When Derreck Kayongo founded the Global Soap Project, which recycles soap remnants from hotel rooms, turns the soap into fresh bars, and ships it to vulnerable populations around the world, he had to overcome something he calls the “yuck factor.”
There were doubters of the idea at first, he admits.
“The elephant in the room around recycled soap is that it’s ‘yuck.’ Somebody used it, therefore it must be horrible. So, I had to deal with the yuck factor,” says Kayongo, who will explore the four key factors behind his professional success—service, education, leadership, and faith (SELF)—during the CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference's annual ED (Filene) Talk.
After some trial and error, Kayongo eventually figured out the right recipe and how to make the project work. And now, the Global Soap Project even works with the Center for Disease Control.
Every business has a yuck factor. When you figure out how to solve that yuck factor, you create an amount of business that you cannot believe,” he says.
Since its founding in 2009, the Global Soap Project has distributed soap to more than 90 countries where many people die each year due to lack of proper hygiene.
Kayongo, who currently serves as CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, has come a long way since his early years in Africa. He was once a member of the type of vulnerable population the Global Soap Project serves.
Kayongo and his family were refugees in Kenya, having fled a prosperous life in Uganda that was destroyed during the rule of the notorious dictator Idi Amin.
It's not dissimilar to what you see in Syria, places like Aleppo, where people have lost their businesses, their homes, their friendships, and their connections,” he says. “Being a refugee really does destroy the very fabric that makes you a human being.”
But those tough times prepared Kayongo for success with a “sense of resilience” and “no fear.”
Entrepreneurs, he says, don’t have debilitating fear. “We all have fears, but their fears do not stop them from doing things. Coming out of the refugee process in Kenya, seeing the violence that I saw, and living through it proves there's no fear in me.”
When he came to the U.S. and saw hotels throwing away soap, something clicked for Kayongo.
My father made soap before the war began, so I learned how to make soap by watching him. ‘Observe’ is a key word in my life. Observing humans allows you to find ways to bring change,” he says. “I observed my father making soap. I observed refugees dying because of poor health. And I observed hotels throwing away soap. That observation created the Global Soap Project.”
And he had the resilience to overcome the yuck factor, even after some initial failures. His first time recycling soap was a “bloody disaster.”
I could have given up,” Kayongo says. “But you know what? You've got to start somewhere. Failure sharpens your skill set. Without failure, you cannot perfect anything.”
When he takes the stage at GAC, Kayongo he hopes to open eyes to the power of observation and connect people to purpose.
I want to remind them they are here for a reason in their business and in their work. You don't do work and business just to make money. You do it to empower people,” he says. “That sort of mindset makes business, very good to do. It makes your day go by very quickly, and makes you enjoy your work.”