Six years ago, when Ashleigh Thornton arrived in the Queen City, she fell in love with Charlotte’s culture and UNC-Charlotte’s campus. Thornton was certain that Charlotte was the right place to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. After Thornton experienced Charlotte’s business culture and completed her first Political Science course, she lost interest in her field of study and decided to enroll in UNCCharlotte’s Belk College of Business. Thornton earned several highly sought after business internships at Proctor & Gamble and Hallmark Cards, which confirmed that business was her passion. Thornton’s academic performance and internship experience caught the attention of Corporate America and placed her on the “corporate fast track”. But before she had the opportunity to enter the corporate world, during her junior year, Thornton developed an idea that required her to put her business education to use immediately. Thornton launched NoireNaturals, an all natural hair product line.
Since developing NoireNaturals, Thornton and her all natural products have been featured in Seventeen Magazine, Lucky Magazine, Tom Joyner Morning Show, The News & Observer, Nappturalite Radio, Fox Charlotte News, The Charlotte Observer, and curlBox. Below is our in-depth conversation about her natural hair transition, becoming a student entrepreneur, and her advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs.
Phillips: When and why did you go natural?
Thornton: In the Fall of 2009, I decided to go natural. I remember waking up and feeling like it was time to do something different. So, I cut my hair into a bob and started the process of transitioning my hair back into its natural condition. Before I went natural, my hair wasn’t very healthy and required constant trimming due to lots of breakage. After reflecting back on my thinking at the time, I can honestly say that my transition started out as something that I did because I was tired of how my hair looked. But after I began to understand more about my hair and myself, it became much bigger than hair and evolved into a journey of self exploration. One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned from my natural hair journey is to embrace my own beauty. Nature has created all women to be unique beings and we don’t have to live up to any standard of beauty or use harmful chemicals to alter our natural beauty.
Phillips: What were the reasons that caused you to develop you own natural hair product line?
Thornton: After going completely natural, I turned into a product junkie. I was spending lots of money (on a college student’s budget) on various hair products. After going through a trial-and-error phase, I was unhappy with the hair products and this led me to begin doing some research on the products’ ingredients. What I found out was shocking! Many of the hair products that claimed to be “natural” had just as many harmful ingredients as all of the rest of the non-natural products. I didn’t want to have natural hair and continue to use dangerous chemicals on my hair. So I decided to put my college education to use and I started to research natural hair ingredients. Next, I began to experiment a little bit more using some of the natural ingredients that support healthy hair. I frequently traveled to Earthfare (an all natural grocery store) to purchase pure Aloe Vera, Olive Oil, Shea Butter and other natural products. After several weeks of experimenting, I developed my own hair products that worked better than retail hair products that I previously purchased. After experiencing great results with my own hair, I decided to try out my products on my two sisters. After my sisters received compliments on their hair, I knew that I was on to something.
Phillips: How were you able to balance your academic and social life at UNC-Charlotte along with your upstart business?
Thornton: Initially, I did a very bad job of balancing school and my business. As a result, my grades suffered. I was so excited about researching and learning about natural products that I neglected my school work. Sometimes, instead of listening to my professors, I was in classes handling orders or responding to client questions. My parents and professors were surprised that my grades were starting to slip because I was an overachiever in school. I knew that my education was important and I didn’t want to drop out of school, but I also didn’t want to slow down the momentum of NoireNaturals. So, I decided to withdraw from UNC-Charlotte for one semester to really get a handle on my business. I returned in the Spring Semester of 2012 with renewed focused and the ability to delegate responsibilities to other NoireNaturals team members.
Phillips: What challenges did you face in starting your business and how did you overcome those situations?
Thornton: The hardest part was changing my mindset. Initially, I set out on a mission to find the right products for my hair. I didn’t plan on starting a natural hair product line. As a business owner and operator, I can’t stay up all night experimenting with organic products. Product development is an important component of my business but it can’t take up all of my time. So the hardest part was learning to think like a business woman. Believe it or not, I was planning to enter the corporate world and I had no plans of becoming an entrepreneur.
Another business lesson that I didn’t learn in business school was that spirituality has an important place in business. As NoireNaturals began to rapidly grow, I had to let go of my plans and accept God’s plan. My business success has strengthened my faith and I believe that I’m serving a high purpose. NoireNaturals isn’t just about my hair anymore, it’s about empowering women and serving my community.
Phillips: What advice would you give to other high school and college student who want to start a business?
Thornton: Don’t be afraid to take a risk on an idea that you really believe in. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you have to wait until you are older, wait until you earn a degree, or that you have to save lots of money. I’m proof that you don’t need all of that stuff! I encourage future entrepreneurs to trust in your own abilities, you will be surprised with your hidden talents. I didn’t know that I could design my own logos and product labels until I was forced to give it a try.
Some young entrepreneurs have a leg up on the competition because they have several generations of entrepreneurs in their family but don’t be discourage if you didn’t grow up around entrepreneurs. Social media can level out the playing field because we have the ability to connect with other entrepreneurs, business advisors, retired CEOs, and social medial gurus via LinkedIn and Facebook. Last, but not least, as a business owner, we can go through highs and lows, so its good to develop a positive support system. I’m really grateful for my family members and my supporters who have been with me through my ups and downs.
Phillips: How do you spend your free time?
Thornton: I love all things related to art. So when I have free time I enjoy visiting museums, art exhibits, jazz concerts, neo-soul music, and to travel abroad. I don’t want your readers to think this [taking in the arts] is what I do all of the time. I’m still in the early growth stage of my business so I try to take one or two days a month to engulf myself in the arts.
Phillips: Any closing comments?
Thornton: I would like to thank my family, friends, classmates, professors, and everyone who purchased NoireNatural products. I’m still very young and I have so much more to learn but I am very aware of the fact that other people have assisted me to be in this position. I’m also very grateful to New Growth Hair Magazine’s team for turning me into a “magazine cover girl.” I’ve been interviewed and featured in national publications and radio shows, but it feels great to be treated so good at home.