According to a recent study by Unilever, there are currently 70 million people in India who have never used soap. This means that one Indian child under 5 is dying every thirty seconds from diarrhea (or another preventable hygiene related illness). So the need is real and this is why I’m here.
– Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara
The lightbulb moment
“What’s soap,” asked a group of grubby Thai children to Erin Zaikis. The young American had moved to Thailand soon after graduating from the University of Michigan to work with non-profits that focused on combatting child trafficking. Here she was visiting a school in a small Thai village when the lightbulb moment of her life occurred. Having gone to the bathroom, she needed soap to wash her hands. Not only was none available, no one in the vicinity had any idea what is was. Refusing to believe them, Erin drove to the next town, bought out their supply of soap and brought it back with her. “I watched as they opened the packages of soap and clawed at the bars. Some were smacking it against their heads, having absolutely no idea what to do with it,” Erin recalls with wonder.
“After that experience I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to talking about this issue and finding a solution. So many people talk about water – and rightly so. But where’s the attention on soap and hygiene education? That’s half the equation,” she emphasizes.
How dare you tell me what to do with my child?
Erin always knew that she would spend a life immersed in social causes and activism. “I’m someone who will watch a documentary and feel so moved and go – ‘That’s it! I’ve got to go there and do something to help!’ I really believe that we are all connected – despite what country we live in or what language we speak or religion we follow.” But it was not soap what got her started in this field. She was involved with organizations that combatted child trafficking. The work was fulfilling, but exhausting and emotionally draining.
Erin recalls, “Mothers would come up to me and say – ‘How dare you tell me what to do with my child? You’ve never been beaten by your husband. You’ve never gone for 3 days without eating.’ And I felt confused and lost because they were right – I had never experienced that. So why am I here putting my judgement on them? That’s one of the biggest reasons I left that field – I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue and felt out of place.”
In contrast, the simplicity of soap and hand hygiene was alluring. “I’m hard pressed to find a lot of anti-soap activists out there – so that’s what drew me initially to that. I think we can all agree that everyone deserves soap. Soap provides dignity. I believe it’s a right to be clean. In 2015 it shouldn’t be that so many Indians – or frankly any people – are lacking the most basic medicine in the world. Let’s at least provide the basics to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to reach adulthood. I don’t think that’s a white idea or an Indian idea-just a universal one.”
The other thing that drew Erin to soap recycling was that it was sustainable on all fronts and combats multiple issues. “First you have hotel waste – over a billion bars of hardly used soap go into landfills each year in the US alone. India’s landfills are already stuffed – so by taking heavy soap waste it’s an environmental win. Then we employ underprivileged women from the slums we work in – giving them dignified jobs at a fair wage.
We also train these women in public speaking and leadership skills to become hygiene ambassadors and community leaders – because I believe that hygiene education is the most effective when it is taught by someone who looks like you, speaks your language and has had shared life experiences. Finally, our biggest focus is getting soap and hygiene education to underprivileged communities – both urban slums and rural tribal areas alike. We combine hygiene lessons with these soap handouts so the good hygiene habits have a better change of sticking and these children have a higher chance of reaching healthy adulthood – literally taking their hygiene into their own hands.”
A ‘beautiful’ story
Sundara means beautiful in Sanskrit and there is a special reason why Erin decided to christen her organization this. “When I founded Sundara, I was in my early twenties, struggling with the idea of beauty, perhaps like most girls my age. I had just come back to New York from Thailand and went out and listened to my friends talk about these ‘beautiful’ girls on Instagram with thousands of followers and ‘beautiful clothes, saying how much they wanted to be like them.
I had a moment where I felt depressed and thought…is this real beauty? Being skinny and trying to look flawless and taking pictures of yourself to show off to others? I had just met some of the most beautiful people in my life in this village and they were never going to have thousands of followers and get half the recognition that these Instagram celebrities were getting. I’m talking about people who gave selflessly, who worked towards a better future, who sacrificed to educate their children.
