Every once in a while a beauty influencer or brand comes along that’s so extraordinary in their efforts to give back, attention must be paid. Each Feel Good Friday, we’ll highlight these do-gooders along with simple ways to support their efforts.
After months of interviewing Feel Good Friday subjects, a pattern started to appear – how upbeat and hopeful each of them are. It’s admirable given their often-draining line of work, but not surprising considering the perspectives they’ve gained visiting the sick, hungry and forgotten.
Erin Zaikis (pictured at left), founder of Sundara and this week’s Feel Good Friday story, is one such bubbly entrepreneur saving the world one bar of soap at a time. Her nonprofit, Sundara, which means ‘beautiful’ in Sanskrit, is a nod to the fact that ‘beauty’ is not just external. “Beauty is feeling a purpose, feeling connected to others, helping leave the world a little better place than you came into it. Isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day?” she said in a recent phone interview.
By starting a conversation about the importance of good hygiene in developing countries, Zaikis certainly found a way to leave her beauty mark. Her story began in Thailand in 2013, where Zaikis met children who didn’t know what soap was – or what to do with it when she offered it to them. She was stunned by the lack of hygiene education and began taking steps to develop a nonprofit that would deliver soap to communities in need, ultimately preventing the spread of infection and illness.
While the group usually counts on bar soap donations from hotels, Random Acts of Lipstick couldn’t resist the chance to pitch in. With your help we hope to flood the Sundara offices with bars of soap for those in need.
Support the cause: Contact Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’ll send you her shipping address where you can send her your extra bars of soap. She’ll recycle them and distribute them where they’re needed most. It’s that easy.
As if you needed more reason to support this Feel Good Friday org, read on to find out how she actually gets the soap to each community, her unusual advice for launching a nonprofit and other simple ways to lend a hand.
Alexis Farah: Give us the backstory on Sundara. What made you want to start such an incredible org?
Erin Zaikis: Three years ago I was working in a rural community in Northern Thailand with an organization that focused on child sex trafficking. Two years in and I was starting to feel disillusioned, realizing that I knew very little about the complexity of the issue. At the same time I started to notice that children in this community never washed their hands, their parents didn’t wash dishes with soap and soap wasn’t even being used in showers.
Of course you don’t think about soap until you are in an area where it is completely missing! One day I brought about 130 bars of soap to a school with me and tried to teach the children how to wash their hands but they scratched the bars with their nails, and some tried to eat it. Soap has been around for over 2,000 years – and yet, here these kids were, being denied access to it, simply because of where they were (unlucky to be) born. It didn’t seem fair to me. I came back to New York that summer and couldn’t get that scene out of my mind. I had to do something to help.
Sundara means ‘beautiful’ in Sanskrit and I wanted to honor the fact that ‘beauty’ is not just something external – how smooth your skin is, how white your teeth are, how skinny your body is. Beauty is feeling a purpose, feeling connected to others, helping leave the world a little better place than you came into it. Isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day? The women who work with us are the most beautiful people I’ve met because they’ve gone through so much and yet every day they wake up determined to provide for their children and improve their communities. Beauty is beyond skin deep.
AF: What are the logistics of getting soap to communities in need and teaching them how to use it?
EZ: We collect soap that’s been used by over 50 hotels. We train the women to collect the soap and bring it back to our workshop, where they reprocess it and sanitize it. This step takes 7 minutes start to finish. Most people have no idea how easy soap is to recycle!
The women go through hygiene education training, leadership and public exercises so they feel comfortable speaking in front of classrooms. Many have never spoken to a group of their peers before, let alone a classroom or a community center group, so we encourage them, little-by-little that they are now the hand washing experts in their community. It’s awesome to see some of the women who were once shy and wouldn’t speak louder than a whisper even give interviews for local TV stations now! I was lucky enough to have parents who pushed me to try to take risks and make my voice heard but I know not every girl or woman is that lucky. I want to be that for them.
AF: Has there been one exceptional story or moment through your journey with Sundara that stands out?
EZ: I originally started this organization to reach more children with soap and hygiene education but along the way I have fallen in love with the women who have been able to support themselves because of it. It’s funny how your motivations change. Because…at the end of the day, people want jobs, not handouts and so when we give them the opportunity to work, they usually work hard and are extremely proud of their products and impact.
Two weeks ago I was visiting one of our communities in Uganda and I was speaking with one of the women hygiene ambassadors Josephine. She told me she had left her husband in January. She had three children and was pregnant with a fourth when she made that bold decision to leave her abusive, alcoholic husband. Josephine lacked the support of her community, and even her parents, who urged her to stay married and find a way to work it out. So she ran and didn’t tell her extended family. She slept outside on a blanket for weeks – until she came to our partner organization who was hiring hygiene ambassadors at the time, determined to find a way to provide for herself. After working with Sundara for 6 months, she earns a steady income and has just built her own 2-room house. She told me she was so proud to own a plot of land and have her own address…something that no one can take away from her now.
AF: What’s the best advice you got as you launched a nonprofit?
EZ: A great – yet totally unexpected piece of advice I got from my friend and mentor Sophia of The Water Collective was ‘Dump him!’ When I first started, I was in a relationship with someone who was wonderful in many ways and very successful himself but who didn’t support my work and preferred for me to be in the background. I felt so unsupported and started doubting my success and the future success of my work. This relationship clearly didn’t last – but it held me back for a few years.
Now I am grateful for that person and experience. I think Rihanna has a tattoo of this saying: ‘Never a failure; always a lesson’. I’ve learned that it’s so important for women with goals and ambitions to find a partner who is rooting for your success every step of the way and pushing you ahead. I would rather be on my own than be made to play it small.
AF: Ok, ok this is all amazing. Now how can we help?!
EZ: I’m so glad you asked. First of all, awareness of the issue is the first step. The next time you’re washing your hands, remember that bar of soap is actually a luxury in some parts of the world.
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Your purchases can have an impact too. Consider supporting b.a.r.e. soaps, Soapbox soaps, MaaDisha and Lavender Court – all of whom make fantastic soap, shampoo and beauty products that support our various programs in India, Myanmar and Uganda.