By Ashley C. Ford 5 minute Read
This story is part of State of Mind, a special package covering mental health at work. For the series, Fast Company also convened a roundtable of business leaders and advocates to discuss how to bring compassion to the workplace and published an excerpt of Bonobos cofounder Andy Dunn’s new memoir, Burn Rate, about growing his company while having bipolar disorder.
You don’t garner 15 Grammys across a two-decade-long career without a strong work ethic. Alicia Keys, the artist with the dynamic voice and extraordinary songwriting and producing talent, developed hers at an early age.
Her role model was her mother, who raised Keys on her own in New York City, sometimes working multiple jobs. “She had to work these long hours,” Keys tells me over Zoom on a bright March afternoon. “And so I saw her and I said, ‘Okay, that’s what you do. You work hard.’ Because if you don’t work or don’t go for what you want, you won’t get it.”
The approach certainly produced results. But success came at the expense of Keys’s mental well-being. Keys was barely out of her teens when she first reached superstardom, and she has publicly spoken of experiencing episodes of exhaustion and depression amid the pressures of fame at a young age. Since then, she’s developed a new understanding of what it means to commit to work while tending to her mind and body. “I do believe you can care deeply about yourself, which we don’t often allow ourselves,” she says.
Keys is now channeling her interest in mindfulness into an expanding portfolio of projects in the wellness space. In September 2020, she launched her Keys Soulcare skincare brand with ELF Beauty. And in March, she debuted an athletic-wear collection with Athletapart of an ongoing partnership with the brand that has her designing clothes and helping to spread its long-standing message of potential.
As she juggles these new business interests with the demands of her music career—she’s going on a world tour this summer—Keys has discovered she must reimagine the way she works once again. The habits of a performer, which include long hours in the studio in the single-minded pursuit of an artistic vision, don’t always lend themselves to being a good business partner and collaborator.
“Coming from the music [industry], it’s kind of expected that you start early, and you’ll end late, and you’re never going to have weekends off,” she says. “I have to work extra hard to create the proper culture.” In the midst of the pandemic, Keys is expanding her purview. But she’s also ensuring that work-life balance remains a priority for everyone involved, herself included.
“With the businesses that I’m building, there really is a theme about potential and diversity, and finding ways to be yourself,” Keys says. Fresh-faced and wearing a sweatshirt, she explains that she wants her ELF and Athleta partnerships—and any others in the future—to prompt larger conversations.
Key’s first collection with Athleta, which comes in sizes XXS to 3X, dropped in early March, on International Women’s Day. Athleta CEO Mary Beth Laughton says this initial line—the first of several to be designed with Keys—is intended to help introduce the brand to new consumers. “Alicia is such a great fit for us because throughout her 20-year career, she’s been vocal about her own well-being journey,” says Laughton.
The multiyear Athleta partnership follows the launch of Keys Soulcare, a skincare line that the performer developed with ELF Beauty, the Oakland, California–based cosmetics company, which has been eager to expand into wellness. Keys has been at the forefront of the natural beauty trend since 2016, when she declared in an essay titled “Time to Uncover” that she no longer wanted to conform to impossible standards and hide herself behind makeup. Though she still uses cosmetics, Keys’s more unadorned approach to beauty has resonated—and is what ELF is tapping into with Keys Soulcare, which is sold online and distributed by Ulta and Athleta.
I value myself now, and I think for a lot of years, I didn’t.”
Keys weighs in on branding decisions, works on formulas, ingredients, and efficacy with the company’s in-house dermatologist, and even writes all the affirmations that appear on the packaging. “There is not a single part of Keys Soulcare that she doesn’t touch,” says Kory Marchisotto, the CMO of ELF Beauty and president of Keys Soulcare.
The pandemic nearly derailed plans to launch the brand in September 2020, forcing everyone to quickly adapt. Keys and the dedicated team at ELF that’s responsible for Keys Soulcare had to conduct crucial product and packaging reviews over Zoom. Yet Keys was determined to see it through. “Alicia was the one saying, ‘Let’s go,'” Marchisotto says. “She has a lot of ‘yes’ energy.”
Of course, “yes” energy is something you need to manage carefully, as Keys knows all too well. She was just 21 years old when she took home five Grammys for her debut album, Songs in A Minor. Back in those days, she spent a lot of time doing what others wanted her to do. With experience, she grew. “I value myself now, and I think for a lot of years, I didn’t,” she says. “I learned that in order for me to be the most productive, I have to be well. I prioritize myself in a way that I just didn’t [before].”
Today, whether she is working with the six employees at her personal production company, AK Worldwide Productions, or the larger groups she collaborates with at Athleta and ELF, she looks to balance her strong creative vision with empathetic leadership. She makes a point to start quarterly meetings by asking team members how they are doing and keeps an eye on time-off requests for evidence of burnout.
“A lot of us who are working at high outputs feel like, in order to reach our goals or scale our businesses, we have to go to a level that surpasses normal,” she says. But that’s not sustainable. “I’m always thinking about how to make sure we’re creating time off and how we’re checking in [on people] just on a spirit level.”
She credits her husband, record producer and artist Swizz Beatz, with encouraging her to demand excellence in every project she takes on but also to pull back from “thinking you can control everything.” This shift in mindset was particularly useful as Keys was planning new businesses while, like every pandemic-era parent, helping her two sons, Egypt and Genesis, adapt to remote learning.
When I ask Keys what she’s thankful for today, she answers immediately: “Just being able to do the simple things,” she says, such as taking her children to school in the morning. “My [youngest] son had a little sleepover last night,” Keys continues, noting that she usually doesn’t allow them on school nights. The perfectionist performer who once would have worked through the night on a project now makes flexibility, relaxation, and family time a priority.
“Last night we were able to break the rules,” she says, “and, for just those types of vibes, I’m super grateful.”