Meet Jamelia Donaldson: Founder Of Subscription Box Redefining Haircare For Black Women
On my mission to engage with diverse founders making a real impact, it made complete sense to share the journey of Jamelia Donaldson, founder of British-born beauty subscription service TreasureTress. As an entrepreneur in the industry, I must emphasize that the size of the global black hair industry cannot be understated, according to Nielsen, the average black consumer spends up to five times their counterparts on beauty. Yet high street retailers are still playing catch up, pushing willing recurring customers to seek products from archaic ‘brick and mortar’ stores that often lack variety, quality products and adequate commitment to good customer service.
Jamelia’s innovative hair product discovery platform, TreasureTress, aims to confront this challenge head-on, allowing for women with kinky/curlier hair textures to explore new products that are carefully matched to their age, hair type and preferences with a beautifully presented box of tailored hair goodies delivered to customers each month.
The Formative Years
Jamelia seems well positioned to shake up the industry as an individual with an authentic interest in hair and as a consumer herself – she casually mentions that she has spent over a decade searching and testing products for black hair. However, her journey to founding Treasure Tress was not straightforward by any means. As a teenager, her dream was to become a hairstylist, however, she came from a household where academic achievement was held in high regard. Her parent’s stance was that “you can own a salon if you wish, which would be more rewarding than being a hairstylist ”. This led her to shift her focus to obtaining a formal education, completing her International Baccalaureate qualification and setting her sights on becoming a lawyer. However, she fell a few points short of her offer to study law at Aston University and made a switch to a Business & International Relations course at Aston instead; a change which eventually paved the way to her true dreams. A real blessing in disguise.
Jamelia admits that most of the modules on her course were not particularly exciting, nonetheless, she quickly fell in love with marketing/consumer behavior and opted to take the opportunity to complete a placement year abroad. She set her sights on the bright lights and fast-paced city of New York, working in fashion and public relations whilst her peers took on placements in the banking and financial industries. Through networking within the New York circuit, she lucked out and met BJ Coleman, world-renowned publicist, founder of Coleman Entertainment Group and former assistant to celebrity entrepreneur, mother, and model Kimora Lee Simmons. Determined and focused, she took on an unpaid position where she was able to learn from the best in the game and take home key lessons in building brands into successful businesses.
On return to London a year later with a well-deserved first class degree under her belt, she was looking for a full-time role when she noticed an internship at a prestigious asset management firm. Although she knew little about the firm or the industry, she researched intensely, nailed the interview and a one-month internship converted into an offer for a full-time graduate role. The corporate chapter of her life had begun and Jamelia rationalized that, given the prestigious nature of the company and the similar roles that her peers had taken, it was the right thing to do.
Entering the Rat Race
After 18 months of grinding, earning well and working with some of the “brightest people she had ever encountered”, her mind began to stray back to thoughts of her experience in New York. Jamelia constantly pondered on the great potential of the subscription box model, which was gaining popularity at the time with success stories such as Dollar Shave Club and Birch Box. Instinctively, the idea of a hair product subscription box for and by black women in the UK came to mind and, after extensive research, coupled with a desire to help other young black women within the region avoid the exhaustive product discovery experience — TreasureTress was born.
A spark of an idea quickly turned into a passion and all hours outside of her full-time role were spent on making this a reality. A shortage of both time and resources meant friends, family and anyone who was interested was roped into helping with photo shoots, product testing, and promotional events. Jamelia set up a landing page set up to collect emails, alongside an Instagram page (@treasuretress) to showcase the latest box and products. Slowly but surely, email subscribers from across Europe and the US started to trickle in, however, one problem remained – which products are worthy of belonging in these boxes and how do I go about finding suppliers?
