur is totally challenging. Are you kidding? [Right now] we have all this packaging sitting off the port of Los Angeles. It's just waiting to get in the dock, and we need it in Milwaukee. It's totally challenging.

What's rewarding is being 49 and a total beginner all the time. No matter what room I go into, or what meeting we kick off with, I'm the most ignorant person in the room. I always want to be in more meetings and [learn] more. The biggest things I've learned are the nitty-gritty, like what a gap net revenue is.

I've gotten much better at having hard conversations, if I need to. But [start-ups are] the same as a movie set. It's the same as any community of people working toward a common goal. That's what I love.

I jokingly say that I'm the chief cheerleader of the company, but I'm not: Everyone is a cheerleader at this company. Everyone also has equity. It's a pretty uplifting place to work.

On handling bad days: 'Sometimes, you just have to force joy'

Sometimes, you just have a bad day. I find that I have a very low tolerance for my own unhappiness, so I like to have a plan.

I work out for that reason. I have to start my day with that jolt of adrenaline and endorphins. Everyone who works at my house, we all work out together every morning. That has gotten us through [Covid so far].

I rely heavily on girlfriends, or a quick call with a therapist. I journal. And sometimes, you just have to force joy and say, "OK, kids, we're gonna have a restaurant at home tonight!"

I meditate, but I have a horrible relationship with meditation. I have this ongoing meditation with [Peloton yoga teacher] Chelsey Jackson Roberts. When I meditate with her, and there's a community of people meditating together, it's always really meaningful. For a couple of weeks, I'll be really into it.

But man, if I miss once, it really just knocks me off, and then I'm starting from square one. Even if it's three days later, it's like, "Ahhh." I feel like there shouldn't be as much strife to get yourself to do it, but I persevere because I believe in it.

On being a working, single mom: 'Let your kids see you do your job with your whole heart'

Wherever I am, I try to be there 100%.

If I'm at work, then I'm really at work. It doesn't mean that I'm not getting called if a kid needs to go home from school, or if [my kids] are calling me after school to say, "What time will you be home?"

I don't think feeling guilty benefits my kids. I don't think they feel better if I'm feeling guilty, either.

I've watched talent shows over FaceTime, and it's gnarly. It's totally gnarly. But it's going to be gnarly, so you might as well just go after it.

Let go of how obscene it is. Let your kids see you do your job with your whole heart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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