Erin Zaikis Is Saving the World With Soap
Filed in: Woman of the Week
When Erin Zaikis got the idea to recycle barely-touched soap from hotels in Mumbai and redistribute it to people who had none, she stumbled upon a simple way to prevent diseases, create jobs for women, and reduce waste—all at the same time. Now, her nonprofit Sundara has workshops in Myanmar and Uganda as well as several states in India. She recently sat down with us (less than 24 hours after jetting back from Africa, no less) to talk coconut conundrums, the pains of fundraising, and life as a nomad.
I GREW UP in Marblehead, Massachusetts—outside of Boston—and I really had no idea what extreme poverty and suffering looked like. When I was 19, I decided that I needed to educate myself, so I went to India and spent four months living in an orphanage. While I was there, I became really close with a girl who was trafficked from a poor state in India. Three days after I left, she died of AIDS. It was a really powerful experience, and something I couldn’t just walk away from.
AFTER COLLEGE, I worked in Thailand for two different organizations that helped fight childhood trafficking, which is a very complex situation. Mothers would say to me, “Who are you to tell me what to do with my kids? I’m married to an abusive alcoholic, and I don’t know what else to do.” And in many cases, they were right—it was uncomfortable to foist my values on them. My work often brought me to schools, and I’d see kids use the bathroom and then just run out and start playing with their friends without washing their hands. There were sinks, but no soap. And it struck me as such a fixable problem: kids were constantly getting sick, and here was a way to help prevent it. So I brought in a bar of soap one day, and these 12-year-old kids didn’t even know what it was—one kid tried to eat it.
IT TURNS OUT that there’s actually a huge soap surplus. Hotels throw away tons of it every year. At Sundara, we use recycled soap that we collect from hotels and reprocess so that it’s safe to use. It’s a very simple system.
TO START SUNDARA, I won a grant from LinkedIn’s social impact business competition. That promptly ran out, so I did some crowdfunding with family and friends. I briefly tried to raise money by making soap in my apartment and selling it, but that was a disaster—what was I thinking? Now we’re supported through a combination of fundraising and events and grants. Asking for money is my least favorite part of the job—it’s so hard. But what kicks me in the ass is that I have 26 people on my payroll, and this money isn’t for me, it’s for them.
THINGS GO WRONG all the time. I get phone calls at all hours—a few days ago, my phone was blowing up in the middle of the night because of an auspicious coconut. We’re opening a new workshop in India, and there’s a tradition of breaking open a coconut at the door, but then the guy got hurt while trying to break open the coconut and had to go to the hospital. I mean, when you’re starting a nonprofit, do you ever think you’ll be up at 1:00 a.m. dealing with a coconut injury? Of course not.
I TRAVEL a few months out of the year, but you can do a lot remotely, using email and Whatsapp. I believe it’s important that our workshops have a sense of autonomy. Each one has a local manager and 6-10 employees, almost all female. Most of what I handle is on the back end—paperwork and emails, which isn’t very glamorous, but it’s important.
MY PACKING PROCESS is down to a science. I never check anything; I only do carry-on, even if I’m away for two months. The important things are lots of underwear and socks, and a universal outlet converter. I also bring malaria pills, basic first aid, vitamins, and Cipro for emergencies. Throughout a trip, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to lessen my load—I’ll give away my clothes as I go. For clothes, I’ll take one simple black dress—MM.LaFleur’s are perfect—for more formal meetings, which usually take place at hotels. Otherwise it’s scarves, black leggings, flowy skirts, and black sneakers. It’s important to stay covered up; a lot of foreigners assume that American women are very sexual, because of Hollywood movies, so you’re up against that preconceived notion all the time.
WHEN I’M ABROAD, a normal day involves checking in with the directors of the workshops, meeting with a local photographer or reporter, showing around some donors, and sweating my ass off. My days are so unpredictable that sometimes lunch is a bag of chips from the gas station.
I’M A TRUE NOMAD right now. I got out of a relationship earlier this year, so I’ve been staying with different family members in between trips. Sometimes I get jealous of my friends who are in stable relationships and have kids and a home, but I know the grass is always greener. It’s a huge luxury to be able to travel all the time.
MY GUILTY PLEASURE is a face mask. No matter where I am, I’ll put one on before bed and just listen to music and chill out. Also: trashy magazines on airplanes. It’s like a mini-escape, and then I leave them behind when we land.
If you would like to contribute to Sundara, click here.
Photos by Frances F. Denny.