Erin Zaikis does not take much for granted—her health, her freedom, or the simple, every day item, soap. That tiny cake in your hotel shower, the gooey liquid squeezed from a bottle, soap is a vital resource that many in developing worlds lack. On a trip to Thailand, Erin witnessed first hand the lack of education and resources to get children on the path to healthy hygiene. Making an impact was a compulsion, not a choice. Many burnt soap prototypes later, Erin launched Sundara, a company that seeds proceeds from its soap products to help organizations in the developing world fund hygiene and health-related projects. Erin believes strongly in giving people the tools to empower themselves, to solve their own problems. It is part of the life philosophy that informs her mission and only one of the reasons why she’s rocking the world one sweetly-smelling piece of soap at a time.
If you could describe yourself in one hashtag, what would it be?
Tell us about a girl in your life who rocks.
My sister, Leslie rocks. She is a businesswoman who is the hardest working person I know. Though our passions and styles are very different, I admire her unstoppable drive, her courage to stand up for herself and others, and her selfless ambition to help other people make their dreams come true.
What are your dreams/goals/ambitions?
I am fortunate to be able to say that already so many of my dreams have come true. However, if I had to tack on another, it would be to see my soap recycling initiative take off in India. I recently started a nonprofit to train women how to recycle soap from hotels and redistribute it within slum communities and schools, where most people are living on less than $2 a day.
In Mumbai, I remember staying at a five star hotel with my parents and looking out the window to see a group of twenty or so beggar children. I was haunted at the inequality and unfairness of that situation. While this hotel was throwing away hundreds of bars of partially used soap every day, there were people a few yards from it who had never seen soap in their life (Unilever estimates that there are 70 million people in India who don't know what soap is and have never used it before).
I believe that more than anything, soap provides dignity and everyone deserves to be clean. So, it would be a dream come true if I can provide that right to people who don't currently have it.
On a smaller level though, I just want to be a good person to everyone I meet. Everyone is struggling with something - so I think we must be as kind as possible to friends and strangers alike, and add positivity to the world.
What are you most proud of?
I recently gave a Tedx talk about soap recycling and the need for improved hygiene in developing countries. Public speaking in front of hundreds of people (that was going to be put on YouTube) scared me so much that I was in a state of panic and almost cancelled the whole thing. However, I remembered that I'm not speaking for myself - I'm speaking for children and parents around the world that don't have the opportunity and privilege to get up on a stage and talk about their own situations. Knowing that took my ego out of it and empowered me to face my fear and just do it. I think it's important to follow to your fears - because if you can stand up to them and conquer them, you become a stronger, more interesting person in the process.
What piece of advice changed your life?
There was a quote by Jackson Kiddard that really resonated with me about living your dreams. I save it and look back on it often, whenever I'm struggling a bit - and I want to share it with you too. “The price you have to pay to live your dream is facing your deepest darkest fear and the reward you receive from this courageous act is the realization that your fear was an illusion and that your dreams were always real.”
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Success to me at any age is the ability to bed at night and say to myself "I did something today that helped someone". This makes all the struggles and challenges worthwhile. I know that life is short, and if you're not doing the things you love, or on the path to doing them, then you're not really living. So in 10 years, I just want to be happy and add as much good to the world as I can.
What is the number one item on your bucket list?
I would like to start a school for girls or a homeless shelter. If I ever get married, instead of asking for gifts from a bridal registry, I would ask people to donate to those projects - or another charity they believe in. Doing this is a beautiful way to mark the occasion and have your day live on through the lives of others.
Who has been the biggest female influence in your life and why?
My grandmother, Hope, was the biggest rockstar I've ever known. She was wildly generous, brave and funny. She made friends with everyone - from fancy real estate moguls to the women who greeted her at Costco, and spent her free time volunteering with children with special needs. She taught me that while society might place a huge emphasis on being pretty, smart, skinny, and top-notch job...the people that have the biggest impact in your life are the ones who are kind and selfless. Since her passing I've tried to be the mentor she was to me to others - but I feel like I've got a while to go.
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and what did you learn from it?
When I was 19 I went to India by myself to work at a girls' orphanage. When I got there, I saw suffering and poverty on a scale that was unimaginable, and I was scared out of my mind. I cried every single night for the first 3 weeks, wishing I was back home. Then, I had this moment where the girls came and got me from my room while I was hiding from a monsoon and took me to dance in the rain. Though I was twice their age, these girls had been through way more than I had and still took the chance to smile and be happy any opportunity they got. They were so strong! They taught me that feeling sorry for yourself or that of others doesn't do much - you've got to seize the moment - and literally dance in the rain sometimes, and find things to be celebrate and be grateful even in the darkest times. To this day I still think of those girls and wish I could thank them for teaching me this lesson and changing my life.
Why are you THAT GIRL?
Because I am living proof that if you face your fears, you can live your dream.
*Interview conducted and compiled by Sheila Moeschen, IATG Senior Editor