UGA MBA Student Kirsten Dunning Secures ‘Shark Tank’ Deal With Soap Line
Kristen Dunning, the visionary behind Gently Soap, a sensitive skincare brand, set her sights on appearing on Shark Tank by 2025.
In September, the entrepreneur realized that dream ahead of schedule. The Season 15 premiere of the hit show featured Dunning, who managed to secure a deal with Candace Nelson, founder of the Sprinkles Cupcakes bakery chain, as initially reported by the University of Georgia News.
Surrounded by family members who had traveled from as far away as Delaware for the occasion, Dunning was overjoyed after the viewing party at Studio 225. She expressed her excitement for the future of Gently Soap to UGA News, saying, “We’re going to pitch to Target. We’re going to pitch to Walmart. And none of that is guaranteed, but it’s happening, and it is beyond what I thought I would be able to achieve at this point in the business.”
Dunning, a graduate of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences with degrees in horticulture and agricultural communication, launched Gently Soap in March 2021. The inspiration for her sensitive-skin-friendly soap came from her personal experience dealing with eczema since childhood. She sought a soap that wouldn’t irritate her skin but also had a pleasant fragrance, setting her brand apart from the fragrance-free soaps for ultra-sensitive skin.
Her journey to success was marked by the continuous development of her business plan and honing her pitching skills through the UGA Entrepreneurship Program. She credits the program for her ability to excel in pitching and the immense experience she gained before appearing on Shark Tank.
Throughout the last year, Dunning achieved various milestones, including receiving a $100,000 investment through Essence and Aveeno’s Skin Health Startup award. She was also selected to participate in the Techstars Accelerators program and became a finalist for the $1 million Black Ambition entrepreneurship prize created by music mogul Pharrell Williams.
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The spring of 2023 proved exceptionally busy for the savvy businesswoman, prompting her to take a brief hiatus from her MBA program at Terry College. She will return in the spring of 2024 to complete her remaining two classes and graduate.
Dunning’s journey began with selling her soaps at farmers’ markets and on her website. Over the year, her soap sales soared to $113,000. This remarkable growth, her high per-bar profit margin, and low customer acquisition cost triggered a bidding war between two “sharks” on the show.
During the season premiere, Kevin O’Leary praised Dunning’s company, saying, “What I like about you … you’re wonderful, but your margins are even more beautiful.” Ultimately, the student negotiated a deal with Nelson, securing a $75,000 investment and access to Thirteen Lune’s specialty beauty website in exchange for 25% of her company.
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Dunning’s passion for horticulture and her Gently Soap line were inspired by the legacy of her grandparents, who operated an 84-acre farm in Alabama, and the legacy of African American farmers across the South. One of the most touching moments at the watch party was seeing her dad’s reaction when her Shark Tank introduction featured a photo of his parents on their farm.
Shark Tank, which debuted in 2009 on ABC, is a platform where entrepreneurs present their businesses to a panel of accomplished investors known as “sharks” for the opportunity to strike a deal that can catapult their business to new heights.