Changing Lives with a Bar of Soap: The Story of Sundara

November 29, 2016

This article is featured in the November 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, Sara Ivry speaks with Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara, an organization that empowers women and children through improved hygiene and health care.

Sundara is currently raising funds to expand their work to Pune, India. To donate, please visit the crowdfunding page.

Have you heard the one about the trod-upon butterfly who changes the course of history? It offers a simple lesson: that a seemingly small action can have a huge impact down the line, whether for ill or for good. Examples of the latter are everywhere. At New York University, the website Share Meals makes it easy for students with extra meals on their plans to offer swipes—essentially food credits they can’t use—to peers who’ve run out of dining credits for the semester.

Erin Zaikis’s work demonstrates the same truism: big ideas for social change start modestly. Now 27, the Massachusetts native is the brains behind Sundara, a three-year-old non-profit organization that hires unemployed and underemployed women in India, Uganda and Myanmar to recycle hotel soap using a zero-waste process, and makes them hygiene ambassadors in communities that suffer from high rates of death from diarrhea, pneumonia and other hygiene-related maladies.

How did she first get the idea to be a champion of soap? Why was this cause so dear to her? She offered The Slice answers to these and other burning questions.

What exactly is Sundara?

Sundara is an organization that recycles hotel soap and empowers women. We work with local hotels to source remnant soap, bring it back to a workshop and train women how to recycle soap in ten minutes, from start to finish. We also train women about different aspects of hygiene—hand washing, personal hygiene, and menstruation. In most of these communities hygiene and health is not taught in school or even informally. There’s a huge gap we are trying to fill through recycling, employment and  education. →​Watch the video.

It’s a niche idea. What was its impetus?

It was a combination of two events. When I was 19, I traveled to India. I spent some time working in an orphanage and it was a slap in the face to see the extreme poverty there. Here in America, we have relative poverty; there are projects, but there’s also a social safety net. For the most part, people are not starving—they’re going to live another day.

Mumbai is home to 21 million people and over 60 percent of them live in slums. An estimated two million are considered homeless. When you get into the city, you come in late in at night, and you see rows of bodies sleeping on the sidewalks, sleeping on top of cars, sleeping by trash cans. It is visually terrifying. When I got there, I felt that my education had failed me; I knew about American history and how to graph complicated math problems, but I had no idea of what was actually happening on the other side of the planet. It was a shock to realize that I had won the birth lottery and these people had not…and there was really no explanation for why.

The second event: after I graduated from college, I worked in the north of Thailand, on the Myanmar border, with children at risk of being trafficked into sex slavery. We would go into schools and there was never any soap. I was meeting 11, 12, 13-year-olds who had never seen a bar of soap and never washed their hands. Meanwhile, the average life expectancy in this community was 51. A lot of the mothers were having five children, but only three would survive past the age of 5. Children around me were dying of diarrhea and pneumonia, things from which children here don't die. Then things started to come together— that one bar of soap could create a domino effect of improved health, and who wouldn’t want that? I was attracted to the simplicity of soap and basic hygiene.

What was your first step in getting Sundara off the ground?

I started making soap in my apartment and selling it to friends and family with the hopes of raising money for that school that I had worked at in Thailand, with the initial goal of providing soap every day for every student for the year. Then The Huffington Post picked up my story and wrote a small article that got a lot of hits and blew away anything I had ever dreamed about in my kitchen. I got thousands of dollars of sales in one day, and it pushed me to think bigger.

I pivoted Sundara to become a soap recycling organization rather than a soap company. I felt that the world didn’t need another soap company – but it did need someone to connect the waste to the need. There are over 1,000 hotels in Bangkok, and there is so much soap waste in cities across the world. I was staying in hotels when I lived in northern Thailand, and every day a new bar of soap appeared in my room. So I started reading into it: in the US alone, there are over one billion bars of soap going into landfills every single year. A Billion with a B. Meanwhile, in India, there are 70 million people who lack access to soap. So there’s a huge waste problem, but there’s also a huge need. Soap recycling came to me as a sustainable way to do something about this problem while also helping the environment and keeping the solution local.

How did you manage to scale up?

I applied to a social good competition hosted by LinkedIn and ended up winning and receiving a grant. Three friends then accompanied me to Mumbai for a summer, and we rented a very modest and pretty sketchy AirBnb. During our stay, we went to maybe 30 hotels and begged them to let us use their trash and pilot out a 6-month program to see if this could actually work. Everyone said no. They were worried about getting sued if something went wrong and didn’t want to take a chance on us.