Acquiring products required numerous pitches in front of well-known and established hair brands. Jamelia discovered that pitch meetings were typically daytime face-to-face meetings scheduled on weekdays, something which was extremely difficult to balance with her job. Fortunately, hair and skin giant Palmer’s took notice of her Instagram page and reached out. Having such a powerful brand in their arsenal attracted other well-known hair companies such as Cantu and Shea Butter Cottage. Soon, the first box was filled with high-quality products, order numbers increased from customers in the UK and abroad and a fully functional website allowed for a pleasant purchasing experience. Unsurprisingly, however, burnout from managing a very competitive job in parallel with a growing business started to take its toll, leaving Jamelia anxious, tired and stressed.
A pivotal shift occurred when Jamelia reflected back to tragically losing her close friend at university due to mental health issues. This difficult time taught Jamelia just how important it was to prioritize happiness and do what you love/enjoy every day. Making her realize the fragility of life —quoting “I have to pursue my passion full time, otherwise I am going to live to regret it”. She quietly handed in her resignation – not mentioning it to her family or friends to prevent any dissuasion. Following her one month notice, she was now committed to working on TreasureTress.
Taking the Leap of Faith
Armed with substantially more time, Jamelia sought to increase sale volumes. Signing brands up to the subscription service became the priority, on top of all the day-to-day business operations. This was a particularly challenging period where she was continually iterating the business model and monitoring its progress. Nevertheless, Jamelia credits this period as formative to understanding each facet of the business, which she says “helped her immeasurably when the time came to hand things over to others”. As a first-time entrepreneur, one of the key ways she flourished during this period was by meeting as many fellow entrepreneurs as possible, noting their questions down and immediately looking for answers, moving her business forward in a sustainable fashion. She credits friends, mentors, and advisors for their pivotal role in her success. Soon, Jamelia was in a position to hire interns and began to outsource certain tasks, which left room for her to devote time to strategy and brand growth.
Treasure Tress and the Community Today
Today, TreasureTress has six employees and ship their bespoke boxes across the globe to over 26 countries. Jamelia states that what makes her most proud is “knowing that I have contributed to building a community of black women who can now look after their Kinky/Curly hair in the conventional fashion they have always deserved”. The business has been completely bootstrapped and in November 2018, TreasureTress celebrated its three year anniversary with a pop-up shop in London where customers could design their own boxes, meet their favorite influencers and actively engage with the brand. Jamelia’s aspirations of building a thriving community haven’t slowed down, as she also founded a social enterprise called The Teen Experience with influencer Simone Powderly. The Teen Experience is a place for young black women to attend a series of personal development workshops, network with other like-minded individuals and be inspired by mature and successful women. Workshops to date have included creating vision boards and discussions about self-care.
As we wrap up our meeting, I ask Jamelia whether she plans to fundraise and go down the route we have become so accustomed to seeing with growing start-ups today. Whilst it’s not something she would rule out, as the company is growing quickly, with an extremely clear vision which she would not like to compromise, she is proud she has gotten so far by herself, enjoying the agency it awards, stating that “knowing I can take this in the direction I want gives me comfort”.
Ultimately, businesses come in all shapes and sizes and take many different twists and turns in their individual journeys. The fact Jamelia’s business model allows for her to scale up independently gives her the flexibility that many entrepreneurs are envious of. The foresight required to spot this, coupled with immeasurable persistence to power through numerous challenges and the sincere passion she has for the industry, gives me confidence that this is just the beginning for Jamelia and TreasureTress. There’s no doubt that she will achieve great things in the years to come.
To check out more stories in this series visit the blog here. For future updates follow me @TommyASC91 on Twitter and, if you’re an entrepreneur with an interesting story, do get in touch as I would love to hear about your journey.
I am the CEO and Co-Founder of All Shades Covered (“ASC”), a direct to consumer e-commerce store changing the way black people shop for beauty products in Europe and Africa. Through our work on ASC I have been featured in a number of publications such as the BBC, The Guardian and was included in the 2017 Forbes 30 under 30 list for retail. Before ASC I was a Business Development Manager at Jumia Nigeria, Africa’s first unicorn startup, and prior to that worked on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs in US Equities. I hold a Masters degree from Oxford University in Economics & Management where my areas of focus included Strategic Management and Organisational Behaviour.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.