Erin Zaikis, 29
HEBREW NAME: Chana Elia
CURRENTLY LIVING IN: New York City
ALMA MATERS: Marblehead High School ’07,
University of Michigan ’10
JOB: Founder, Sundara
FAVORITE FOOD: Nam kang sai (Thai shaved ice)
FAVORITE MUSIC: Rap and Afrobeat
FAVORITE BOOKS: “The Power of One,” by Bryce Courtenay
FAVORITE MOVIES: “Slumdog Millionaire” was the movie that changed my life because I decided to move to India after that, but I also really love the movie “City of God” and I love another movie called “Timbuktu”
FAVORITE TV SHOWS: “Fauda,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
FAVORITE TRAVEL DESTINATIONS: Ethiopia; I want to go to Ghana and Senegal
FAVORITE JEWISH PERSON NOT IN YOUR FAMILY: Larry David
FAVORITE JEWISH HOLIDAY: Passover
WHAT WAS YOUR JEWISH BACKGROUND GROWING UP?
I went to Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, I had a bat mitzvah, I went to Hebrew school, I went to Camp Menorah, I went to Israel often, and I did the Y2I trip. I went to the University of Michigan and studied abroad at Tel Aviv University, I went on Birthright, then I staffed two Birthright trips. I think I’ve been back to Israel every year since. I just remember always feeling proud to be Jewish, that it was something special. It’s just an integral part of who I am and my identity, but I also have felt really inspired by how philanthropic Jews are – not just with Israel and our communities, but really in issues across the world. I feel incredibly grateful to be part of this Jewish network. So many people who support Sundara support it simply because it’s being run by a Jewish woman who’s living life according to values she believes in and Tikkun Olam [repair the world].
COULD YOU TALK ABOUT SUNDARA AND HOW IT GOT STARTED?
I moved to New York and was working at a real estate company, and it was a typical 9-to-5 job, and I saw my friends around also hating their 9-to-5 jobs, and hating their lives, and living for the weekend. But I always thought to myself: There has to be more than this. I don’t want to go through life like a zombie. If this is the majority of my time spent, why am I spending it doing something I hate? What my mind kept going back to was when I went to Thailand after graduation and spent a year there and I was working with children who were on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, and some of these children had never seen soap before. They were 13 years old, and you’d give them a bar of soap, and their first instinct is to eat it. You’d think to yourself, ‘How have you lived your entire life without something I’ve taken for granted every single day of mine?’ I never even thought about soap until I was 23. You have all these awareness campaigns – which I’m so grateful for – about water, and vaccinations, and HIV, and homelessness, but no one was talking about soap at that time. With this issue of a community not having access to soap and not knowing about hygiene and sanitation and therefore suffering early childhood deaths … then coming back to the U.S. and have no one know about it, and no one talk about it. I really thought it was up to me. I decided kind of on a whim to apply to a LinkedIn for Good pitch competition where they were looking for a social enterprise idea.
WHAT WAS THE IDEA?
I had this idea of what if we could recycle hotel soap, because I read that five million bars of soap wind up in landfills every single day in the U.S. alone. At the same time in India, 70 million people live their lives without it, and don’t even know what it is. I piloted this idea of chemically reprocessing bar soap into new soap, and then distributing it to hospitals and community centers and schools, and training local women to be hygiene ambassadors. From there, I won this check of $10,000 and thought, ‘I’m rich!’ and I moved to India and thought ‘I’ll stay here until the money runs out.’ I tried various ways of recycling the soap … and then we started to work with large hotel chains, and we became a fee for service model, so hotels now pay us to collect their trash, and we’ve trained the housekeeping staff to leave out the liquid and bar soap on the side; we take that and we put it through a process in one of our workshop recycling facilities – it becomes new soap. We hire women who are widows, victims of domestic violence, single mothers, to reprocess the soap. Now we have operations in Uganda and Myanmar, and this year, we’re starting something in Haiti and Jordan. We work with a community that reaches around 100,000 people every month, and we process about half a million bars of soap each year.
Zaikis was featured as one of the Forbes 30 under 30 for 2019 in the category of social entrepreneurs. For more information on Sundara, visit sundarafund.org.