Erin Zaikis, Sundara, Woman Entrepreneur
Erin will tell you that she grew up in a nice quasi-sheltered upper middle class life in Marblehead, MA. Her father is a lawyer and her Mom is a dentist. A very female dominated household where her Mom did it all and was insistent on having a career. When she was in high school her Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and in many ways that was the beginnings of a journey to put her own life in perspective. She traveled to find what she was looking for and through that journey she launched Sundara, soap with a mission.
After graduating high school in 2007 Erin went to University of Michigan the next year where she majored in public policy. Her sister was at U of M and was having an amazing experience so she just followed her. Erin isn’t so sure it was the best school for her but her sister and her are best friends who even today live together in NYC so there were certainly benefits. The school of public policy was a small one within the University with only 50 people so that was the key to her experience there.
Erin graduated in three years and a half years a U or M spending one semester in Tel Aviv and one summer in India. It was the summer in India that changed everything. Her original focus was Middle East foreign policy which at one point seemed glamorous until she went to Mumbai and became amazed and horrified at the same time of the level of poverty there. It was a life changing experience. As Erin puts it, “homeless people, legless people, leprosy and poverty beyond your wildest imagination.” She said she cried for the first two weeks she was there. She called her Mom and her advice was you chose to go, stay and find your purpose. So she did.
Erin met a bunch of kids that had been abandoned and trafficked from Nepal. She began fascinated with trafficking so she graduated early and took a job in Bangkok working for EcPat International, an organization devoted to protecting children from children prostitution and trafficking. She worked in a rehab program with survivors and at risk youth. She was sent to a more rural setting to work with refugees from Northern Thailand and Burma. She would do outreach such as talking to mothers about why they would sell their children. She realized very quickly that their lives were so completely different than hers that she had no right to pass judgement on them. Erin began to wonder if she should even be there.
One day she began focusing on how dirty everything was. She asked a bunch of her students about their soap, their hygiene and what do they use to wash themselves. The answer was just water and some talcum powder because it absorbs the heat. Even when it came to washing their dishes they did not use soap. Erin drove to the convenience store, bought some soap and brought it back. She gave the kids the soap and she said watching them wash their hands with soap was fascinating. It was Erin’s aha moment. She can’t tell them how to live their lives but she can educate them about hygiene. Soap and clean water are basic necessities. There are all these water charities but nobody talks about hygiene. You also have to capture these kids when they are young because past puberty hygiene becomes more sensitive.
Erin wanted to build a very holistic community oriented towards giving the soap. She returned to NYC and did tons of research. There are over 70 million people in India who do not even know what soap is but soap has been around for about 1000 years starting with the Romans. Hand washing has only been around for about 150 years. Doctors discovered in 1847 that washing hands could prevent disease and contamination. How was she going to educate kids about soap when they do not even go to school.
Erin spent the next two years between Thailand and NYC. When she finally got back to NYC she started making soap in her kitchen. She felt very detached to the world she came from after being overseas for the past few years. She was not finding it easy to re-enter the world and found solace making crafts and soap. Her social life had changed, she had changed. She began to buy the products she needed to make soap on line and began to experiment. The first ones were duds and they would crumble in the shower. Eventually she got it right after cutting herself, setting the smoke alarm off in the building and several mishaps.
Erin built a website to raise money to buy soap for villages in Thailand. HuffPo picked it up and her website crashed. She wanted the project to be sustainable vs just handing out soaps. She chose India as the place to begin a program since India leads the world in deaths due to not being clean with deathly issues for young kids such as diarrhea. She began to train women to collect soap tossed out by hotels and distribute it among the slums and with that educating people on cleanliness and the power of soap.
Every time Erin sells a bar of soap on her website, $1 goes towards her soap recycling project. They have also began to run projects in Ghana where they have built sinks. She worked with a water infiltration plant in Haiti including cholera prevention. It has been a challenge getting people to the site but Erin has learned to be a little more outgoing to make connections with people in the health and beauty world. She first started out as a profit site but moved into a non-profit organization so she could tap into big corporations philanthropy.
That one trip to India set Erin off on a completely different path than she thought she would take. She feels incredibly lucky to find something that she is passionate about. For someone who told me she was introverted in college finding the big university overwhelming she is full of life and insanely chatty and committed to what she is doing. Go buy some soap and support her desire to change the world one bar of soap at a time.