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.

Comments (Archived):

  1. pointsnfigures

    If she wanted to apply to a TechStars type of accelerator, she should look at Applications for this year are closed, but she would be a worthy candidate.

    1. Gotham Gal

      thanks. great advice.

      1. John Fazzolari

        So happy you featured Erin! I had coffee with her back in February and first thing I told her was you are an awesome female entrepreneur in NYC- reach out to Joanne ASAP. Whether her company functions as a for-profit or non-profit she will be successful moving forward.Tumml in SF and Impact Engine are both awesome. For some reason I feel like nobody in NYC really talks about them but hoping that more recycled capital goes into social enterprise over the next decade. The challenge is building companies that can utilize a social mission (Toms, Warby Parker, etc) or focus on helping enterprises integrate essential business processes with social good. VCs are also starting funds just for B Corps and the future is looking up.

        1. Gotham Gal

          i am such a fan of social mission businesses that can make a difference through a product.

          1. Erin

            Thank you Joanne! Thank you so much for the feature too. What an honor! 🙂

        2. Erin

          Thanks John! I really have you to thank for this feature. Thanks for giving me such great advice. Will be emailing you shortly. For everyone interested in social enterprises, check out John’s I hope you will be as impressed with it as I am.

    2. LE

      I just looked at that site.I think it’s important, if you are selling to younger people, to understand that older people (parents and grandparents) will be looking at what they are doing and will have questions and will attempt to say “yay” or “nay”. (They could be instrumental in some people even taking advantage of this as well.)It’s not clear from the site (although obvious if you understand how things like this work) that there isn’t a cost to doing this (other than giving up equity). Right?Not to mention that the model won’t necessarily make much sense to people outside of the bubble. I always wonder why sites like this don’t cover those typical questions, that is, what would newbies and/or parents of newbies typically want to know?For example this statement “We’re here to help you navigate the unique situations and difficulties mission-focused, for-profit startups face.” is sure to raise questions in many readers as far as “why are you doing this exactly, what do you stand to gain”. Most people don’t know what an “accelerator program” is. It’s not in the everyday lingo like “internship” or “study overseas” or “tennis practice”.Separately, if the assumption is that someone (where does that come from also?) is giving 25k upfront cash for 7% equity and they are asking for mentors what do the mentors get for mentoring?

    3. Erin

      Thank you! I will definitely check out this opportunity.

  2. LE

    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.Having been raised in an earlier time I can’t imagine anything except my parents saying “We told you so now get yourself back to the states”.When my sister was in college she defied my parents and went to school in Rome for two years. Apparently back then you couldn’t even make eye contact with men or you would have problems was the first thing we heard by an expensive “long distance” (remember that?) phone call.I’m curious (if Erin is reading this) what her parents perceived as the danger of Erin being in that situation.I can’t say I would encourage my daughter to do the same thing for fear of her safety.

    1. Gotham Gal

      you have to be bold.

      1. LE

        It’s important to be bold and take some chances. However when there is what I would perceive as a clear personal danger I don’t feel it’s worth it for what you would stand to gain.That said I don’t know the specifics of where she was and what she was doing (only what I’m reading above) so it’s hard to assess the risk.

      2. pointsnfigures

        I have not been to India, but many of my friends have. It’s universal, they say that the first two weeks there are unbelievable because of the wretched poverty that you see. It’s impossible really to describe it’s so shocking.

        1. LE

          My wife had a highly educated (MD) affluent coworker at her last job.Anyway she would refer to the woman that helped her with the kids as “a slave”. I don’t know if the woman helping her was here legally or not or any other details.My “slave”. Just like that.She also apparently was saying that she might return to India because she could have a nice lifestyle there and have several “slaves”.

          1. pointsnfigures

            Yup, that shit really happens. My friend that traded in Singapore went to Cambodia and a father tried to “sell” him his daughter for $2g. Scary. Sick and when I think deeply about stuff like that make me want to build a bunker and hide.

        2. Erin

          Hi PointsnFigures. Thanks for reading. India is such an intense place – but if you can get past those first two weeks, you can get a lot out of it..or at least that’s the hope! We are hoping to bring volunteers with us to India next year. If you’re interested in joining and getting involved, feel free to send me an email at [email protected].

    2. Erin

      Hi LE! Thanks for reading and taking an interest in my story. My parents knew that I was quite safe. I was living in an orphanage that had round the clock security guards…and a 7 pm curfew – tons of fun ;). While I always felt safe physically, I think the emotional challenges are what got to me in the beginning. However, I think every parent has a different take on when their child is ready to see something like this (if ever), so I respect every mother’s decision. Fortunately it was a life changing one (in a good way) for me.

      1. LE

        I’m wondering if there is any way that soap scraps can be reused and given to those in need?In other words I almost always throw away soap when there is still soap left.I wonder if there is any cost effective way to take this soap and to get it to people overseas. In other words by combining used soap.There is this:…Once again, shipping, cost to combine etc. Just throwing the idea out there. (Also some obvious health issues potentially.)

  3. AMT Editorial Staff

    Awesome. Loved this. Have you read Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”? This brought that book to mind. Recommend it. Will tweet about above too.

    1. Erin

      Hi AMT Staff! You’re right – what a fantastic book. I actually just read it a few weeks ago. It brings so much light and attention to the every day joys and struggles of people really similar to the ones we are working with. Thank you for sharing. I recommend it a lot too!