With a degree from Harvard Law School under her belt, Chris-Tia Donaldson knew she was on her way after landing a job at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago-based law firm where Barack and Michelle Obama met and worked. Despite her new firm’s presidential pedigree, though, the lived experience of showing up to work each day wasn’t exactly what she had envisioned. And for Donaldson, that disconnect came to symbolically center on one thing: her hair.
“I wore a wig for over two years at my first law firm, primarily to hide the fact that my hair was kinky,” she recalled in a recent conversation with Fairygodboss. “At the time, I had just done the Big Chop and felt like I had to look like the 21st century version of Claire Huxtable, complete with flowing hair, in order to be accepted by my white colleagues, gain better assignments and appease my clients.”
These efforts to twist and conform herself to meet whitened workplace standards were poisonous, she came to realize, both professionally and personally.
“In the end, I failed miserably when it came to pleasing others and came very, very, very close to being let go from my first job,” she said. “My preoccupation with having ‘good hair’ and my rejection of my inherent qualities as a Black woman were largely part of my performance-related issues.”
It was a realization that stuck with her — and ultimately helped galvanize her to take her life in an entirely new direction.
Today as the Founder and CEO of Thank God It’s Natural (tgin), a natural hair and skin care company, Donaldson is an accomplished advocate for Black women’s wellness in more ways than one. After having found success in the beauty space through tgin, in 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer — and while battling it, learned of the role that race and socioeconomic status play in determining women’s health outcomes. (In Chicago, where Donaldson lives and received treatment, for instance, Black women are 42 percent more likely to die from breast cancer compared to white women.) Now, through her company’s sister tgin Foundation, she’s taking a grassroots approach to ensuring that Black women not only survive, but thrive following a cancer diagnosis.
Recently, Donaldson spoke with Fairygodboss about all of this and more, including her approach to resilience, learning how to put your well-being first, and her No. 1 piece of advice to women who are seeking true meaning in their careers.
You’re the CEO of Thank God It’s Natural (tgin), a natural hair and skin care company, and before that you were a corporate lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law. Can you tell us about the journey that led to you launching this company? Was there a particular moment when you knew it was time to make this big life change?
Chris-Tia Donaldson: "When I graduated from Harvard Law School, I wore a wig for over two years at my first law firm (where Barack and Michelle Obama used to work) primarily to hide the fact that my hair was kinky. At the time, I had just done the Big Chop and felt like I had to look like the 21st century version of Claire Huxtable (complete with flowing hair) in order to be accepted by my white colleagues, gain better assignments, appease my clients, etc. In the end, I failed miserably when it came to pleasing others, and came very, very, very, close to being let go from my first job. My preoccupation with my having “good hair” and my rejection of my inherent qualities as a Black woman were largely part of my performance related issues.
"I went on to write my first best-selling book, Thank God It’s Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Natural Hair, not knowing that many other women shared this same hair challenge. This publication took me all over the country to different bookstores, festivals, farmer’s markets, hair shows, and churches where I helped spread the gospel of natural hair. As a result of this grass roots movement, I went on to launch a line of hair and skin care products in 2013. Our products are now found in over 10,000 stores including Ulta, Target, Whole Foods, Sally Beauty, Walmart and more.
"Being natural has opened my eyes to so many things. I think when you learn to accept your hair for what it is (e.g. that curl is frizzy, my hair will never be waist length, etc.), life becomes so much easier. Going natural has also forced me to become more cognizant about what it is I put in and on my body. It has been a major eye opening experience on a personal, spiritual, and physical level."
Is there anything about being a founder that’s particularly surprised you? Knowing what you know now, is there advice you’d go back and give yourself when you were at the start of this journey?
CD: "I wish I knew I had to slow down to speed up. There’s so much emphasis on getting to the next level, but the more I study successful people, it's like you accomplish one goal only to go onto the next. It’s important to give yourself time to rest, recoup and recover rather than living constantly on a treadmill trying to chase one accomplishment to the next.