So, I desperately posted all over my Facebook:, ‘Do you know anyone in Mumbai who has a hotel?’ A friend I went to Michigan with connecting me to someone who finally said, ‘I do!’ He owned a boutique hotel, called Abode with just a few rooms, and when this one hotel said yes, the rest followed suit. At first, it was hard to get that one person to take a risk on us. Now, we work with the Hyatt and the Marriott and 8 Hilton properties. It’s great to see hotels approaching us now.

Sundara is about soap and hygiene, but what strikes me is that it’s creating so many jobs, specifically for women.

It’s funny, I started this organization because I felt so attached to these children that weren’t given the same opportunities I was. Like many people, I love children. No matter how depressing the area you’re in is, no matter how impoverished the slum, when there are kids around and they’re smiling and goofy, you feel happy. A selfish part of me wanted the focus to be children so that I would always get to be around them.

But, along these three years, I found that what kept me going was knowing that we were giving women a way out of crippling poverty and a chance to support their families. In the US women are still making 77 cents to the dollar and facing sexism in the workplace and government – but we are still relatively fortunate. In India they have ‘sati,’ or widow-burning, which was officially outlawed but is still practiced, when a recently widowed woman either voluntarily commits suicide – or is forced to after her husband’s death, usually by burning on top of her husband’s funeral pyre.

They have acid burning -  where if a man asks a woman for her hand in marriage and she says no, the man will find that woman and throw acid on her face so she’s disfigured for life.  Child marriage and bonded labor and sex trafficking are realities for many girls and women who aren’t lucky to have education and social support.

These awful things make me realize how fortunate I am to live in this country and have an education, to be literate, to be able to support myself. When you support a woman you support so much more than that. These women are using their salaries to send their kids to school, to take care of sick parents, for healthcare. They’re using it wisely and that’s just their instinct: we didn’t have to teach them that.

It’s become extremely important to me personally this past year because I was engaged to someone who was financially successful. It allowed me to quit my job and start Sundara and not worry about money. Then it became a bad relationship, and I stayed because I was afraid to leave that lifestyle. I didn’t think I could support myself. In January, it ended, and I had to get scrappy and rededicate myself to my work and to supporting myself. It’s so important for women to be able to support themselves financially so they don’t wind up in toxic relationships. I was lucky—I could lean on my parents and my friends, but many women don’t have that option. I want to be able to give a woman that option – everyone deserves the chance to work and provide for themselves.

Soap seems like such an incidental item, but you’ve used it in such a big way.

I think about that a lot—small things can make a big impact. We don’t buy that many bars of soap in a year but the ways it benefits our health – preventing diarrhea, pneumonia, skin rashes, eye infections – that’s huge! In the communities we work in we’ve seen a 25% reduction in skin rashes and eye infections and things that would keep a child from going to school. If they have a rash they usually have it on their hands and can’t hold a pencil well, so they’ll stay home from school. There’s a huge problem of school absenteeism in many of these countries, whether it’s due to hygiene related illnesses or because a girl has her period and wants to stay home. If we can keep more children healthy and in school, I think we can all agree that these measures will improve society greatly.

Also a small wage—very small compared to what we make—can make a huge difference. One of our hygiene ambassadors, the very first woman we hired, has been taking care of her mother who has multiple sclerosis, just because we invested in her. She has been able to renovate her house with a new coat of paint and a new sink. She bought herself a smartphone and sends me WhatsApp messages every morning and every night. She’s 38 and single and in India, which is incredibly tough because as a woman your life is determined by your marriage status.

I just found out that she’s getting married this month. It’s interesting because it’s not the ending you would think – woman learns how to support herself…and then gets married. Yet this is her society and her wish. At least this job gave her the ability to pay the dowry, and become financially stable before getting married. Plus she will continue to work with us after so we are happy that she can still be a part of our Sundara family.

How do you get the support you need to keep the organization running?

A lot of fundraising. We’re certainly looking for more support from the Jewish community, but it can be a struggle. Some people will say to us: “You’re not working with Jews, so we can’t support you.” I’d urge them to understand that this work is inherently Jewish – Jews are working in the most remote areas to heal the world and make it a better place. We are one of the few religions that insist on doing good with no strings attached. I feel the most “Jewish” when I’m out in the field, representing for our people. What’s more Jewish than helping someone in need, regardless of religion?

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.