Erin Zaikis | On Recycling Soap, Celebrating Small Wins, and Giving Back

“We see huge efforts in recycling and upcycling…but the question we have to keep asking is, how do we get the waste to the need?

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You check into your hotel for a business trip -- just a quick overnight to meet with a prospective customer. Your flight arrived late, you're rushed to get to dinner, and you tear open the small bar of soap on the counter to quickly freshen up before running off to meet the CEO.

You leave the next morning, and that soap has only been used twice.

In most hotels, housekeeping staff will simply throw away barely-used soap. But Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara, saw an opportunity to repurpose discarded soap in a way that extends far beyond sustainability. Sundara employs local women from Indian slum communities to recycle used soap from hotels, which helps lift them out of poverty. Slum residents and students are provided hygiene education, along with supplies of soap to prevent the spread of disease. Sundara has saved 84,000 kg of soap from going into landfills, and provides hotels with the opportunity to participate in a unique CSR initiative.

Erin's story is powerful. It is heartfelt. It is sincere. Read below.


What was the origin of Sundara?

When I was 19, I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire. It was a beautiful film, but also a horrifying one -- to think that there are children who are only 4 years old and don’t have a social safety net who don’t have anyone looking out for them. I’m from Boston, I grew up in a middle-class household, so I was never exposed to extreme poverty. For better or worse, I’m an impulsive person, so after I saw that movie, I decided I was going to India to spend a few months there.

I found my way to an orphanage in Mumbai, and I became close with a 10-year old girl named Priyanka. I was the first white person she’d ever met. I French braided my hair back then, and she would knock on my door at 6am and say, “Didi, braid my hair!” (didi is the word for older sister in Hindi), and we developed a sister-type bond, even though we couldn’t communicate well. She would also ask me to read her palm because she heard a rumor that every white person could read palms. I (obviously) couldn’t, but she was persistent and finally I gave in. I would make up stories, tell her that she was going to travel or be a teacher, and she loved it.

It was fun, but I think I was the first person to tell her that she could be something other than domestic help. Many of the girls I met were left in trash cans a few days after birth, simply for the fact that they were female. Priyanka was born to a town drunkard and village prostitute, and when she was 7-years old, her mother found out that her father had other wives and children. So she poured kerosene on herself and lit herself on fire. As a young child, Priyanka watched her mom burn to death. She was then sent to her disabled grandmother, who sold her to traffickers where she was tied to a mattress and raped every day for three years. She finally met a man who helped her escape and she came to the orphanage, where I met her.

So I went back to University and I promised that we’d stay friends, but then I got busy and life got in the way. I called the orphanage after a few months and asked for Priyanka, and the teacher said, “Haven’t you heard? She had HIV and we didn’t have money for antiretrovirals, so we dropped her off at children’s hospice.” I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Before I hung up, I asked how much antiretrovirals cost.

10 cents a week. 

That was a pivotal moment. Up until that point I had been fed a steady diet of Judeo-Christian American values -- that “hard work breeds success” and “you can do whatever you want”. When I went to India I realized I was living in a bubble and that life is completely unfair. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. There was nothing that could explain to me why or how things happen. We hear stories of how someone had a shitty childhood , but now they’re famous and signing book deals, and those are the stories we love. But this was a story about a girl who lived in poverty, no one took a risk on her, everyone exploited her, and then her life was over. How do you make sense of that? 

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So what did that experience lead you to?

I began to feel guilty for my privilege. We were both women, she was just born to parents who didn't value her and she wasn’t given the opportunity for education. Meanwhile, my parents loved me, invested in my success and paid for my college tuition. Then I realized that I could feel guilty, but who was it helping? I started to wonder what I could do to level the playing field, so I moved to Thailand after I graduated and worked with children who were victims of sex trafficking. But after awhile, I started to feel disillusioned. The problem was much more complex than I wanted to admit.

