Supported by the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation, the 19th Startup Runway Showcase took us to Athens, GA, for the first time. Investors, founders, Startup Runway sponsors, judges, and attendees gathered as Athens-based founders took the stage to compete for $10k in non-dilutive capital. The Mayor of Athens even made a special appearance at the event. 

The showcase specifically highlighted Athens founders, including women and minority-led startups. It was a fierce competition as all finalists put their best foot forward, delivering outstanding presentations. It was an unforgettable evening of products and ideas, and very inspiring to see the Innovation taking place in Athens, GA!

All finalists did an exceptional job, but we were especially impressed by the showcase winner, Kristen Dunning. Kristen is the Founder of Gently Soap, an award-winning line of herbal soaps that aims to bring the joy of bathing to people with sensitive skin types.

Kristen has a unique story of how she became an entrepreneur at a young age, and we had the opportunity to sit down with her for a Q&A following the event.

How did Gently Soap get started?

I always say that I became an entrepreneur by accident. I’ve had eczema my whole life, but I was also blessed enough to be born into an agricultural farming family. My grandparents had 84 acres of land down in Dixon Mills, Alabama. Every summer, we would go down there. It was instilled in me from an early age to be with nature and live by land, and it was empowering because it was a black farming community. I knew that I wanted to continue that as I got older and started making decisions on where to go to college, but I also knew I had a big passion for skincare, especially for people with skin types like mine that are sensitive like eczema or psoriasis or any skin conditions that cause dry, itchy skin.

So, when I went to the University of Georgia for undergrad, I majored in Agricultural Communication and Horticulture, and I pioneered my own research project as a freshman to look at how medicinal plants and botanicals can help alleviate some of the inflammatory skin conditions that we deal with as human beings. And that led me to get a greenhouse, and I had rows of herbs and medicinal plants.

I spent three years in that greenhouse growing different herbs, reported all the observations, and did lab work to look at them. I also learned how to make soap and wanted to see how I could extract parts of the plant through the original form, not through essential oils because they had always bothered me. I ended up creating my own infusion method to use in soap. I initially made soap for myself and my family, but people kept asking where to buy it. I also gave it out at research conferences and for free, but people always wanted to know where to buy more. 

During quarantine, I launched a Shopify website and put every bar of soap on there, and I sold out within two hours – that was thousands of bars I made. There were so many different types of soaps, and I sold out! 

How has your company grown since its onset? 

After the quarantine break, I returned to campus, and they helped me with branding and changing my name. They suggested that I create a survey to narrow down the number of soaps, and I narrowed it down to four. They helped me with messaging to give my company the branding and backing that it needed. That was instrumental. It was from mid-2020 until 2021 that I was going to farmer’s markets and trade shows, honing in on my value proposition and brand story. I went from that first day in October 2020 to selling over 17,000 bar soaps.

What’s it like to be an entrepreneur?

I’m always learning. I just got some advisors to join the team and help with marketing, like making a commercial, launching on Amazon, and I am considering getting a co-manufacturer. I am so glad that people see so much potential in my company. I’m just a girl who loves plants and accidentally stepped into the role of entrepreneurship. I honestly could do anything in the horticulture field and would be happy, but I’m glad I’m creating a tangible product that can be shipped to houses all over the United States. 

What has been the most challenging part of being an entrepreneur?

Comparison. But, also, who to compare to? For a while, I was comparing myself to skincare businesses. It was when I decided I wanted to be a household brand that I could hone in on who I should be comparing myself to and carve out a better path. I want to create products that can gently cleanse and care for your skin in all household aspects- I see myself as a household essentials company. I want to branch into things like body wash and laundry soaps and items that really cause problems for me with eczema and sensitive skin. 

What markets are you currently in, and do you have goals to expand?

I’m selling on my website, BLK + GRN, and Mahogany. We will be launching soon on Amazon, and I have a list of in-store retailers that sell on my website. I love Athens and can’t force myself to leave, so I’m looking for a permanent office to rent. 

What is your priority in the next six months? 

Since starting, we’ve had 3x growth year over year, which I want to continue. I’m trying to shoot for half a million in sales this year. I want to follow the growth trajectory and branch into marketing tactics such as the commercial, launching on Amazon and Google ads to reach people in this niche audience and increase our monthly and annual revenue. 

How will you use the funding you won at the Startup Runway showcase?

Part of it will go to attending the National Eczema Expo so that I can raise brand awareness, and the other part will go to Amazon prep so that they have products in their warehouses and more Google marketing and targeting since that seems to be working for us so far.

What is your biggest advice for entrepreneurs just getting started and considering their first pitch? 

I never think I’m ready for any pitch, ever. Even before Startup Runway, I was freaking out because I always thought I’d be behind the scenes, and being in front is scary for me, but every single time that I’ve forced myself to get up and do it, I either win or someone in the audience comes up to me after. You’ll never feel ready, but you want to take advantage of every opportunity that might come your way. Let them tell you no. Don’t get excluded because you didn’t apply. 

Exciting update! Kristen recently secured a great deal on Shark Tank – watch a short clip here:

Click here to pitch at our next Startup Runway Showcase coming up on December 7. This will be our biggest event of the year!