Our founder, Erin, was a guest on the most recent Rishon Global x Entwine Exclusive, hosted by Rishon’s founder, Barry Kahan. The show highlights three social entrepreneurs to hear their stories and insights on how we can all be making positive change right now. See below for a written excerpt of Erin’s interview or watch the video in its entirety here.
Barry: What was the moment that inspired the work that you do?
Erin: After graduating from college, I worked in a Thai village near the border with Myanmar with a nonprofit organization, Justifi, where I would go into schools and work with children who were at risk of being trafficked. While I was working in one school, I noticed that there wasn’t any soap; so, I bought some and gave it to the children to wash their hands. However, I quickly realized that they didn’t know what it was or how to use it.
I had lived my entire life without ever thinking about soap because it was everywhere I ever needed it; yet, I was standing in front of children around the age of 12 who were not even aware that it existed.
Soap is so simple, but it’s not universal. When communities don’t have access to soap, children die of diarrhoea, pneumonia and other illnesses which children in the US don’t die from - every year, two million children die of preventable hygiene-related illnesses.
Later on, I worked in Thailand, and I was hospitalized with dengue fever, which gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I felt very plagued with guilt that I was in a nice hospital in Bangkok, with parents who provided me with healthcare; meanwhile, the children I was working with were growing up without access to basic necessities. I felt as though I had essentially won the “birth lottery” and they had lost it, as our access to things like food, water, education varied significantly just because of where and to whom we were born.
I knew that feeling guilty would not solve any of these injustices, although it was through processing my experiences, that I understood that I wanted to do something with my life to level the playing field so that children would not grow up without something as basic as soap.
Barry: Tell us of Sundara’s beginning
Erin: In a country like India, 70 million people lack access to soap. I knew I could do something about this. Soap is simple, low technology and not a complicated, or controversial thing.
I pitched in a competition sponsored by LinkedIn, won a check for $10,000 and moved to Mumbai, India to pilot my idea. We took donated used soap from four and five-star hotels and trained women to upcycle it and distributed it to their communities. This model provided soap to people who live on less than $1 a day and would otherwise not be able to afford it. Additionally, the communities were also provided with hygiene education to ensure they knew how to use it.
Barry: How did the pandemic affect Sundara’s work?
Erin: Before the pandemic, Sundara had 40 full-time employees and six factories in India; as well as operations in Uganda and Myanmar. At our peak, we were impacting 200,000 people a month with hygiene deliveries and access to education.
Through hiring these women, I saw that when a woman is provided with a job, the impact is tenfold. You see her speak louder and come up with other ideas to improve her family’s and community’s health.
Women are such an under-resourced community when it comes to leading change. And as an American woman who has privilege, I feel a sense of responsibility to advocate for other women who are facing much harder challenges as a result of their gender.
Barry: How did you overcome your hurdles?
Erin: Having friends who support me has been vital. I make sure to surround myself with people who are positive and supportive and won’t feel threatened by my success or ‘abnormal’ life. It’s also critical to have team members who believe in your mission even more than you do. There will be days when you want to throw in the towel, but having a team who you love and trust will keep you balanced and motivated.
Barry: What is the future that you want to help create?
Erin: I understand that I hold a privilege coming from a community that backs me with social and financial capital, making my entrepreneurial journey much easier. Although, through my time in Uganda, India and Myanmar, I have met many women working to improve their communities who don’t have access to the kind of resources I do, here in New York.
So, we raised $100,000 for a social innovation fund to support the next generation of women, committed to improving the health of their communities. I feel as though my job now is to support entrepreneurs who don’t have access to the same amount of support that I received. I feel fortunate to have come from such a supportive background, and my hope is to foster the same amount of support for our fellows.
Barry: What do we need to continue to thrive?
Erin: I am very inspired by the ideas of universal basic income and direct cash transfers. I think that money is power and if we can get money from the people who have ample resources and give it to people on the ground who are making the change, this would create the change that we want to see within the international development sector.
I envision a future where we can support women in making the changes they want to see, and we can stand by and support them with the financial support and connections that they need to thrive.
To support the next generation of changemakers, click here.