"People are your best investments. At Thank God It’s Natural, one of our core values is the Spirit of Excellence. Find and retain a team of people who will tackle every task with drive and confidence. Be sure to include those who will challenge you to rise above, and not settle for the status quo.
"Finally, know your numbers. Understand your P/L, to know what’s driving your business. Also, pay close attention to cash flow, so you can make sound decisions. It’s taken me awhile to get comfortable with financial statements, but you just have to expose yourself to them as much as possible."
What do you see as being the most rewarding aspect of your career today?
CD: "I think one of the most rewarding aspects of this journey is seeing how far we have made it thanks to the grace of God. We’re finally at a point, where we have a great team. We’ve been able to accomplish so much more than I have ever imagined given that I lack a background in the beauty industry or a formal operations background, and yet we continue to be given great guidance and cover when it comes to taking the company to incredible heights and the next level."
How do you approach managing your priorities on a day-to-day basis?
CD: "I wish I could say I was really balanced, but it’s a challenge. I try to delegate more, and keep short to do lists where I focus on keeping the main thing the main thing. I used to try to finish it all at once, but it's so hard to always get it done, and I don’t beat myself up for that anymore.
"I also use a coach to help me find more balance and prioritize my business activities more. And I have to be intentional about how I spend my free time, which means carving out time for family, decorating my bedroom, taking time out for myself to meditate, get massages, cook, shop, and preparing for motherhood/having a family, etc. I’m also trying something new. When I come home now, I light a candle, turn off the lights and sit in the dark for 5-7 minutes. I try to also schedule breaks, otherwise I would be in a constant motion."
Do you have a favorite career “mistake”?
CD: "One of the hardest lessons I've learned is it is okay to put yourself first. I used to prioritize myself and my health last, until it almost cost me my life. I was diagnosed with breast cancer twice, and I had to learn to step back and delegate more. I recently made it a practice to start observing the Sabbath every Saturday.
"One of the hardest lessons I've learned is it is okay to put yourself first. I used to prioritize myself and my health last, until it almost cost me my life."
"I’m starting to learn when you work constantly without resting, it's because you subconsciously believe that you are in control and that God cannot provide for your needs. I’m becoming more aware of my trust issues when it comes to Him and learning that rest is a part of being not only kind to myself, but being a good Christian as well."
In 2015, when you were 36, you were diagnosed with breast cancer — and ultimately learned that factors like race and socioeconomic status can play a significant role in determining women’s health outcomes. Can you tell us a little more about this?
CD: "When it comes to cancer, money matters a lot. Very few people, including oncologists, realize how much finances can become a barrier to proper treatment. I often tell people that I had the good fortune of reliable transportation, as well as the ability to pay $11 dollars each day for parking or the round-trip Uber fare to go to the hospital one hundred times in a single year. That’s $1,100 just getting back and forth to the hospital, which is not covered by your insurance. For a lot of women, reliable transportation, gas money, a long ride, or an unpredictable bus schedule might be a barrier to treatment.
"When I was going through cancer treatment, I was also single and childless, which was something I loathed, but came to find out, for many women, having reliable childcare while in treatment and during recovery may also be a barrier to survivorship. Patients under treatment don’t have the luxury of just showing up when they want to. They’re on a very specific schedule and have to be at the hospital during a very specific window because a cocktail or targeted therapy has been customized for their particular type of cancer. If they miss the bus or their boyfriend or husband needed to use their car, then they’re shit out of luck.
"Very few people, including oncologists, realize how much finances can become a barrier to proper treatment... For a lot of women, reliable transportation, gas money, a long ride, or an unpredictable bus schedule might be a barrier to treatment."
"I also tell people that I had the luxury of taking a 100 percent paid leave of absence due to my generous benefits at Oracle. Many women have a limited number of days for taking time off especially if they have a temp job or work for a jerk boss.
"All of these things settled with me, and I realized that my experience was unique. When I share these stories with people, including doctors, many people are shocked to know that these kinds of basic financial issues can impact survivor outcomes.
