I recently got a chance to chat with Shubham Issar, Co-Founder of Soapen, about Social Entrepreneurship and how people can break into this field? Issar is a graduate of the BFA Product Design program from Parsons School of Design and is the winner of UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge, 2016. Forbes has recognized her as Forbes 30 under 30, 2017.
To get started, can you talk about what got you started on SoaPen?
My co-founder Amanat Anand, and I both grew up in New Delhi, India. We met while pursuing Industrial Design at the Parsons School of Design. After graduation, we were both interested in entering the social innovation sphere and looked for design competitions to apply.
We found the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge in 2015. It highlighted a lot of issues, mothers, and infants all over the world were facing. A statistic that shocked us was that over 1.5 million children under the age of five died due to infectious illnesses and that most of these illnesses can be prevented by just washing your hands with soap.
During our research, we went back home to India and looked into the structure of low-income schools and what stopped kids from adequately washing their hands. We realized that a majority of schools receive donated soap that teachers store away in their cupboards, fearing misuse, or stealing. The soap was taken out once during the mid-day meal, and the teacher put a coin-sized amount on each child’s hand. Since the population is high, the class size is also pretty big sometimes with a ratio of 1 teacher to 60 students, and this task of administering soap on to each child’s hand was pretty tedious. If the teacher didn’t have a helper, the kids wouldn’t wash their hands even once during the day.
We also realized that kids love drawing at that young age, and it’s the primary activity in classrooms. We wanted to create something portable and fun so that it catered to both teachers and kids. And that’s when the idea of SoaPen came about- fun soap kids can draw with! Kids could use the soap themselves in the classroom and go to the washroom and wash their hands off, and the teacher could check if kids properly washed their hands by looking for leftover traces of the soap drawings.
Why social entrepreneurship?
It’s always been a personal interest of both my co-founder and I. We understand the power of design, and we wanted to use it to do good and have an impact on our community. Simple solutions like LifeStraw and SoaPen have the potential to have a considerable effect.
Any challenges which you encountered across your journey?
Finding the right R&D partners was challenging at the beginning since chemical engineering was a field that neither of us knew much about. We were young, not in the field, so we had to put ourselves out there. It was tough because when we reached out to manufacturers, they sounded confident on the phone, but when we met them in person, they would realize our inexperience and issues would arise.
We countered this by surrounding ourselves with industry-specific mentors who gave us the right advice and connected us to their trusted partners.
Now, as with any bootstrapped startup, marketing and getting the word out has been a challenge.
How did you carry out your cold outreach?
Start with LinkedIn. If there’s someone whose work you’ve been following, I will go as far as to attend an event that they’re speaking at. If they’re giving an online webinar, inform yourself of their work.
One trick is to look at their presence on various social media platforms. If they’re active on LinkedIn and have a vast amount of followers, they might not see your message there, but if they have fewer followers on Twitter or Instagram, they might respond to your message there faster.
The worst thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to get a no.
What does social entrepreneurship mean for you?
It’s all about how you’re doing business, along with the end-user and end product. For every SoaPen sold in the US, we donate one to a low-income school in India.
And while we’re doing that, we also focus on the community of people that we’re working with. For instance, if we’re working with a contractor, we have to make sure that their values align with ours to build the best possible relationship.
Why are we seeing so few entrepreneurs with this point of view?
I feel like there are certain misconceptions around social entrepreneurship. I think a lot of people believe that social impact businesses don’t make money or that the entrepreneurs aren’t business savvy. To be able to do good, you have to build a sustainable business.
It’s a different way of doing business. It’s about caring a little more, and I think everyone should be including social impact into their business, no matter what you’re doing.
So how can we rectify this situation as a society?
I think change is already happening. It all starts with being a more conscious consumer. Use your money wisely and ask brands the right questions because brands should be held accountable.
What advice you have for people that are looking to break into this field?
One advice I give everybody is if you’re starting in a new field, try and surround yourself with advisors and mentors who are experts in the area. Find people who will back you and believe in your mission, even when you lose some faith.
To know more about the fantastic work done by Soapen, click here