I decided I wanted to do my part to change the conversation and give those women some recognition. Real beauty is on the inside. It’s helping others, it’s fighting for a better future, it’s all the things our community educators are doing with Sundara and I wanted to highlight that amazing beauty within,” says Erin. And thus, in 2013, Sundara was born.
How it works: A complete win win
According to Erin, the simplicity of the process is Sundara’s biggest draw. “We collect gently used bar soap from over a dozen hotels in Mumbai – large international chains as well as small boutiques. We then bring the soap waste back to our workshop in Kalwa (outside Mumbai) where we’ve trained local women to sanitize the soap. They shave down the outside layer, grind it down, mix it into a bleach solution and strain it. They then put it into a machine which uses pressure to form it into a new bar of soap. The whole process can be done start to finish in 7 minutes. The soap is distributed monthly to over 30 schools, accompanied by hygiene education classes for children and adults alike.”
It is not the simplicity alone that is Sundara’s biggest USP, says Erin. “The environment wins (with reduced landfill waste), hotels win (through having a unique CSR program), women win (by being employed at a dignified job and getting a fair wage) and the entire community wins (through free soap deliveries and community led hygiene education). Although we are still small, I think we are a good example of the kinds of sustainable solutions that India needs to move ahead.”
‘Go home and get married’
India is no easy place to be a woman, especially so for a brunette American. But Erin finds travelling around Mumbai to be quite safe. It is the daily interactions with various bureaucratic officials where she is constantly reminded of her status. “I have to cover up and bring men to meetings with me to be taken seriously. Even after meetings that I think went well, I am gently reminded to ‘go home and get married.’ I realize a lot of it is just misunderstandings, so I don’t take these words seriously,” she remarks.
Sundara is funded by a series of grants and crowdfunding. “We also have a few corporate sponsors and won a competition for social entrepreneurship from LinkedIn via Linkedin for Good,” Erin elucidates. Currently she is working on adding more employees to Sundara’s payroll and grow their number of hotel partners. But being called a boss is distasteful to her because she insists that she is anything but. “I’m just someone who saw a problem in the world – and an achievable solution and set out to make it happen. I feel like with each year that goes by we make fewer mistakes and our operation becomes smoother so we are able to pinpoint the exact hygiene needs we need to be focused on. But to do that I’ve learned to hire smart people – and then get out of their way. I certainly can’t do this all myself,” she says.
Slumdog Millionaire and the white saviour complex
Erin says the movie Slumdog Millionaire was the inspiration behind her embracing this life of activism. For majority of Indians, the movie poses a major bone of contention with its singularly affected portrayal of poverty stricken India. But for Erin, the value of the film lies in the fact that it was an eye opener.
“I’m aware that many Indians do not like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and feel that it’s insulting to their country. While I can see that some people might not like it, it really opened my eyes to the scale of suffering in other countries, so for me it served a purpose. It’s troubling that a lot of Americans grow up not understanding what ‘real poverty’ is. I always think back and wonder – why did I have to take 8 years of Latin? Why did I have to learn what a parallelogram was? Why wasn’t someone teaching me how to do my taxes or start a business or why Darfur was in crisis? So I wish it was the case that our eyes were being opened by education and not by Hollywood movies. This needs to change.”
Watching a movie and then coming to save the third world- that trope is overdone. But Erin isn’t offended by questions of the white saviour complex being posed to her. “I really despise the term ‘white saviour complex’ and would say that with my organization, I am not the hero. I’m just the one providing the funding and structure – the real heroes here are the women that get out there and do the hard work every day. Hygiene education is a very sensitive topic, especially after puberty and I never wanted to be ‘that white girl’ who goes into the slums and tells all the kids they are dirty and have to do things that way we do it in my country.”
Sundara is looking to scale from 15 to 30 hotels in Mumbai by next year. They are also looking to expand to other cities and are actively seeking NGO’s and communities who might be interested in learning soap recycling.
For Erin, the hardest part about becoming an entrepreneur was overcoming self-doubt. And so she urges fellow upstarts to shamelessly ask for favours: “What’s the worst that can happen?” She continues, “The world needs more people who take the road less travelled – be one of them! You’ll be much more interesting if you do.”