an interview with Erin Zaikis, founder of Sundara
Erin Zaikis and I first met when I was a junior at the University of Michigan. From day one, I had no doubt she would go on to do unbelievable things. So when I read an article about her organization in the Huffington Post a few years ago, I was ecstatic! I'm so excited to have the chance now to learn more about her work.
Erin is the founder of Sundara - an organization that recycles soap and educates underprivileged communities around the world about hygiene. Sundara employs local women - who speak the language and understand their culture best - as hygiene ambassadors to educate their communities. These women are empowered to lead, create change, as well as financially support themselves and their families. I hope you enjoy learning more about Erin and Sundara!
I’m so excited to interview you, Erin! You and I met in college and I always admired you and your commitment to volunteer work, especially with orphans in extremely impoverished countries. Could you give a bit of background on the projects you were involved in back in college and right after?
Of course! It’s a pleasure to be interviewed by you and I’m so excited our paths are crossing again, a few years later. When I was 19 I bought a ticket to India spontaneously after watching the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”. I spent my summer living in an orphanage in Mumbai with 130 girls - most of whom were abandoned just days after birth, left in trash cans or train stations but for the sole reason that they were girls (and born to mothers with little economic opportunity who couldn’t raise them or pay dowries). It was a life altering experience that forced me to come face to face with the stark inequalities of the world and realize my privilege. After I graduated school I moved to Thailand to work with two organizations that focused on advocacy against child sex trafficking - an issue I was first exposed to in India.
How did this work affect you on a personal level? How did it lead you to start Sundara?
It was a privilege to be able to have the freedom to travel and take some unpaid internships and low paying jobs to see the world and meet people with such different backgrounds and life experiences. Yet it also forced me to question the Judeo-Christian values we are raised with - like “hard work breeds success” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. In these countries - and so much of the world - life simply isn’t fair. People don’t have the same level of opportunity you do. Some people can’t even read this article. Some people’s lives are just...well, miserable. When you’ve seen people selling their children to feed themselves, it’s pretty hard to go back to the first world and forget about it. I knew I was fortunate enough to be given education and opportunity - but I now realized I could use it for others and to do some good in this world.
I started Sundara because in Thailand I met 11, 13 year old children who had never used soap in their life - and were dying of diarrhea, pneumonia - diseases that children here didn’t die of. In that moment I was dumbfounded - how had these people lived their entire lives without something I (and probably many of the readers) have taken for granted every single day of mine? I loved that soap was a low cost, low technology, easy to understand solution. It’s not controversial. Handwashing with soap can save the lives of 2 million children a year! I thought that the problem was a lack of soap in this world - but it’s actually a problem with excess (hotels throwing billions of bars of barely used soap into landfills) and access (70 million people in India not knowing what soap is or being able to afford it). If we could connect the waste to the need - which is what Sundara does, while providing jobs to dozens of women across three countries, that felt like a solution everyone could get behind.
I remember when I was so excited to read the Huffington Post article about you. How did the article change things for you and for Sundara? What was going through your mind when you started seeing the positive effects of that exposure?
The article was such a cool moment - and I still pinch myself about it. In one day our website was flooded with thousands of dollars of soap sales and I got countless messages of encouragement and support on Facebook. I still go back and read them from time to time, whenever I’m hitting a tough moment, and it makes me feel like I can do anything I put my mind to. That article was definitely the push I needed to realize that I could quit my job and follow my dream full time.
Could you talk about the important role women play in your non-profit? In influencing their own communities?
Women all over the world are the key to sustainable change. Things are far from being perfect for women here in the US but don’t we have the obligation to stand up for our sisters across the world who are facing a much more dire situation just because of their gender?
That’s why Sundara hires women to recycle soap, become hygiene ambassadors and work in our office as program managers. When you give a woman a job, you’ll notice that she uses her paycheck to send her children to school, buy food for her family, repair her house - and you don’t even have to tell her to do that. I’ve also seen how when you give a woman an opportunity to work (instead of a handout) they have so much more self esteem and purpose and they feel like they can take on other challenges.
Women influence their neighbors and their children in a way that men can’t. Women are the main caretakers of children - they have the ability to promote healthy behaviors and discourage unsafe ones. Women make up over half the world - it’s only right to let them lead in any community development solution.
That’s incredible. What you said reminds me of the book Teach a Woman to Fish by Ritu Sharma. In the book she talks about how hard it can be to get people/organizations/governments to view poverty through the lens of women. That people often want to treat poverty “as a whole”, rather than understand how women are affected in ways that men are not. Or that it’s not quite understood how critical women are to creating successful community programs. Do you encounter these kinds of problems?
I definitely encounter this problem in my work. As an organization with 95% of our hires being women, we receive a lot of push back at times. I wish I could give jobs to everyone who needed one and was deserving of it - both men and women alike. The reality is that there's not equal opportunity - women have less access to schooling, are being forced to drop out at higher rates, are victims of sexual and physical violence and have fewer financial resources available to them, so when we create interventions to lessen poverty we must take into consideration that many women are starting with these barriers in place, and offer opportunities for them to advance whenever possible..
Women actually contribute 2/3rds of the world's work hours...and yet only 7% of philanthropic dollars are invested in initiatives targeted towards women and girls. I want to be a part of the change to level the playing field for women both here and abroad.
What’s your vision for Sundara’s future?
Sundara currently receives 25% of our funding from within the countries we operate in - which is a huge achievement. To know that local philanthropists and businesses support our project with money and volunteering hours is a great feeling - but I’m still pushing for more local involvement and funding. All of our work is done within the countries we operate in - shouldn’t it ideally be funded from within as well?
On a personal note, I hope that Sundara is less and less about my story and more about the journey of the women we hire - and how they’ve transformed their lives and communities with this job. Or the story of a child we work with becoming a hygiene ambassador in his or her community. Telling the stories of other people whose stories aren’t usually heard - I’ve had the limelight plenty of times - will be my goal in the future.
Having so much experience working with many different communities, what is the key to successful partnerships and collaborations? Where can an organization potentially go wrong in trying to help?
The key to successful partnerships is not forcing it - and being open to change and pivoting. It’s so important to look at your program critically after 6 months or a year and say - is this working? Does it feel like an uphill climb? What could I be doing better?
Sundara has had programs not work out - and we have had to admit our mistakes, close the project and learn from the failures. It’s humbling. Having local buy in is so critical - a lot of organizations go wrong in developing an app or a project for a community that might work well here in the US but haven’t factored in cultural complexities that would make it a challenge in sub-Saharan Africa.
Whether it’s a feeling of self-doubt in your ability to make a difference, or the depression that can come from seeing so many people suffer… What’s your advice to those struggling with the darker aspects of this kind of work?
Keep going - keep pushing. The world needs you. Sometimes it might seem that your work just feels like a drop in the bucket (trust me, I feel that way often), but all those drops do add up. It’s also so important to surround yourself with a few supportive people who want to see you succeed. The world is full of naysayers - and everyone suffers from self doubt, but with a great partner, encouraging parent or fantastic group of friends, you’ll have the push you need to keep you going in the right direction.