Chris-Tia Donaldson, who pursued overlapping careers as a hair care entrepreneur and corporate lawyer while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, died Nov. 13 due to complications of the disease, according to business colleague Karen Wood. She was 42.
In 2016, a year after her diagnosis, Donaldson was named a Crain’s 40 under 40 for having built Thank God It’s Natural into a million-dollar business, with products sold in some 3,000 stores, including Target and Sally Beauty locations.
The company, started in 2009 with $40,000 in savings, focuses on minority women as customers with natural applications like sulfate-free shampoos and moisturizing hair butters in lieu of relaxers and other artificial products. Annual sales now top $5 million, according to industry consultant Romina Brown.
“She was a pioneer in this space,” says Brown, CEO of Strategic Solutions International. “She was certainly an advocate for her own brand but also for the beauty category as a whole.”
At 21, Donaldson said, she had known she wanted to be a CEO, after meeting fellow Detroit native Pamela Thomas-Graham, who was CEO of CNBC from 2001 to 2005 and earlier this year joined the board of Rivian, the electric vehicle manufacturer. Like Thomas-Graham, Donaldson graduated from Harvard and its law school. She worked at software firm Oracle for about a decade, handling legal and regulatory assignments.
“During my time there, I negotiated complex business transactions involving technology and open source code, and advised C-suite executives on the business and legal ramifications of matters of law, regulation, policy and strategy,” she wrote on her LinkedIn account. “I also provided legal support to global business operations, including the product development, regulatory, marketing, procurement, corporate finance, auditing, bankruptcy and employment divisions.”
In 2006, she started her firm after thinking about the opportunity for several years. “There was a pervasive belief that long straight hair was something that women should strive to attain, and that kinky, curly or wavy hair was a curse of sorts or something to be ashamed of,” she said in an interview posted on the company’s website.
For her 40 under 40 feature, Donaldson told Crain’s, “When people ask me how I manage to juggle Oracle and run a company, I tell them black girl magic,” citing a meme celebrating African American women in arts, science, beauty, sports and business. She also referred to her mother, Marie Farrell-Donaldson, who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma a month after Donaldson graduated from high school, “I think the experience made me resilient. Someone told me I’m like a rose that grows out of concrete.”
Brown, who advised Donaldson and her firm, said of her illness, “You knew she was dealing with it, but she just talked through it, powered through it.”
In the website interview, Donaldson advised other women: “I think a lot of people have a passion, but don’t know how to turn their passion into a profitable enterprise. And my biggest advice would be to just start. You’ll make mistakes, but over time things get easier and clearer.”
Visitation is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Nov. 24 at Kemp Funeral Home in Southfield, Mich., with a home going celebration at 11 a.m. on Nov. 26 at Oak Grove AME Church in Detroit. A Chicago ceremony is being planned for January.