'Soft Sheen' Chicago hair care company co-founder Bettiann Gardner dies at 93

Evelyn Holmes Image
Thursday, December 28, 2023
'Soft Sheen' co-founder Bettiann Gardner dies at 93
Bettiann Gardner has died at the age of 93. She was a co-founder of the "Soft Sheen'" hair care company and the first female co-owner of the Chicago Bulls.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- An icon for African-American women in business has passed away.

Bettiann Gardner passed away at the age of 93 earlier this month.

She, along with her husband, founded the "Soft Sheen" hair care company in 1964, running it out of the basement of their South Side Chicago home.

The impact of her life went beyond hair care.

With the passing of Gardner, Chicago has lost one of its icons.

Most knew the trailblazer as a successful businesswoman and patron of the arts. Terri Gardnee knew her first as mom.

"Mom was not someone you would easily forget," Terri said.

Bettiann died Dec. 19 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

Her husband Ed Gardner died in March. Their hair care company is one of the largest African-American owned hair care manufacturing companies in the United States.

"I think ,in a very quiet way, she broke a lot of things down," Terri said.

From humble, working class roots, Bettiann was born and raised in Chicago.

SEE ALSO | Chicago artist Richard Hunt, sculptor of 'Hero Construction,' dies at 88

She and her husband had four children and started their Black hair care empire while Ed worked as an assistant principal with the Chicago Public Schools.

"I guess we thought it was normal to have a business in your basement," Terri said.

With nearly a thousand employees at its 87th Street headquarters, Soft Sheen helped redefine the beauty industry for people of color.

The Gardeners sold the company to cosmetics giant L'Oréal in 1998.

However the history maker wasn't done leaving her mark.

The Gardners bought a share of the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s, making Bettiann the first-ever female co-owner of the team.

"She loved going to the games, and she and my dad rarely missed a game when they were able to go," Terri said.

In 1987, Bettiann and her husband bought and renovated the shuttered Avalon Theater, reopening it as the New Regal Theater.

She was also a founding member of the Chicago Sinfonietta, an orchestra that features female and musicians of color.

While in recent years, Gardner's life was more private, her impact in the worlds of business, philanthropy and the arts, and her message to working mothers and women, will never be forgotten.

"You can do these things," Terri said. "It takes effort. It takes energy. It takes perseverance, but she was able to do those things."

In addition to Terri Gardner and her siblings, Bettiann is survived by her grandchildren and a great-grand child.

Funeral services will be private.