Cancer Survivor Chris-Tia Donaldson: “Being a CEO Saved My Life”

05/02/2017 10:37 am ET Updated May 02, 2017
Taylor Larue Photography
Taylor Larue Photography

“It takes four things to make a diamond:  carbon, heat, time, and pressure. We are all little diamonds. No pressure, no diamond. No heat, no diamond. No time, no diamond. The situations that are meant to break us result in the greatest parts of our personality.”

Chris-Tia Donaldson shared this gem with me recently. She’s the founder and CEO of Thank God It’s Natural (“TGIN”), a line of hair and skin products made with all natural ingredients. She’s also a breast cancer survivor.

“The best thing and the worst thing in my life happened in the same year,” she said. In March 2015, TGIN launched nationwide in Target.  It was a tremendous success for Donaldson’s startup, the moment when she knew that she’d made it.

“Six months later,” she says, “I found a lump in my chest.”

“The hardest part is the beginning,” she said of her cancer battle. “The initial diagnosis is setting in, and then all the testing. But once we got a plan in place, I just thought, 'I’m gonna Lance Armstrong this bitch.'"

TGIN had its genesis in 2002, when Donaldson was a student at Harvard. She realized that there were not a lot of hair product options for hair that was naturally curly, wavy, or kinky.  She set out to change that. She wrote a book, Thank God I’m Natural which was published in 2010. Then she started selling her products in 2013.

Two years later was TGIN’s breakthrough at Target, just before cancer forced her to slam on the brakes.

Donaldson understood challenges. However, cancer was the biggest hurdle she had faced and she wanted to win. She immediately realized an unfortunate reality of our society:  “I’ve gotta be blunt. Being rich and white means a lot of privileges in America. When I was diagnosed at a hospital that served predominantly poor black and Hispanic women, I said, ‘I need to get to the hospital with the rich white people, if I’m gonna beat this.’"

“I needed to get the hell out of there, and to the best hospital I can find,” she said. Donaldson did just that, thanks to “very good insurance.”

“Being a CEO actually saved my life,” Donaldson said pointedly. Her position allowed Donaldson to take the time she needed to recover, with the vision of coming back “bigger and better. If I’m gonna do this, there has to be a bigger reason.  I never considered giving up TGIN,” she said. “I had the team in place to run the company while I pulled back. They knew what I was going through. They let me know that they ‘had it.’  Having people willing to let you know that they got you, that took a lot off of me mentally and emotionally. To know I didn’t have to worry about every detail.”

She had herself to worry about. “I’d been reading these books telling me that I was going to go from a young, attractive, vibrant woman,” she said. “And that cancer was going to compromise my femininity, my sexuality, my physicality, and that I would have ‘chemo brain.’  I felt like I was losing who I was.”

“I definitely doubted my faith. I go to church, I give money, I’m kind, I support amazing causes, I work hard, I employ people,” she said. “And then cancer comes along. You ask ‘why me?’  But then you realize that it’s not for you to judge.”  Ultimately, the prayers of her friends and family helped Donaldson endure and hold onto her faith. “My test became my testimony.”

She learned to embrace a philosophy of “slow down to speed up,” and it seems to be working: TGIN is now in Walgreens, CVS, Whole Foods, and Rite Aid. Nationwide, TGIN products are in more than 5,000 stores.  Donaldson believes TGIN’s extraordinary growth is a direct result of her decision to step away temporarily. “I think I had a good spirit before, but now I can tell people really pick up on my energy and positivity,” she said.

Donaldson is channeling some of that energy to help raise awareness of the disparate outcomes between women of color and the general population when it comes to this disease. “Cancer is very treatable,” she said. “I got the proper treatment, but many in our country don’t. That’s gotta change.” Today, she works with the Susan G. Komen organization and uses her platform to share how race and class impact a woman’s chances of surviving.

When asked what she would say to somebody going through what she went through, Donaldson recalled the tragic June 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando, which had a profound effect on her:  “I remember when I heard about [Orlando]. These people were out partying, living their lives, and they were gone in an instant. And I’m still here sitting on my couch.  I was the one with cancer, and they were the ones in the club having a great time. You never know. You have to live life one day at a time as it comes to you.”

After a brief pause, the cheer returns to Donaldson’s voice. “I don’t have any regrets. It was a crazy journey,” she said. “The things that were meant to break me became the things that I can use to inspire and uplift others.”

“No pressure, no diamond.”

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