At the same time, I had met all these children who didn’t know what soap was! They had never seen a bar of soap in their lives, it wasn’t even available in the area. So I brought soap the next day and I asked them to wash their hands. And I watched (in horror) as they unwrapped it and put it on their heads. Some even tried to eat it. It was the first time that I really thought about soap, and I realized I spent my entire life taking something so simple for granted. If you don’t use soap, you’re much more likely to die of diarrhea, pneumonia, infections. There are many groups out there addressing clean water and vaccination issues, but not many talking about soap. So I decided the onus was on me to do something. 

How does your business model work? 

We work with 134 hotels, both boutiques and big names like Hilton and Hyatt, mostly in India but we also have partners in East Africa and Myanmar. We train housekeeping staff to put soap that’s going to be thrown away into a designated area, and we collect it weekly or biweekly. We employ 40 women full-time, most are survivors of domestic violence, widows, disabled women, and single mothers. They collect the soap and bring it to our processing centers, where we chemically reprocess it. They take off the outside of the bar, they grate the remainder in an industrial processor, and add in powdered bleach, coconut oil, vegetable glycerin, and a few other additives. It then goes through a soap bar press and dries out -- the whole process takes about 7 minutes. It’s simple, cheap and easy to do. You don’t even need running water!

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How did you establish those hotel partnerships?

I first went to door-to-door to hotels in Mumbai, and everyone said no. I was a 23-year-old American asking to collect trash, so I understand why they were wary! After about a month, I couldn’t find a single hotel who wanted to give me their trash, but through a friend-of-a-friend I got connected to a hotel called Abode Bombay. They took a risk on me, they were the first, and once we had one hotel, everyone else was much more willing to participate!

We’re also working in a time where hotels are emphasizing their environmental and corporate social responsibility initiatives, and we fit in nicely with that. We’ve been able to establish global partnerships and we’re working more top-down, but we’ll work with any hotel who is ready to give us their waste.

When I first read about Sundara’s mission, it resonated because I personally avoid opening the bars of hand soap at hotels, because I know I’ll barely use it!

Most people have thought about the fact that hotel soap gets thrown out after just a few uses -- they notice it, it’s a pain point, it’s frustrating -- but then they move on. We don’t question why things are the way they are, we don’t stop to hover and ask why. And it’s not just soap. The hospitality industry is the number one culprit for newspaper waste, and roughly 40% of breakfast buffets get thrown in the trash. But the good thing is that the millennial generation is particularly  interested in reducing that waste. We see huge efforts in recycling and upcycling, because we’ve realized there are effective ways to get basic products into the hands of people at the bottom of the pyramid. But the question we have to keep asking is, how do we get the waste to the need?

What draws you to India specifically? Why do you continue to work there? 

I had my most transformative experience there that completely shifted my mind and how I think about my life’s mission. Had I not had the experience I had when I was 19, I would have been a more superficial version of myself. But I was forever changed by my experience at that orphanage - it was like a slap in the face to realize my purpose in life. 

And working in India is such a joy. You find beautiful moments amidst the chaos and misery that keep you going. One of the last times I was in India, I was in passport control and it was a mess. It’s taking hours to get through, there’s no internet, I’m bored and I finally get to the woman who’s stamping passports. And she’s wearing these beautiful chandelier earrings. I said to her, “I love your earrings! Where did you get them?” She told me she got them at a market that I would never find. And then she stamped my passport, took off her earrings, and put them on top of my passport! People are so wildly generous. I am always welcomed with open arms and I love the people there.

Sundara tackles multiple issues: sustainability, health and opportunities for women. How do you balance those three elements of your business?

It’s a struggle to balance it, because they don’t always go together. If we wanted to have the biggest impact, we wouldn’t prioritize fair wage employment. We pay our women 3x the normal rate in these slums and that stops us from hiring more people and spending money on other parts of the business. And while we’re trying to preserve the environment, we’ve had to say no to receiving plastic toiletries. There’s a huge opportunity for us to use liquid soap in schools and in orphanages, but we won’t commit to accepting plastic bottles until we have an ethical third-party recycler. There’s no formalized waste management system in the communities we work in, so we don’t want to add to it.

