When Erin Zaikis arrived in India seven years ago on a college break to volunteer at an orphanage for abandoned and abused children, she envisioned a summer reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire. Instead, she met Priyanka, a 10-year-old girl who would alter the path of her life.
Priyanka came to the orphanage after she was rescued from the bed her grandmother had strapped her to, so that men from the village could pay to rape her. Priyanka “was convinced that I could read her palm,” says Zaikis, 26. “She would come to my room every day and ask me to tell her future.”
A few weeks after Zaikis returned to the University of Michigan to continue her studies as an astronomy student, she received news that Priyanka had died from AIDS. “I was so bothered by the fact that she had such a different upbringing than I had,” says Zaikis. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why do I get to go to college and she doesn’t even get to live?’”
Priyanka’s death caused Zaikis to reassess her life. She changed her major from astronomy to public policy, and after graduation moved to Thailand where she worked for an organization that sought to help girls who had been sexually abused as a result of trafficking.
Traveling between villages for research, Zaikis realized that many of the villages did not have any soap, and the children lacked basic hygiene education. That made the children vulnerable to potentially deadly but preventable illnesses like diarrhea, the second leading cause of death among children under the age of five.
So she took a new path and created Sundara, an NGO which takes used soap from the hospitality industry, sanitizes it and distributes it to impoverished communities in India, Myanmar and Uganda. The organization also trains underprivileged women in hygiene education and then employs them to go back into their communities to teach what they have learned. To date, Sundara has made over 67,800 bars of soap and taught more than 2,330 lessons on hygiene education to children in 51 schools in impoverished communities.
Women & Girls Hub spoke with Zaikis about the impact of something as simple as soap and her organization’s philosophy of sustainability:
Women & Girls Hub: Where did the inspiration for Sundara come from?
Erin Zaikis: I used to visit villages in Thailand to survey how likely children were to be trafficked and I would stay in the homes of the village locals. And I noticed that there was never any soap in these children’s homes. One time I was at a school and I went to the bathroom, and again there was no soap. So I asked the children, “Where is your soap?” and they had no idea what it was. So I ended up buying soap and bringing it to them and doing an impromptu hand-washing class.
The kids had never seen soap before; some of the kids were trying to eat it, and one was balancing it on his head.
I kept hearing stories about parents who lost kids to preventable diseases like diarrhea, or a simple skin rash. The hygiene situation was so bad in this village [Baan Hoi Saak] that it was leading to preventable deaths. I thought, “Maybe this is something I can do.”
Right after this, I contracted dengue fever and I was hospitalized for a month, and then my boyfriend at the time broke up with me over email while I was in the hospital. I was at rock bottom. I had a lot of time in the hospital where I couldn’t move, so I did a lot of thinking. I was actually lucky this happened because it forced me to quit my job and take the leap to start Sundara.
Women & Girls Hub: What types of success and failures have you had with Sundara?
Zaikis: In the beginning, Sundara [“beautiful” in Sanskrit] was a very simple soap company. I was making soap out of my small kitchen in New York and selling it and using the profits from that to support soap hygiene efforts in India, Uganda and Myanmar. I realized though that what I was passionate about was the education around soap hygiene, so I decided I should stop trying to be a soap company and instead create an NGO and focus all of my efforts on soap hygiene. I applied for a pitch competition from LinkedIn and I won.
The winnings from that gave me seed funding to move to India and start the soap hygiene project there. I convinced a couple of my friends to move to India with me, where we pitched our butts off to every hotel we could find in Mumbai. We hired a few women in the slums and started a workshop, so we piloted the project in India. Once it was off the ground and running for a year, we expanded into Myanmar and then also a program in Uganda.
Women & Girls Hub: Through Sundara, you work to promote female leadership in the towns you work in …
Zaikis: It is very important to me that I involve female community members in the countries I am working in, because I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t foisting my Western expectations on someone. So I made it a priority that in each country we work in, we tailor our program to fit the needs of the individual community.
So for example, in Uganda, the women we work with are interested in the female empowerment aspect of our work. Because of this, we work with people who are widowed or victims of domestic violence, single mothers and disabled women. The fact that these women are able to work and provide for themselves really carries them. As an organization, we just try to find out what aspects reverberate with people and then we focus on that aspect with them.
Women & Girls Hub: What long-term goals do you have for Sundara?
Zaikis: I started this organization to really focus on children in terms of soap and hygiene education, but I have been surprised at the way I have really fallen in love with the women who work for us. Hearing their stories about how, even though they are illiterate, they feel empowered because we took a risk on them; employed them and gave them the opportunity to pay their dowries so they can get married, or pay for their school fees for their children, so that their children won’t be illiterate. Hearing these stories really keeps me motivated, so I would like to focus more on empowering women with business skills.
At the end of the day people don’t want handouts. They want to know that they can provide for themselves.