14:29 PM

UHCL alumna's business impresses 'Shark Tank,' Oprah

Don't try to tell Christina Funke Tegbe she can't do something. When she decided to become an entrepreneur specializing in skin and body care products, someone told her she didn't have enough experience and that it would never work.

Tell that to Oprah, who chose Tegbe's African beauty butter deluxe gift set, with hand and body butters, as an item on her 2020 "Favorite Things" list. And to Kevin O'Leary and Nirav Tolia, the two judges on ABC's reality TV show, "Shark Tank" who both invested a total of $250,000 in Tegbe's line of skin and body care products this year.

Tegbe, who received her joint Master of Healthcare Administration/Master of Business Administration from University of Houston-Clear Lake in 2012, is the founder and creative visionary of 54 Thrones, an African beauty brand inspired by the richness, diversity and cultures of the African continent and its people.

"When I started out, my interest was in business and healthcare administration," she said. "But I was always entrepreneurial. I took a course at UH-Clear Lake in consulting and entrepreneurship, and I was really interested in being a consultant. I was speaking to someone about it and they told me it could never happen for me because I didn't have enough experience."

Tegbe remembers that day and said she'd told herself that she was going to make it happen, no matter what anyone said.

"I graduated with a job in healthcare, consulting with a group in Tennessee," she said. "I always had a knack for problem solving and coming up with creative ideas. I was in consulting for three years, but I kept thinking I should go and write my own path."

She quit her job in healthcare consulting and began traveling in Africa. "Every place I went, I noticed women sitting in markets making shea butter or argan oil," she said. "Argan is a tree that bears fruit, which has a nut inside. If you crack the nut and expel and process the oil, you have something great for hair and skin."

Tegbe said she began researching the natural ingredients found everywhere in Africa and remembered her Nigerian aunt, who always showed her how to use natural botanicals on her skin and hair.

"I decided to partner with African farmers and entrepreneurs who have been using these natural ingredients and create a line of skin and body care products," she said. "I like partnering with these people who have been using these products for generations. The ingredients in my products come from all over Africa — Uganda, Morocco, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana and other countries."

Her company acknowledges all 54 countries in Africa. "That was the most regal, yet not-contrived name I could think of, that represents the beauty and luxury that Africa has to offer," she said. "I'm always researching new ingredients and deciding where to go next."

Although Black hair might be styled differently, Tegbe said her products are for anyone. "You want to have healthy skin and hair, so there are certain nutrients that all hair needs. Styling might not be the same, but health is about the nutrients in the products," she explained.

She said that growing up, she used to write Oprah letters. "That's why I was excited and grateful, but absolutely not surprised when her team contacted me to say my product was on her 'Favorite Things' list," she said. "This is my destiny. I've been preparing for this, and I have put in the work. I have been working for five years on my brand, making an authentic product that resonates with people."

Oprah's list helped her sales go through the roof, but her momentum increased even more when her application to appear on the show, "Shark Tank" was accepted. "I applied and pitched my brand with all my products," she said. "You have to explain why you and your products are amazing and you're asking for them to invest in your company. Kevin O'Leary, one of the show's original judges, and Nirav Tolia, the founder of the Nextdoor app, agreed to invest in 54 Thrones."

The results have been a blessing and a dream come true. She now has 22 products in her line, which is available online at Sephora and at Nordstrom.

"It's really hard to prepare yourself in a classroom to become an entrepreneur," Tegbe said. "But a lot of aspects of my time at UHCL helped me. I learned about problem solving and thinking on my feet. Those things can guide you through entrepreneurship."

She remembered getting support from (Professors of Healthcare Administration) Femi Ayadi, and Phillip Decker. "They were there for me, and so were a lot of my fellow students," she said. "One of them actually helped me get my first job. I met amazing students and watched their journey, and they've watched mine. I enjoyed my entire experience at UHCL; it was a great framework for what was to come for me."

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