By Elana Zygman
“Why are we still here, in 2016, discussing gender parity?” Lyse Doucet asked as her opening line at the 2016 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos’ Progress Towards Parity session. This question echoes throughout development as the next generation tackles large-scale economic, environmental, geopolitical and technological challenges. As noted by actress-activist Emma Watson, “Full female participation in the workforce could boost GDP by $28 trillion, the single biggest stimulus to the economy.” More than ever, not only do businesses need to address social challenges by leveraging the market place, but they need to do so with women at the helm.
Erin Zaikis is the founder of Sundara, an organization that partners with corporations worldwide to recycle soap, increasing knowledge and access to sanitation in India, Myanmar and Uganda. Zaikis employs underprivileged women to foster a sustainable hygiene education movement and reduce preventable cleanliness-related death and disease. I interviewed Erin in an effort to hear the voice of a woman who has promoted the power of the marketplace.
Where did this idea come from?
I was on the border of Thailand and Myanmar with children who had never seen a bar of soap before. This problem really shocked me. When I came home, I looked up if there were any organizations that provided hygiene education but everything was related to clean water. I realized that if I didn’t do something, no one else would.
When I started Sundara I began by making soap to give proceeds to the communities, so that they could purchase soap for themselves. This wasn’t sustainable. I pivoted and refined the concept to soap recycling which connected waste to need. Why make more soap when there are millions of barely used bars going into landfills every year?
Tell us more about the soap recycling market and your corporate partnerships. In what way do you leverage the marketplace to have social impact?
The soap recycling market is new and small; there are fewer than 10 organizations across the world. We have a few corporate partnerships and have found the most success working with soap companies. This includes Diversey, which provides most of the hotel cleaning products worldwide.
We have had success structuring our program as a way for hotels to be environmentally friendly, as well as responsible to their community. We work with a variety of chains, everything from Hilton to boutique hotels. We are learning that people (especially women, who do 80% of the purchasing) like to know their beauty products or bathroom products have an impact. We want to tap into companies that seek to reach educated customers.
What impact do you think your lens as a woman has had on development?
It has helped me realize development is so much more than giving someone a job or a bar of soap. It’s about engaging community and having them ‘buy in’. People will often underestimate or are dismissive of women. We have an innate responsibility to use our privilege as women from developed countries. I am doing some of the organizing, but I am in no way the hero of this project. Rather it is the women, volunteers and corporations that contribute.
Are there any key drivers of change you believe entrepreneurs such as yourself should focus?
In meeting with donors, partners and potential board members there is an emphasis on explosive growth and I think that misses the point. Sundara currently works with a community of 6,000. That sounds small, but those 6,000 gain employment opportunities, weekly soap deliveries, hygiene education classes, classes at their local medical clinic and posters to take home.
I’d rather change a few peoples’ lives with visible impact than give a smaller amount to many. I think we should focus less on sheer numbers and more on full scale of impact.
Do you have suggestions for women developing the market place for social innovation?
I think more women need to take life by the horns. Reach out to people directly. Be aggressive and bold. Create a supportive network. Find a way to stand out.
If there is someone who is reading this who wants to talk to me about their ideas, I will make time for them. Women have to help each other. I used to think the only way to make a worthwhile change was by working at a large international organization. I’ve seen by creating Sundara, anyone can build something substantial. That feels great!
Affordable solutions in development are valuable, regardless of gender. Women are a critical part of leading new industries and Erin’s approach is a model for others, demonstrating that there are many opportunities available for women who seek to leverage resources.
Would you like to help Sundara give back? Donate soap, volunteer or contribute by reaching Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elana Zygman has built a career in international development, working in Asia and the Middle East as a policy researcher and project manager. Her roles span think tanks, NGOs and corporations, acting as an advocate for global initiatives. She recently returned to the States and is pursuing new opportunities. She can be reached at email@example.com.