Erin Zaikis Sundara Soap with Border

This time last year I was working a cushy real estate job in Rockefeller Center, with million dollar art pieces, a butler who brought us cookies, and a mini heater if ever my feet got cold. I sat at my desk (the size of a studio apartment) with two computers and most days, counted the hours until I got to leave.

Was it comfortable? Of course. Did it finance my “New York lifestyle”? 100%. Was I happy?

Not. At. All.

It started to get to me.

I woke up morning after morning, knowing that I wasn’t helping anyone and that my career didn’t align with my values to make the world a better place. I felt trapped and depressed when I thought about doing this for years to come.

Getting Honest With Myself

I sat down one night with a journal and wrote down a list of things that made me feel lasting happiness: volunteering at a soup kitchen with my family for Christmas, tutoring high school dropouts during college, organizing fundraisers for charities.

To be very honest, initially I thought the list was going to say designer bags, vacations, and good restaurants – but the more I delved into it, those things and experiences only gave me short-lived, temporary happiness. I realized that I was truly happiest when I was doing something for someone other than myself.

A few weeks after making this list, I quit my real estate job and went to volunteer in Thailand.  One day, I was in a rural village and met middle school children who had never before washed their hands. I brought them soap and they didn’t know what to do with it. Can you imagine that? 13 year olds washing their hands for the very first time?

Finding My Grey

From Thailand to New York, the world is a broken place. Homelessness, child sex trafficking, drug addiction, domestic abuse. These issues moved me and I knew I always wanted to help – but, like many people, I felt overwhelmed at the complexity of the situation and didn’t know where best to start.

With soap and basic hygiene education however, I felt it was a simple cause that everyone could get behind.

So I began to read more about the problem. Approximately 3.5 million die of diarrhea and respiratory diseases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That’s more than the entire population in the state of Connecticut. Every year.  These are preventable diseases, which makes that number even more of a shame.

Soap is the single most effective way to prevent childhood death – both more effective and cheaper than vaccines, medications or clean water initiatives alone. The CDC ran a series of studies in Pakistan recently, which showed that in one year, with hand washing instruction and a year’s supply of soap, it is possible to reduce the rate of these childhood illnesses by 50%. That’s 1.75 million children that can be saved by something as simple as a bar of soap. It’s a low cost, low technology way to save lives and empower children to take their health into their own hands.

Taking A Risk

After reading up on the statistics and seeing the intensity of the issue face-to-face, I decided to start a soap and beauty company upon my return to New York. Proceeds fund hygiene projects for children in underserved communities around the world, from Thailand to Ghana to India. We will be launching a partnership with the town of Carice, Haiti later this year.

Making a drastic career change came with so many highs and lows, often one right after the other.  Starting a business was completely nerve-wracking (and a bit crazy!) since I have no formal business training and a background in nonprofits.

My personality is a bit shy and reserved and self-promotion makes me wince, so having to put myself out there time and time again and talk about my vision and product was a huge challenge. I forced myself to preserve through it because in my heart I knew that I deserved better than a job that didn’t resonate with me and I wasn’t willing to make excuses for myself anymore.

I had (and still have) so many days when I doubt myself – but during moments like that I remind myself of my accomplishments thus far. I feel like I have learned so much more in a few months of running a business than I would during years at an established company – plus I’ve contributed a lot more to worthwhile charities in the process.

Without great risk, there would be no great reward, no innovations, no penicillin nor iPads nor electric cars.

Taking the leap will always be challenging but in the end the opportunity for reward and personal satisfaction is great. When all is said and done, I want my company, Sundara to have two legacies: 1) That it provides the gift of health to underserved communities around the world. And 2) That it inspires other people to follow their passions and take a risk to start that business, take that trip and make that career they’ve always dreamed of.

Erin is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Sundara. Through Sundara she advocates for the importance of hand hygiene in developing nations and is working to establish soap recycling programs. Follow her on Twitter at @erinzaikis and Instagram at @ezaikis.

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