Friday, December 21, 2012

Ashleigh Thornton: This Girl’s on Fire

By Buffie Stephens

When Ashleigh Thornton arrived in Charlotte five years ago, she had a feeling this would be her city. After visiting the campus of UNC Charlotte, she knew she had found her place.  

“During that first visit, I had a moment,” Thornton said. “I visited UNC-Chapel Hill and some other UNC schools. Most of them were located in small towns. I grew up in Chicago and Kansas City, so I love big cities. I fell in love with Charlotte and the UNC Charlotte campus.”

As a freshman, Thornton had aspirations of becoming a lawyer and declared a political science major. But she came to the conclusion that the study of political science wasn’t inspiring. Soon after, she discovered the Belk College of Business and found her academic home—the coursework was challenging, the students were competitive and the classes were stimulating.

Being a business major hasn’t come easy, Thornton noted.  “I took operations management four times until I finally got a B in that class. The curriculum also requires us to take a lot of math-intensive courses, and for me, math was a real challenge,” she said. 

Now a 21-year-old senior poised to graduate with a degree in marketing and a minor in Spanish, Thornton is a member of UNC Charlotte’s honors program and the Belk College Dean’s Fellows organization. She’s held impressive internships with Hallmark Cards Inc. in Kansas, as well as Procter & Gamble and McGuireWoods LLP. In early September, she shadowed the president of Bloomberg Businessweek, Paul Bascobert, during the Democratic National Convention held in Charlotte.

And last September, as a junior, she started her own business.

“I started wearing my hair naturally a few years ago, and I was spending a fortune on hair products. Finding something that was all-natural and concentrated enough to work on my thick hair texture, without having to use a whole lot of product, was almost impossible. I wanted an alternative,” Thornton said. “When I started looking at what was in those products, I was shocked at the ingredients. I decided I would make my own hair products.” And she did, concocting a host of ingredients at home, in the kitchen sink.

“Not having a background in chemistry was definitely a challenge for me, but I Googled all the ingredients and their properties and kept trying different combinations,” she said.

Using all of the money she saved from two summers of internships, Thornton created NoireNaturals.

“The name and overall theme of the line was inspired by my French-Creole heritage. Noire is the French, feminine form for the word black.” The line is designed for kinky, curly, wavy and relaxed hair, she explained

“Our prices are competitive, our ingredients are completely wholesome and 100 percent all-natural,” she said. The company sells anywhere from 100 to 200 product items a month online, in addition to wholesale orders. One of Thornton’s sales representatives is DJ Yasmin Young, co-host of the Morning Maddhouse on WPEG Power 98 Radio in Charlotte. Young was so impressed after trying the products that she asked to represent the line. 

“Seventeen Magazine” recently selected Thornton as one of three winners in their Make Your Own Money young entrepreneur contest. Thornton is featured in the magazine’s November issue, on newsstands now.

Anticipating a jump in business due to increased awareness generated by the magazine article, Thornton sought a manufacturer to help produce enough product to meet the demand. She approached Dudley Cosmetics founder and CEO Joe Dudley about producing NoireNaturals. Dudley Cosmetics is one of the world’s largest producers of African American cosmetics. Dudley agreed to produce the products and allow Thornton to maintain ownership of the company she created.
Thornton credits her parents, Curtis and Bridget Thornton, for instilling in her the will to explore and succeed. “My parents encouraged me and my brother and sisters. They let us try everything when we were kids,” Thornton said. “My Mom is the planner. She made us do vision boards when we were young. We figured out where we wanted to be in one year and five years and we set goals. My Dad is the people person and my business acumen comes from him. I talk to my Dad almost every day.” 
She also is indebted to her professors at UNC Charlotte and to the business people she’s met during the past few years. “I consider my Dad, Nigel Long (of Trade Street Investors) and professors Carol Swartz (Belk College of Business), Pamela Richardson (English) and Jody Turner (Women and Gender Studies) as mentors,” Thornton said.
Thornton recently added North Carolina General Assembly representative Becky Carney to her list of mentors. She credits an “ah-ha” moment at the spring 2012 Women’s Summit, which focused on women, wages and work, to her renewed desire to attend law school. 
“When I met Rep. Carney and Gov. Beverly Perdue I realized that I want to go into politics to help craft laws; to be a voice for the youth, women and minorities,” Thornton said. “I’d love to be a state representative and run for U.S. Congress someday. I know I can make a difference.” 
“I was very impressed in the ways Ashleigh determined her goals by knowing her interests, being inquisitive and listening to others and that she took the initiative to develop a small business,” Carney said. “Her immeasurable energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and she uses them in a smart way. I encourage young women like Ashleigh who are interested in public service to go in on the ground level and work their way to where they would like to serve by first getting familiar with their surroundings while gaining the knowledge they will need to make intelligent decisions. Then they will know when they want to go into politics and unselfishly make a positive difference in the lives of the people they serve, and I believe Ashleigh will.”
Since winning the “Seventeen Magazine” young entrepreneurs contest, Thornton has been approached by an MTV casting director who is working to design a reality series about young entrepreneurs under the age of 25. Though she’s not certain she wants to be followed night and day, she has until the end of the year to decide. She also is featured as a Hallmark cover girl on the Mahogany Cards website for the holiday season. 
For now, Thornton will continue on with her senior year and focus on graduation. She’ll run her business, participate in the University Honors Program and the Sigma Alpha Lambda National Honors Society, serve as a Belk College of Business Dean’s Fellow and continue on as a public policy intern at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.
If she decides to pursue law school and politics, Thornton thinks she can hire the right people to run NoireNaturals.
One of Thornton’s favorite rhythm and blues artists, Alicia Keys, recently released the lead single, “Girl on Fire.”   It’s a strong female empowerment anthem, with inspiring lyrics—the song could have been written for Thornton. 
Oh, we got our feet on the ground
/ And we’re burning it down /
Oh, got our head in the clouds
/ And we’re not coming down
/ This girl is on fire /
This girl is on fire
/ She’s walking on fire
/ This girl is on fire
She’s just a girl, and she’s on fire.
Buffie Stephens is media relations manager for University Communications.

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