Soap project founder puts diversity on table

  • Engaging speaker: Bermuda Captive Conference keynote speaker Derreck Kayongo, second right, with the BDA’s Jereme Ramsay, left, Tawana Tannock, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission in Bermuda, and Mike Parrish, chairman of the Conference (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

From refugee to chief executive officer, Derreck Kayongo had a remarkable tale to tell at the Bermuda Captive Conference.

A key moment in that story occurred when he checked into his first US hotel. At that time the country was throwing away 800 million bars of used soap every year, even if soap had been used only once by a guest.

Today, the story is different thanks to Mr Kayongo. Around 5,500 hotels in the US and many more in other countries are ensuring used soap is repurposed through the Global Soap Project, which was founded by Mr Kayongo. How that happened was the central pillar of his keynote speech to more than 800 delegates at the conference, and he used it to inspire and challenge the audience to think about how they can make a difference in their lives and in the world.

Intertwined was a message about the importance of diversity, which tied in with the three-day event’s theme of diversity in risk, talent and products.

Mr Kayongo and his family fled their homeland Uganda in the 1970s during the brutal reign of Ida Amin. They went to Kenya, and from there Mr Kayongo moved to the US to attend university.

A few days after checking into a hotel in Philadelphia, he was curious to know what was happening to the bars of soap in his room. Any that he used were replaced with a fresh one the following day.

When he learnt that partially used soap bars were routinely discarded by hotels across the US — and knowing how beneficial that soap could be to the lives of millions of people in Africa — Mr Kayongo acted.

“It is amazing what small things can do to destroy you, or to make you,” he said.

Rather than lament and dwell on the wastefulness of the hotels, he saw an opportunity and set about rescuing the discarded soap and transforming it so it could be distributed to vulnerable people around the world.

This has been achieved by taking the discarded soaps, peeling the outer layers away and crushing them into a powder. The powder is ziplocked airtight for two weeks to “kill the germs, organically”. It is then remoisturised and turned into fresh bars of soap. Once checked to ensure no pathogens are present, the soap is distributed to communities in Africa.

The Global Soap Project has soap-making factories in Las Vegas, home to the largest number of hotel rooms in the world, Orlando and Hong Kong. A fourth is being built in England.

Mr Kayongo explained that two million children die every year through a lack of hygiene, while many others, particularly in Africa, drop out of education because of poor hygiene. Distributing repurposed soap bars through the Global Soap Project is changing lives.

“A child washes his hands and stays in school,” Mr Kayongo said.

He was named a 2011 CNN Hero by the US media group, and today he is a successful event speaker and CEO of the National Centre for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

The soap story was shared to inspire others, and Mr Kayongo intertwined it with a diversity analogy rooted in the African savannah. Addressing the international audience of captive insurance owners, risk managers, captive managers, sponsors, and vendors, he said he was using an African storytelling technique “to merge what you do on a daily basis at work with the savannah in Africa”.

He said when a lion kills a zebra it only eats about 5kg of the meat and then it is done, but the rest does not go to waste because along come hyenas, vultures and insects.

“The whole savannah shows up because they all have a role to clean that up. The insects are waiting for the lion to do the [initial] work. The diversity of contribution in that market place is absolutely important to the success of the savannah.”

Mr Kayongo said the corporate market place in western society is very similar to the diversity in the savannah. He said it was important to understand “the analogies the universe has given us to emulate and to bring equilibrium”.

Just as you would want a diverse team in the savannah that includes the lion, the zebra and the insects, so the corporate world — and the insurance sector — needs the diversity of black and white men and women, and the many nationalities of world, said Mr Kayongo.

“They all have to be in the marketplace for this to work.”

Getting that wrong comes at a price. Mr Kayongo highlighted the damage of “misunderstanding diversity” and mentioned the decision by Starbucks to close all its US branches for a day to provide unconscious-biased training of its staff in the wake of a racial profiling incident involving two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks. The action is estimated to have cost the company $20 million in lost revenue.

Mr Kayongo said the City of Chicago police department paid close to $200 million last year in lawsuits because they “misunderstood diversity,” while Coca-Cola ended up shouldering hundred of millions of dollars in losses from a racial bias case that started in the late 1990s.

He said those examples happened because just as in the savannah story everybody has to be at the table, and if they are not: “We pay a great price — all of us.”

Mr Kayongo said corporations were buying insurance against such losses because they did not understand that “everyone has got to be at the table”.

He concluded his speech by leaving the audience with things to think about. Referred back to the soap project story, he said: “Can we do something that understands the power of waste, for example, throwing away 800 million bars of soap; do you know how much it costs just to make one bar of soap?”

He noted all the things that are taken out of the environment to create a single bar of soap that is then, in some instances, thrown away after a single use.

Mr Kayongo said the savannah story would hopefully “remind you of your humanity”.

His final message to the audience was: “Don’t seek perfection. Seek balance; seek consistence; seek justice; seek passion. Seek a course for harmony and your life shall have meaning.”

Mr Kayongo’s keynote speech was sponsored by the Bermuda Business Development Agency. The conference at the Fairmont Southampton concludes today.