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CNN ‘Hero’ Raises the Bar on Social Entrepreneurship

In less than five years, Samir Lakhani (A&S ’15) has improved hygiene for more than 1.1 million people and created jobs for women in 10 developing nations through his global nonprofit Eco-Soap Bank.

His company collects gently used soap from hotels, then sanitizes and processes it into new bars that are distributed to schools, hospitals and villages throughout developing nations.

Through this work, Lakhani, an environmental studies alumnus, has kept hundreds of tons of soap out of landfills and created jobs for 147 disadvantaged women, all while saving lives by providing soap and hygiene education for growing numbers of the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to adequate sanitation.

Samir holding a bucket of soap
Lakhani’s sustainability-minded humanitarian project was cast into the spotlight when he was named among 10 “everyday people changing the world” in the 2017 CNN Hero of the Year awards tribute.

“After CNN, we got a lot of positive feedback and support,” Lakhani said. “Among the comments we heard most was a desire to feel connected with the impact of the work.”

Now this young social entrepreneur hopes to do more.

He’s launching a retail product — a luxury version of the recycled soap — aimed at connecting customers in the United States with Eco-Soap Bank’s charitable mission.

A crowdfunding campaign to fund the expansion of labor and production equipment is underway. The Kickstarter, launched May 1, reached its $10,000 goal within hours, and by halfway to its June 1 completion date was already more than 300 percent funded.

The new product, called Project Eco-Soap, is billed as a zero-waste soap. It’s made from sanitized leftover hotel soap and packaged in upcycled hotel linens that can be reused as dish towels. The three varieties are scented with essences and named for the countries where Eco-Soap Bank works: saffron and green orange of Tanzania; tea leaves, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger of Nepal and lemongrass of Cambodia. Lakhani plans to hire 45 additional women in those countries to produce the product.

Rather than adopting a simple “buy-one, give-one” model of social enterprise, each bar purchased enables a donation of 100 bars to children in need.

“We wanted to create a way to amplify somebody’s impact from their purchase and do it on an affordable basis,” Lakhani said.

The soap will also include a card with a short bio of the woman who made it, along with her handwritten signature.

It’s an auspicious autograph. “She is taking a very big personal step by signing her name,” he said. Many of the women come without any formal literacy or numeracy, but the program enables them to pursue education along with the job.

“This is a bar of soap that empowers women, improves hygiene for children, reduces waste and is a sustainable product using materials we’re keeping out of a landfill,” he said. “Our goal is to reach 2.5 million people by the end of 2020.”

The sustainable start

During a summer internship in Cambodia in 2014, Lakhani was struck by the disparity between rural residents who had no proper soap for handwashing and the fact that he had a fresh bar of soap each day in the guest house where he was staying.

Leftover soap was being discarded daily from city hotels near Angkor Wat while children just a few miles away were dying from preventable illnesses exacerbated by poor sanitation.

He’d gone to Cambodia to research climate change, but returned to Pittsburgh having devised a way to sanitize used hotel soap and hire local women for the process.

“I’d wanted to find some initiative to benefit environmentalism and the developing world,” said Lakhani. He hadn’t realized that entrepreneurship would be the path to fulfilling his career goals.

Allebach in a blue polo shirt
He came home enthused and easily found support from his Pitt professors, who counseled him on business-oriented considerations, “Things like funding, forming a team and finding a board of directors,” Lakhani said.

Among his mentors was environmental studies program instructor Ward Allebach, whose spring-term sustainability course is well known for its team-centered focus on developing impactful sustainability projects on campus and in the Pittsburgh community. 

Lakhani had taken the course prior to his Cambodia trip, though his project focused not on soap, but on collecting students’ unwanted household items at the end of the school term for reuse.

“The course is all about how you take an idea and make it a reality. That’s entrepreneurship,” said Lakhani. “You learn entrepreneurial skill sets crucial to seeing the project through.” Skills like presenting the idea, hearing potential concerns and finding compromises and ways to overcome the obstacles. “It’s a way to show not tell students that succeeding takes a lot of grit. If you try and fail a thousand times, try a thousand and one.”

“What Samir has done is absolutely amazing,” Allebach said. “From the very beginning I could see he was kind, he was motivated and he was passionate about sustainability and about people,” he said.

“I advise students to set high goals, but not too high or you run the risk of becoming demoralized. I don’t always have a concept of how ambitious is too ambitious,” Allebach said.

“He came back from Cambodia with a goal to serve millions of people in developing nations within five years,” Allebach said. “He’s already shown what you can do.”