of Clean the World
Shawn Seipler’s commitment to corporate social responsibility led to the creation of Clean the World in 2009. The global benefit organization, headquartered in Orlando, collects and recycles soap products discarded by the hospitality industry and distributes these products to the impoverished, preventing millions of hygiene-related deaths each year. In this month’s One on One, Seipler talks about his professional journey and why “doing good” is good business.
JR: Tell us about that “aha” moment that led you to where you are today.
SS: Nine years ago, I was a vice president for a global technology company and traveled a lot. One night in a hotel room in Minneapolis, I wondered what happened to the soap and shampoo I used because I never took it with me. I asked the front desk and was told it was thrown away. I did some research and learned there were 4.6 million hotel rooms in the United States. I did some quick math with the occupancy rate and figured out if every hotel room was doing that, we were throwing away about a million bars of soap every day. Over the next days and weeks, I read studies that showed there were 9,000 children under the age of 5 who were dying every single day due to pneumonia and diarrheal disease. The studies also indicated if we gave them soap and taught them how and when to wash their hands, we could cut those deaths in half. That became the moment of obligation for me. I figured out how we could save millions of children’s lives and had to act on that.
JR: What happened next?
SS: I left my job immediately and turned up in a single car garage with my family members. We all sat around on upside down pickle buckets with potato peelers scraping bars of used soap. We used a meat grinder to grind up the shavings and used four Kenmore cookers to cook the soap down to a paste. We used big wood soap molds to create the new soap. And we went completely broke. We put every bit of my 401(k) and our children’s college funds into this. I went from a significant salary to not getting paid at all for a couple of years. We were at the point of disaster many times, but we kept going because we knew this soap would save lives. If we could just get it to the right people and keep persevering, we could make it happen. Thankfully we were able to do that, but it was touch and go early on.
JR: How important is education and outreach to the success of what you’re trying to accomplish?
SS: Specifically with respect to the reduction of diarrheal disease and pneumonia, there are two critical things that have to happen: access to soap and education. You have to have the soap, but you also have to know how to properly wash your hands. We have a Soap in Schools program and go out to community centers and schools all across Central Florida and teach children the importance of washing their hands. We teach them how germs spread quickly. Globally our program is called Wash in Schools, and last year we went to Nairobi. We were with 4,000 school children whose families live on an average of $2 a day. We told them, “The first thing you need to do is learn how to wash your hands. Once you properly demonstrate you can wash your hands, we’re going to give you soap you can take home for your entire family.”
The kids were eager to learn how to wash their hands so they could take this gift of soap home. We provided soap for them over the course of the year, and we measured it at 90 days, six months and a year. A year later, there was a 55 percent reduction in hygiene-related illnesses. There was also a 51 percent increase in school attendance. Kids were going to school more consistently simply because they were healthier. And that was just the kids. How many days did dad not miss work or mom not miss work because they had soap at home? We did the same program in Tanzania and had similar results. We’re doing a program in Haiti right now with 20,000 kids and also have one going on in India.
JR: Why is corporate social responsibility so important?
SS: Millennials make up more than 50 percent of the global workforce, and they’re the most socially conscious generation in the history of the world. As consumers, they want to buy products that help others. As soon as you start to value something, especially in a capitalistic economy, businesses are going to figure out how to sell that to you and make it part of their selling point. Also, employees aren’t simply motivated by how much money they earn. They’re motivated by what their company is doing to help others. As a result, more and more companies, not just from a consumer and shareholder perspective, but from an internal employee perspective, have to engage and emotionally connect with their employees.
JR: Why do you think corporate social responsibility has caught on?
SS: When I speak to college students and younger kids, I tell them we used to have to make a choice between living a life of sacrifice and helping others or focusing on making money, but today there has been a convergence. You can create a business that does well, hires the best and brightest, offers great packages, provides a great work environment, and is also solely in the business of helping others and doing good. You can create the next great technology, innovation or product, and it can completely or in some way help others and make a positive difference. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive anymore because brands on the S&P 500 that tout their corporate social responsibility actually outperform their competitors. Today, companies are trying to one up their competition by doing more good, and that’s an awesome place to be.
JR: From a personal standpoint, what does all this mean to you?
SS: There’s a fulfillment piece to this because we almost didn’t make it. So the fact we have 90 local employees, additional offices in Asia, Canada, the Caribbean and Europe, and 5,000 hotel partners in 20 different countries is incredible. We serve children, families and mothers in 127 countries across the globe. The single biggest result since the day we started is that the death rate for children under the age of 5 when it comes to hygiene-related illnesses has decreased by 35 percent. We’ve literally saved millions of children’s lives. That’s just awesome.
JR: For that young entrepreneur out there who really wants to do something socially responsible, what advice do you have?
SS: Don’t give up. Keep going. If you’re doing something that’s trying to help people, I believe the breaks will come. I believe something’s going to fall your way. Tell your story and find those people who are going to help and be those “angels” for you. And once you’ve made it and are in that position, you have to pay it forward. Someone’s going to come find you, and when that person does, you have to help them get to the next level because that’s how we continue to progress.