We often have to prioritize one over the other as the business shifts. Right now, employing women is what pulls on my heartstrings the most, but when I started the motivating factor was reaching as many children as possible. As I learn more about the state of our planet, I’m thinking more about how we can have a more responsible environmental program. We recently switched over to using paper made of recycled hotel newspapers to wrap our soap (before we used wax paper). So we’re constantly innovating to see how we can reach these goals. 

Keep in mind too that we work in India, which has 1.4 billion people and while we’re lucky to say that we can impact 100,000 to 200,000 people a month, it’s still feels like a drop in the bucket. I think it’s important to keep a broad perspective that the work we do is not going to solve all of humanity’s problems for the rest of time. But if we can get the ball rolling -- if one of our women inspires someone to get a job, or because she’s employed she can now send her child to school, or if we can prevent 1,000 kg of trash from going into a landfill -- that’s all good work. We have to focus on the small wins.

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How do you see Sundara positively impacting the women you employ?

I always think of Sundara not as the end goal, but as the beginning. We hire women who don’t have a resume, they’ve never been employed, many are illiterate. We give them a job, basic literacy training, and health insurance -- but most importantly we give them a community of other women and a sense that they’re worth investing in. And when that happens to a woman, we see her posture improve and she starts speaking louder, and she comes up with ideas of what else she could do, whereas before she didn’t think she could do anything because society has hammered in her head that  she’s simply not worth it. 

There’s one woman we employ who was the first homeowner in her village — she used the savings from her work at Sundara to build the first house and not only did she do that, but she has a few clients who run businesses out of her home so she makes money on rent. And this is in a community that has existed for hundreds of years and never before has a woman built and financed her own house. We had a woman who left to join the police force (a very male-dominated industry), but that was always her dream and she did it. We have another woman who ran for her village government council — she lost, but she was the first woman ever to run. So I really see Sundara as part of a bigger picture of female empowerment and equality.

How would you say you move the needle? 

My answer probably isn’t what you expect.

I’ve been doing this work for 6 ½ years and I’ve been so focused on promoting myself, because that’s what the world wants. When you’re a social entrepreneur, everyone wants to know how you started, and what you’re about. But so many times I’ve thought, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Who am I to live this kind of life?” I have raging imposter syndrome. And last year, I realized that all this self-promotion doesn’t make me happy. Last year my sister asked the question of who I was outside of Sundara. I couldn’t answer. This organization has been kind of a crutch, both personally and professionally. For a long time, I worked too much, I wasn’t a good friend, I didn’t show up for my parents, my engagement ended, I wasn’t even a good dog owner! I became a shitty person in many ways because I was sacrificing for this organization to benefit my ego. 

I realized that I needed to make big changes. So this year, I made it a goal to go on 100 coffee dates with people that I’m not necessarily connected with, with the simple intention of “how can I help you?”. So many people helped me start Sundara, fund the organization, have given their time and resources -- I’m so grateful and I don’t think I’ve paid it back in full. 

So my goal moving ahead is to use everything that I’ve learned and built these past 6 ½ years and to ask how I can pay it back. I always try to remember to embody generosity -- giving my time, money, anything I can offer -- because so many people have been generous with me. At the end of the day, I know that we are all connected, and remembering this brings me joy in a way that self-promotion couldn’t. I think I’ve personally moved from a realm of taking to a realm of giving, so I’m trying through big and small actions to express my gratitude.

That’s how I’m trying to move the needle. 


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ABOUT ERIN

Erin is the founder of Sundara, an organization that recycles hotel soap across India, and East Africa. Sundara hires widows, victims of domestic violence and single mothers, employing them at a fair wage and training them to become community hygiene ambassadors. Sundara has distributed a million bars of soap, working with partners like Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott. Erin has been recognized by the Huffington Post, BBC, CNN and the Government of India. Born and raised in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Erin graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Public Policy and studied at NYU and Tel Aviv University. She has lived in Israel, India and Thailand, before making NYC her home.