Wednesday, December 20, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Featured image: Chris-Tia Donaldson, the founder of TGIN, a natural hair and beauty products line. | Chris-Tia Donaldson/LinkedIn
Chris-Tia Donaldson isn’t a Proviso Township native, or current resident, but she was a villager for a day during an evening meeting of the Maywood-Proviso Rotary Club, held Dec. 8, at Meal of the Day Café, 1701 S. 1st Ave., in Maywood.
The entrepreneur, who founded the natural hair products company Thank God It’s Natural (TGIN for short), spoke about her inspiration for starting the business and writing the book that helped launch the company.
Thank God I’m Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Natural Hair, is a #1 Amazon bestseller and described by Essence Magazine as the “Natural Hair Bible.”
Donaldson sat down with teacher, activist and congressional candidate Anthony Clark and marketing guru Serita Love, both Rotarians, during a half-hour conversation that touched on a range of issues — from Donaldson’s 2015 cancer diagnosis to her recent decision to start a new company.
On the inspiration for her TGIN
I graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. When I started my first job working at a major corporate law firm here in Chicago where Barack and Michelle Obama met, despite having all these academic credentials and knowing how smart I was, I still felt an immense amount of pressure as a black woman to straighten my hair.
At the time, I was growing out my relaxer, so my hair was in this kinky, curly state, and back then, around 2003, natural hair was really not accepted in the workplace, or so I was conditioned to believe, so as a result of that messaging I decided to where a wig.
During my first review, my boss essentially told me I didn’t have what it took to be successful at that firm. I left that experience, wore my hair natural at my next job and I never looked back. That’s how the book came to be. I wanted other women to be able to wear their hair natural as well. So, that’s also how I got the inspiration to start the company.
How did you find out about your breast cancer? (Serita Love)
I tell people that 2015 was the best and worst year of my life. In March of 2015, we launched in over 250 Target stores, which was our big break as a company nationally. And nine months later, in December 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 36 at the time and I’d discovered a lump in my breast while showering — it was maybe June or July in 2015.
I thought it was something hormonal-related that would go away with time, but it wasn’t disappearing. At the urging of one of my friends from law school, I went to the doctor. When I went to the doctor, given my age and the fact that the lump was soft, she didn’t think anything of it, either. It took me to get a mammogram at a very young age for them to confirm that I had cancer. It came as quite a shock. I was 36. I didn’t eat badly. I had no family history.
What role did being a black woman, cancer survivor, a warrior, play in your business? (Anthony Clark)
I worked in corporate America for 10 years. Despite having all of these credentials, I didn’t get the mentorship and sponsorship that many of my white colleagues were the beneficiaries of. I always thought how much further along in my career I would be if someone took me under their wings or advocated for me behind closed doors.
As a result of that experience as a black woman working in corporate America, I go out of my way to let peope know immediately if they are off-course, what tools they need to be excellent, how to raise the bar … just constantly raising the level in our organization.
I had to teach myself how to practice law, in a certain sense. But if someone had taken me under their wings, who knows how much further along I would be.
In terms of breast cancer helping me in my business — it’s interesting. I worked so hard before the diagnosis and after the diagnosis, I eventually quit my job. But during the diagnosis, I couldn’t work as hard. I was at maybe 30 or 40 percent. Despite enduring treatment and radiation, at the end of 2016, when I was undergoing medical issues, our sales doubled and our store and door count quadrupled.
That experience taught me that I have to slow down to speed up and I have to trust my team, and that my role in the organization was not to be dealing with the day-to-day minutiae; it was to take a step back and deal with strategy, making sure the right people were in the right seats on the bus, so to speak.
I’m now getting to the point where I’m focused on vision, culture, innovation and financing.
Describe your experience losing hair and running a beauty company (Serita Love)
I was hoping I wouldn’t have to have chemotherapy, but because I was so young, they wanted the treatment to be as aggressive as possible. So, when I found out I had to lose my hair, it wasn’t a huge deal. I had to focus on my health. I had more issues not necessarily losing the hair but while it was growing back. My hair didn’t come back as quickly as that of other people I’d seen on social media recovering from cancer. It took a long time for my hair to return and I had to get comfortable with having short hair.
A viral photo of Chris-Tia Donaldson taken while she was recovering from breast cancer. | Taylor Larue Photography
You have a photo that’s circulated widely in social media that shows you without your hair. What’s the story behind that? (Serita Love)
Sometimes we have to capture certain moments because, hopefully, you’ll never have to revisit them. One of my girlfriends told me, ‘Well, you know you have to capture yourself bald.’ I go to the photographer who’d taken my headshots previously for an organization I was a member of. It was the weirdest experience and now that photo it’s literally everywhere.
This picture, strangely enough, has become kind of this rallying cry around the issue of disparities among black women in Chicago. We are 42 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. Sometimes being able to put a picture to research can amplify the message. This year, we’ve gotten so much press and have been able to spread so much light on the story through that photo. It brings a beautiful visual to this issue facing black and brown women.
On being a superwoman (Anthony Clark)
I never knew when I started this company that we’d be changing so many women’s perceptions about how they perceived themselves and their hair. Superwoman is a hot button for me. In forcing me to be vulnerable with my cancer diagnosis and other issues, its giving black women the permission to be vulnerable, to say, ‘I don’t have all the answers.’
Sometimes you have to take your cape off in self-care. Our message is not just loving yourself from a beauty standpoint, but loving yourself enough to take care of yourself. That means being an advocate when it comes to your health. If you find something, whether it’s a bump or anything, it’s important to listen to your body, question your doctor when your intuition kicks in and just be your own advocate.
Do you see yourself expanding or impacting future hair trends?
We’ve got a lot of momentum going around haircare, but at TGIN, we see ourselves moving into skin care and potentially color cosmetics, which is makeup. I’m also looking into starting a new company. My passion lies in creating an ideal and turning it into something.
There’s a specific segment or product that, when you walk down the aisle, can be very intimidating to black or brown consumers. So, we see that as an opportunity.
TGIN beauty products. Donaldson often gives out free samples of the products during speaking engagements. | TGIN
If you had to launch TGIN again today, how would you do it differently? (Serita Love)
I think I would have probably been a bit more forgiving of myself, and allowed myself to make more mistakes, realizing that perfect is the enemy of good enough. The longer I’ve been in business, the more I’ve had to accept the reality that it’s not going to be absolutely perfect.
Coming from corporate law, as a woman of color, a mistake can be potentially fatal to your career. So, taking that level of perfection into the business world can hurt you. I come from a world where, if I miss something, that can be my job. So, I bring that same level of perfection to the table. If I could do it again, though, I’d do things a little differently.
What advice could you give to all of us who may be afraid to take the risk of making change? (Anthony Clark)
I find myself in that situation currently. I have one company that’s taking off and doing well, but now I want to start a second company. Some people tell me, ‘Well, why don’t you just focus on this thing over here.’ So, I have that internal struggle with myself.
My advice to people who share that same sentiment is to just start and see where it goes. It’s better to fail than not to have tried at all. I think someone posted something on Instagram that said, ‘If you can’t stop thinking about it, then you have to take the risk.’
For more on Donaldson and/or TGIN, click here. VFP
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