A Darden Venture Holiday Gift Guide

By Lily Blair

If you’re still looking for great gifts this holiday season, look no further. Darden entrepreneurs have got you covered! The Darden community is proud of our student and alumni entrepreneurs, many of whom hatched their young ventures with the help of the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology.

Here are just a few Darden alumni ventures that just so happen to make products that could be fantastic gifts! Take a look:

A photo of a man in a stadium wearing a Rhoback polo shirt.

UVA-themed apparel by Rhoback.


Founded by Matt Loftus (MBA ’16) and Kristina Loftus (MBA ’17)

Rhoback, named after the Rhodesian Ridgeback, is a high-end lifestyle activewear brand that offers fashionable yet comfortable clothing for those who crave activity. Gift options are aplenty, and Rhoback is making finding those gifts even easier with their holiday gift guides and new UVA-branded apparel.

Matt and Kristina Loftus were students at Darden when they developed the idea that would eventually become Rhoback. They wanted to create a line of active clothing that was fun and stylish while still remaining comfortable and sweat-wicking, so the two took advantage of resources provided by the school and by the i.Lab Incubator program to conduct research, prototype designs, develop their website and begin negotiations with manufacturers. The men’s line launched in December of 2016, originally offering three polo styles, two t-shirt styles and four hat styles. Since then, they have continued to expand their offerings for men’s clothing to include many more options. Earlier this year, Rhoback officially launched its women’s activewear line.

A photo of various skincare products.

Brandefy Skincare was founded by Meg Pryde (MBA ’18).

Brandefy Skincare

Founded by Meg Pryde (MBA ’18)

Who doesn’t love a good dupe? Brandefy Skincare carries eight individual products inspired by high-end skincare products but without the hefty price tag. If you can’t decide what to get for your recipient (or yourself), they also carry a few different kits that would make the perfect holiday gift.

While working in the consumer-packaged goods space, Meg Pryde (MBA ’18) discovered that the same product could be placed in different packaging and sold for substantially different prices. The only difference? One was a generic or inexpensive brand, and one was a high-end brand. Relating to this frustrating reality as a consumer herself, she got to work on a solution. The Brandefy app came together in the Batten Institute’s i.Lab Incubator program. The app helps shoppers find affordable alternatives—or “dupes” —for luxury beauty products by calculating a similarity score in the form of a percentage based on consumer reviews and responses. It was a hit.

Continuing to listen to fellow consumers, Meg realized some of those luxury products had no alternatives. To bridge that gap, she launched Brandefy Skincare with eight separate products, but she plans to expand the line and hopefully bring the prices of her alternatives down even further.

A photo of a toy package with a doll and a book inside.

Mensch on a Bench was founded by Neal Hoffman (MBA ’05)

Mensch on a Bench

Founded by Neal Hoffman (MBA ’05)

Many have heard of “Elf on a Shelf,” but have you heard of “Mensch on a Bench?” Mensch on a Bench is a great way to teach your family about Hanukkah while creating a new yearly tradition. The company offers five different products as part of its “Mishpacha.” Moshe the Mensch—the original Mensch on a Bench, Mitzah Moose, Ask Papa, Hannah the Hanukkah Hero and Dreidel Dog. Each of these five Jewish friends comes with a set of rules, including naming your Mensch and moving them around every day so they don’t get sore.

Neal Hoffman (MBA ’05) was inspired when his son, Jake, asked for the popular Elf on a Shelf toy. He wanted to provide a similar kind of fun, but do it in a way that expanded their Hanukkah celebrations. Mensch on a Bench was created in 2012, and after benefitting from a Kickstarter campaign and launching into the retail industry, the tradition has been widely accepted by the Jewish community. The company has even made multiple appearances on Shark Tank, earning backing from Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, and it has been featured on programs like the Today Show and The View. What started as a passion project for Neal Hoffman turned into a yearly holiday tradition for many families across the Jewish community.

A close up of JAS drinks in pink cans being opened by two women.

JAS was founded by Cecilia Rios Murrieta (MBA ’22).


Founded by Cecilia Rios Murrieta (MBA ’22)

What is a holiday celebration without celebratory drinks? JAS is a company that sells delicious non-alcoholic cocktails. In addition to their plant-based and gluten-free Paloma Libre cocktails, they also sell a JAS Insider Box, while includes their star beverage, a matching tote bag and a pair of sunglasses.

JAS was started by Cecilia Rios Murrieta (MBA ’22) through the 2022 i.Lab Virtual Startup program. She founded the brand on the belief that leading an alcohol-free life does not mean that you are missing out on anything. JAS was designed to be a mindfully crafted and wonderful tasting non-alcoholic beverage that can seamlessly fit into everyday social drinking so non-drinkers can partake in the celebration without compromise.

A photo of a care package style box with various gifts inside.

Earnestly was founded by Emily Ashtiani (MBA ’22).


Founded by Emily Ashtiani (MBA ’22)

Sometimes gift-giving goes beyond friends and family, but it can be just as stressful to figure out what to gift the people in your professional network. When you are not sure what to get for your business partners, clients, employees, or anyone else, Earnestly is the place to go. Their expertly handpicked gift boxes and swag kits are suited for every occasion, with themes ranging from wine lover and cocktail celebration to spa day and movie nights. Better yet, the boxes’ packaging and products can be customized with your company’s branding.

While working as a consultant, Emily Ashtiani (MBA ’22) realized how many company gifts would end up in cupboards (or even landfills). Frustrated with the waste, Emily launched Earnestly in 2022 through the i.Lab Incubator program. She knew that companies needed help not only selecting gifts the recipients will actually use, but also adding a thoughtful touch to the gifts they do give. Earnestly’s boxes are thoughtfully curated, with many items sourced from small businesses, and the process is managed by Earnestly from beginning to end so their corporate clients don’t have to sweat the small stuff.

A photo of a variety of hair and skincare products from Haiama Beauty.

Haiama Beauty was founded by Allison Shimamoto (MBA ’19).

Haiama Beauty

Founded by Allison Shimamoto (MBA ’19)

If you have Type 4 curly hair and want to use all-natural haircare products that are truly toxin-free, you know how hard it is to find them. Good news – your search is over! Haiama Beauty, an eco-luxury haircare and skincare brand founded by Allison Shimamoto (MBA ’19), has got you covered.

Shimamoto founded Haiama as a Darden student out of necessity. “In 2011, when I went natural, finding products that worked for my Type 4 coils was a challenge,” said Shimamoto. “Most natural hair products left my hair dry, flat or rigid. The products that did work claimed to be natural, but their ingredients fell short. So I started making my own natural products at home.

Since the company’s official launch in June 2019, Haiama (formerly Oemi Botanicals) was named a finalist in the UVA E-Cup competition and added a number of hair- and skincare creams and serums to its offerings. All products use ethically sourced, high quality raw ingredients from around the world.

Learn more about entrepreneurship at Darden and check out more Darden alumni ventures here.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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