"Although Black women are more likely to have triple negative cancer, meaning the cancer is not hormonally sensitive and therefore more difficult to treat, socioeconomic factors play a major part in why Black women are not beating this disease. We know this because in cities like Chicago, Black women are 42 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts; but in cities like New York City, that number drops to 19 percent. In San Francisco, it drops to 0 percent, largely due to programs that offer affordable access to healthcare.
"In the past, Black women were less likely to get breast cancer, but today they are more likely to die from it."
Your experience led you to found the tgin Foundation, with a goal of addressing these inequities. What is some of the work the foundation is doing today?
CD: "When I was diagnosed at a local south side of Chicago hospital, in a predominantly poor Black and Latinx community, I was surrounded by so much hopelessness. But I made a promise to myself that I would always tell the story of the strong women battling alongside me, so other people who came after us could feel like this is a condition worth fighting through — that their life is worth fighting for — and that breast cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
"Today, the tgin Foundation has various ongoing initiatives in the Chicagoland area. We’re doing things like:
First, I’m excited about hosting our first Virtual Health + Mindfulness Conference this October to raise awareness of survivors who have incredible stories of remission from breast cancer and other diseases that have resulted from undertaking lifestyle changes such as incorporating more prayer, reducing stress, and incorporating better eating into their diets.
Another big announcement is that we recently partnered with Lyft to transport uninsured and underinsured African American women in Chicago to help eliminate transportation barriers that prevent women from obtaining a clinical breast exam, mammogram, attending follow-up visits or seeking treatment.
We also continue educating at-risk women in a safe and trusting environment through our "Pink Ambassador Intervention Program (PAIP)," a 5-Step program that educates at-risk women in a safe and trusting environment.
Finally, we’re doing innovating outreach using social media to create content that speaks to women under 40 about the importance of taking breast health seriously under the age of 50. There are so many young women, like myself, who thought breast cancer only impacted older women. Along this journey, I have met women as young as 20 and 30 dealing with this issue. As a result, we try to share survivor stories, health tips, and wellness best practices to make sure we’re all in the now. You can follow us @tginfoundation on Instagram or check out www.tginfoundation.org for more information.
"Although our not-for-profit organization is still fairly young and new, with time, we hope to continue to have a considerable impact on the community and be a new voice in the conversation around how breast cancer impacts women of color."
What needs to change in order for women, across races, to receive equitable, high-quality medical care that truly supports them?
CD: "The tgin Foundation is committed to addressing health disparities and encouraging young women to listen to their bodies. Our mission is to make significant changes in order for women to receive equitable, high-quality medical care. Some of these measures are to:
Increase breast cancer awareness amongst African American women under age 40
Increase early-detection (breast health) behaviors among African American women
Guide uninsured and underinsured patients to resources and service providers. Make sure it is clear that with early detection breast cancer is a treatable disease, and that it does not have to be a death sentence.
Navigate women through breast health continuum of care until completion
Bring breast health focused organizations together to align and create a consortium in the Chicagoland area"
As a survivor of cancer, what is your outlook on resilience today? How does this intersect with your professional self?
CD: "I continue to always focus on health and healing. I know that I am divinely protected and that I have optimal health. As patients, we rely a lot on the doctors when we learn we have cancer, but we have to go deep inside and understand the root of what causes this. The doctors alone can not heal us. We have to be willing to do the spiritual, physical, emotional and mental work."
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
CD: "Don’t be so quick to take on investors. Treat your company like it's a $100M company and as if every percent is worth $1M."
What’s the No. 1 piece of advice you would give to women today who are striving to build truly rewarding careers?
CD: "I would say trust your instincts. In order to truly know what the body is trying to tell you, you have to slow down and be willing to listen. All the answers are inside of you."
CD: "Right now, I’m super busy: publicizing and (virtually) touring my second book, 'This Is Only a Test: What Breast Cancer Taught Me About Faith, Love, Hair and Business,' and launching a new product line, Curls N’ Roses, which is now exclusive to Ulta."