How a Shark Tank Alumna Nurtures Career Growth, Community at Darden

By David Buie-Moltz

Discovering unforeseen career paths, fostering lifelong friendships and embracing a vibrant community spirit — these are just some of the transformative experiences shared by Darden alumni. In this conversation, Sonia Hounsell (MBA ’99), co-founder of reusable travel toothbrush and toothpaste FunkkOFF! TeethRefreshers and Shark Tank entrepreneur, reflects on her Darden days and how and why she chooses to give back.

How has Darden shaped your career?

I went to Darden to pivot my career. There, I discovered a whole new career path in brand marketing and consumer packaged goods that I didn’t even know existed. I found my passion at Darden. And when I left, I realized just how important the Darden community was, even in the corporate world. Many people I knew from Darden became my closest friends and valuable resources in the companies I worked for.

Additionally, I formed a strong bond with a group of women at Darden, and we’re still close friends. We try to get together annually. Those women were my lifeline during my time at Darden. While our group was more of a social circle, it was also a support system. Darden can be intense, especially for women who were a minority at the time. We leaned on each other for support and encouragement, and that continues to this day.

How has your relationship with Darden evolved since graduation?

I started with just making gifts and showing up to reunions. Then, I began attending local chapter events, which I enjoyed. But the big change happened when my kids left for college, and I found myself suddenly an empty nester. It hit me hard. So, even before they left, I reached out to the engagement team at Darden. I thought, “Okay, what can I do with my time?” And Darden has always held a special place in my heart. I’ve always wanted to do more, and finally, the timing was right.

That feeling of community I experienced at Darden is something I want to see thrive and expand. That’s why I try to get involved in Women@Darden, Graduate Women in Business and any group activities I can. I truly believe it’s vital to fostering success for women at Darden.

Share an experience that highlights why volunteering at Darden is important to you.

Sonia Hounsell (MBA ’99)

I received a call from someone who attended a recent Women in Business webinar in which I participated. It’s been great to connect with so many people reaching out to me on LinkedIn. I’ve had conversations with quite a few individuals, but two in particular stood out.

First, a fourth-year student at UVA participated in the panel. She doesn’t have a strong business background but wants to incorporate business into her career. We had a lengthy discussion about how she could position herself for success at Darden, something I wish I had guidance on years ago. It was rewarding to help her navigate this path.

Then, another woman who has been in the workforce for about three years is unhappy with her current job. She’s unsure if business school is the right next step for her and is worried about how it might look on her Darden application if she changes jobs. It’s a practical concern, but she contemplated staying in an unhappy situation to maintain a favorable application image. I provided her with some strategic advice on approaching her career before Darden and how to set herself up for success at Darden.

What are some other ways you have engaged with Darden?

The Women in Leadership Summit in 2022 was a fantastic event that opened my eyes to what’s happening at Darden and how I could contribute. Through my passion for entrepreneurship, I also connected with some folks from the Batten Institute. And you know, ever since my appearance on Shark Tank, I’ve been drawn to pitch competitions like a magnet. The experience is valuable to me. Sure, I still do plenty of pitches, but there’s something unique about those competitions. Getting involved with the pitch competitions at the Batten Institute has been exceptionally fulfilling and rewarding for me.

Did your Darden experience prepare you in any way for your appearance on Shark Tank?

The experience is pretty wild. I never considered myself a Shark Tank fan — not that I disliked it, but I just never watched it. So, when they reached out and asked us to apply, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Turns out, it’s as real as it gets. The Sharks know nothing about your product or brand, and you pitch to them for almost an hour. They only air about eight minutes of that, but wow, it’s intense. You have to think fast because you never know what they’ll throw at you, and there are no retakes. Once you’re in the hot seat, it’s non-stop grilling from these ultra-successful business titans.

In a way, I think the intense environment at Darden prepared me for it. The School hones your problem-solving skills and ability to think on your feet, which you need during a pitch. It was nerve-wracking to face these heavy hitters, but ultimately, it was an invaluable experience for our company. The visibility it provided was tremendous. Shark Tank has such a massive audience, both domestically and internationally. It opened up doors for us globally, which is huge for any entrepreneur.

If someone wants to get more involved with Darden, what advice do you have?

There are two aspects to this. One is more emotional. Do you remember that special feeling you had on Grounds? That sense of excitement and energy, those moments where you felt your mind expanding, your outlook broadening? Reconnecting with Darden helps you tap into that. It’s this incredible sensation of growth that makes you feel like you can conquer anything. That feeling is so visceral, you know? And honestly, after being disengaged for so long, I had forgotten about it. But attending events like the Women in Leadership Summit and the Alumni Association Board of Directors meeting reignited that spark for me. It’s truly inspiring to be in that environment again.

But then there’s another piece to it. I think we all carry a sense of pride in having attended Darden, and that pride is not only personal but also crucial for our careers and advancement. Contributing back to Darden adds to that reputation. And as alumni, we benefit from seeing that reputation grow and expand. It’s up to us to keep that momentum going. So, staying involved is not just about giving back — it’s about ensuring Darden’s continued success and the ongoing enhancement of our own reputations.

Get Involved With Darden:

Let us know how you’d like to contribute. Fill out the Alumni Interest Form. For tailored guidance, contact Jen Oliver, Senior Director of Alumni Engagement, at or +1-434-982-3696.

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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