Certifiably Awesome: Erin Zaikis, Founder, Sundara

Have you ever wondered what happened to that bar of soap you slathered up with during your most recent hotel stay? Yeah, we can’t say that it’s something we’ve thought much about either — that is, until we were introduced to Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara. Now, we can’t stop thinking about our freakin’ hotel soap. Here’s why.

 

That bar of soap you used a couple of times and then left in your hotel shower is one of billions – yes, billions –that are thrown away by the hospitality industry every single year. Not only does this create a landfill mess, it’s an outrageously depressing waste of product. Add in the fact that many parts of the world really need soap – it’s one of the cheapest and most critical tools for promoting public health and hygiene – and the whole thing is almost criminal.

 

Cue: Erin Zaikis and her amazing company, Sundara, which collects these discarded bars of soap, sanitizes them, and gives them to communities in desperate need of improved sanitation. Ahead, Erin talks about her business and is given the Certifiably Awesome shakedown. Read on.

 

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How did Sundara come into existence? How did you come up with the idea?

Three years ago I was working on the border of Thailand and Myanmar and met all these teenaged children who don’t know what soap is. They never washed their hands or used soap in a shower. So I brought them soap and tried to teach them how to use it but watched in horror as they clawed at it – one kid even tried to eat it! It really shocked me that someone could live 13 years of his or her life without something I’ve taken for granted every single day of mine.

I was haunted by the inequalities we have just based on where we happen to be born. At the same time, I was staying in hotels every night and always wondering where those little bars of soap end up at the end of the day. I knew there had to be a way to connect the waste to the need. I came back to New York with a mission to find a sustainable solution to this health crisis.

 

So, what exactly does Sundara do to help?

Sundara works in India, Uganda and Myanmar. We hire local women – some victims of domestic violence, other widows, still others who are disabled – and train them how to collect old bar soap from nearby hotels. They bring this soap to our workshops where they chemically sanitize and reprocess the soap to transform it new bars. They distribute these bars for free at schools and local medical clinics where they teach about the importance of hand hygiene, so the good habits stick. We save trash from landfills, teach children about basic personal hygiene and provide hygiene products in underserved communities, all while empowering traditionally overlooked women with fair wage jobs. It’s a simple recycling process and everyone wins!

 

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How are public health and sustainability interwoven?

We are sustainable because we empower local people to take their health into their own hands (literally). Our work isn’t just a hand out; we prioritize hygiene education and fair wage employment so local women can solve their own communities’ problems. Effective health interventions need to be sustainable and long lasting. It might feel great to go somewhere for a short period of time and hand things out for free, then leave, but that’s not what we are doing. We are working with businesses, women and children, teachers and schools, medical clinics and doctors and nurses to create a systemic change.

 

India, Myanmar, and Uganda: Why these places?

India leads the world with hygiene-preventable related illnesses and deaths. Myanmar has the second worst healthcare system in the world, and is also where I was first exposed to the original problem (through Burmese refugees living in Thailand). Over 400 children will die today in Uganda because of diarrhea – a preventable hygiene related illness that children here in the US don’t die of. These illnesses and deaths can be prevented with a solution we already have – hand washing with soap. Sometimes the best solutions are also the most basic ones.

 

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Any surprising things you’ve learned about yourself along the way?

Growing up I started and quit just about every sport/club/hobby you could think of. I worried that I was some sort of ‘professional quitter.’ But now I know that I just hadn’t found my passion yet. When you’re doing work you love, it doesn’t feel like work. Taking the leap and doing your own thing certainly isn’t easy, but it’s more rewarding than any other life experience I’ve had so far and that keeps me going.

 

How about what you’ve learned from the people you are working with?

I continue to be inspired by the women we hire every day. One just put her first son in school with the savings from her job with us. Another takes care of her ailing mother. One is running for local city council and is the first woman ever to do so in her village. These women have faced difficulties that make my troubles seem small. Knowing that someone believes in their potential makes these women truly unstoppable and a force to be reckoned with. I’m so happy to root for their success. They are the real heroes here!

 

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And here are our Certifiably Awesome questions:

 

What is your favorite “I-really-shouldn’t-be-eating-this” food?
Sour patch kids, black licorice, peach rings, and these Japanese chocolate covered mushrooms biscuits I discovered recently. My mom is a dentist and growing up I wasn’t allowed to eat sugar. Clearly making up for that now.

 

What is a skincare myth that you have busted on your own?

I always thought that putting oil on your face makes you break out…until I discovered face oil last winter and it became my new obsession. Even if you’ve got oily or combination skin, there’s a great face oil for everyone.

 

What percent natural are you?
I would have to say 80%. I like the idea of eating healthy 80% of the time, and giving yourself a break 20% of the time. Life should be enjoyed, so I definitely eat dessert first. I try to use natural products but I am still a hardcore perfume lover. Miss Dior, Flowerbomb and any scent by Fresh – the best!

 

What is your naked animal? (Oh you don’t know what this is? Allow us to improve your life tremendously. IF posing for naked photos, what animal would you choose to hide your girly parts?) 

Definitely my cockapoo puppy Yoshi. She’s my soul sister, super fluffy and warm, and doesn’t move too much. I’m one of those girls who is always cold so if I was naked I would need an animal who is basically a living blanket. Does that count? 😉

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