Over the past few years, the market for natural hair and body care products and services targeted specifically to women of color has increased. Many Black female entrepreneurs have found their space in the industry, becoming household names and providing inspiration to women (and men) around the world.
Meet Chris-Tia Donaldson, Harvard graduate, full-time lawyer and CEO/founder of natural hair and body care company, Thank God I’m Natural (TGIN), whose product line launched in 2013. In March 2015, TGIN started selling its products in Target stores nationwide, a process which the team documented heavily on social media.
We spoke with Chris-Tia about her business journey, what it’s really like to launch in Target, the difficulties of being a Black female CEO, and her advice for other small businesses that want to take it to the next level.
MadameNoire (MN): What inspired you to launch TGIN?
Chris-Tia Donaldson (CD): My story is one that is very common to most Black women. I was in law school, and in my final year, I decided to stop relaxing my hair. There weren’t really products on the market that were for women with curly hair.
There was a small movement on the website, Nappturality. I used that as a resource to learn as much as I could about natural hair. I wanted to take the experience and compile it into easy tips for those thinking about going natural or wanting to learn how to care for your hair. It turned into a 300-page book Thank God I’m Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring For Natural Hair. The book came out three months before the movie Good Hair. We got alot of press and publicity. I went on a book tour, talked to different women, and did events everywhere.
There were a lot of products with great packaging and marketing that didn’t deliver on promises. I thought there was an opportunity to come up with something with high quality ingredients. We wanted something that would give women versatility, but also soft, manageable, and moisturized. That’s what we stand for.
MN: What were some of the challenges you faced while transitioning from author to product developer?
CD: Procrastination was one of my biggest challenges. Fear of starting was my biggest handicap. I didn’t have a background in chemistry, ethnic hair, packaging, bottles, sourcing ingredients, or shipping containers. There was alot of things that I didn’t know that I had to quickly come up to speed along the way. There’s still a lot of things I don’t know.
MN: How did you know TGIN was ready to be in Target stores?
CD: I don’t think you can ever be ready for this experience. People aren’t telling you everything you need to know throughout the process. I think we knew we were ready because we knew we could produce, had a quality product, and had the building blocks that could be scalable. Our [items] came in a shipper. Our labels were good. Our production was running well. We had a system for ordering and making sure that we weren’t out of stock. For Target, we had to take what we were doing now and multiple it by “x,” but the process stays the same.
MN: What are some business lessons you learned from this Target experience?
CD: It’s all about connections. You go out looking for one thing and the next thing it’s like, “What? You are the Target people? Okay, let’s connect.” You might meet a person [and tell them your story] and they put you in touch with someone.
You have to be what the brand is looking for. Your image, packaging, who you are as a founder, your story, your business acumen, etc. Any retail outlet wants you there because you are bringing them new customers. It’s a partnership. I can’t speak for all, but most retail outlets want to work with people who understand that. You have to come to the table ready to say, “How is this relationship beneficial to both of us?”
MN: How did going through the process of selling in a large retail store affect you?
CD: You have to let the hell go. People always asked me if I was excited. Honestly, I was more stressed than anything. On one hand, I was working on my Target paperwork which was: Identify the product and ingredient. What percentage of your sales does this account for? On the other hand, I was working with my financial institution to help me figure out a way to finance the initial inventory. With that, they needed a new life insurance policy, a lien on my car and various assets, articles of organization, documentation of who was making my stuff, and what my Target projections were. There was no real process. You learn a lot along the way.
MN: Are you going to try to get into other major retail stores?
CD: I want to master this one first. I tell people, “You don’t come to the Olympics to come in 10th place.” My philosophy has been to keep things tightly focused. That’s why we are not a company where we have a shampoo in 20 fragrances. I like to do things on a small scale and do them well.
MN: How did you get your customers excited about your Target Launch?
CD: The Target people originally told me they were expecting me to be in stores between March 1 and March 15. I met with people before March 1 and they asked me what I was going to do if I wasn’t in stores before March 1. I told them I didn’t know.
We turned it into a contest with our followers. We said, “If you don’t see us, ask for us.” It caused our customers to go out and pull stuff off the shelf. We made finding the product a fun experience versus me knowing the exact date of when we would be in stores. On May 29, it will be in every store. We capitalized on the uncertainty. We turned not knowing into something that people could become excited about.
MN: What other business benefits have you seen from launching in Target and expanding your retail reach?
CD: Before we were a major retail outlet, people bought from us online or in beauty supply stores. I’ve learned how Black women shopped. Now that we are in Target, there are people who see us in Target and will come to our website and buy it. A lot of women will see it and hear the hype, but they want to do their research. People take you a little more seriously. We were the same company before March 1, but it’s like you move to a new level. There’s a new perception of your ability as a business woman.
A lot of people said to me, “You have a Harvard degree and you are selling cream out the trunk of your car?” You damn right I am. Guess what? I’m in Target now, 250 stores. There were a lot of people along the way that thought I was another girl in the park selling soaps and shea butter. Maybe I was, but I knew how to do this thing in a way that you get a certain result.
You can take a “natural,” “earthy,” or “personal relationship-driven” business, and with the right business structure to it, take it to the next level. You can have a passion and still be grassroots and do business on a large-scale.
MN: What is it like being a Black CEO in the beauty industry today?
CD: Being a female CEO and a Black female CEO, sometimes it’s hard to say you want to be number one. People look at you like you are crazy. People think that you should be happy to be here at this level. Like I said, you don’t go to the Olympics to come in 10th place. As women, we have a hard time embracing each other in the quest to be the best. Women are not taught to be competitive. If a little girl in ballet says she wants to be the soloist [and is chosen], we are taught to think, “Oh my gosh…they chose me! I’m so lucky!”
As a Black female CEO, some people are taken aback by you wanting to be the best. You have to give yourself permission to say you want to be at the top. A lot of women struggle with articulating that or thinking it’s acceptable.
MN: What’s next for TGIN?
CD: When you first get into Target, you are on a probationary period as part of an evaluation. Once we get over that, I’d like to take a vacation. In terms of the company, I want to see it do well. I want to get into more stores, beauty supplies, Whole Foods… I want to knock all of that out.