Keeping your hands clean is a skill all parents want their kids to master, but even in the United States, sanitation and hygiene can be a huge contributor to illness and disease for underserved communities. To understand how fun and innovative ways of washing hands can help spur health and reduce illness in the U.S. and abroad, we spoke with Shubham Issar, co-founder of social impact product company SoaPen.
ABERMAN: So, tell me about the SoaPen.
ISSAR: So Ben is this so that kids can draw with, and under water, it lathes, then washes off. So, it’s a fun way to teach kids how to properly wash their hands, because when they draw on their hands, they’re really rubbing the drawing, and washing their hands for 20 to 40 seconds, rather than, you know, little squirt, under the water for one second, and out.
So, the story behind SoaPen is, my co-founder and I met at the Parsons School of Design, and really wanted to enter the social impact sphere. We wanted to find something that we were passionate about. We were working in fabrication in New York, and she was working as a designer, and we found online the UNICEF Variables for Good challenge, which highlighted a lot of problems that mothers and children around the world were facing.
One of which was infectious illnesses being communicated, because of a lack of hygiene. And we realized, upon digging deeper, that those illnesses could actually be avoided by the simple act of washing hands with soap. And we don’t think much about diarrhea, or flus, here. But in India, or Africa, in places like this, when you don’t have follow up care, kids under 5 end up dying because of simple, simple, treatable illnesses like diarrhea or flu. We realized that we wanted to make hand washing something that wasn’t a chore, but a fun activity for kids, and wanted to find a way of doing that through our background, which is as product designers. So, we came up with SoaPen, because what kid doesn’t like to draw?
ABERMAN: What kid doesn’t like to draw? By the way, I just want to point out for everybody listening this is also an issue in the States, because so many parents solve this problem with antibiotic wipes, which are harming kids’ immunities, and ultimately maybe creating a bigger health challenge. It’s a universal thing. A universal product, and you brought some examples in the studio, I’m now holding up one against the mic, isn’t it beautiful?
But it’s a really great piece of design, it’s very clever. It shows a lot of product intentionality. But anytime you do a new product, whether it’s socially conscious or it’s just for consumers, it’s hard for a small business to get people aware of it. Has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
ISSAR: Absolutely. We just launched on Amazon about a month ago, and got on Prime a week ago, and one of the hardest things is to come up with ways that, when the market is so saturated, how do people come to know of a fun product like SoaPen? And so, we’ve been pushing marketing efforts, and doing the usual Instagram ad, the Amazon ad, but looking for more and more ways to get the word out
ABERMAN: Do you think that something like this, where you launch a product or a business because it’s something that you personally care about. Tell me a bit about how somebody, you’re up in New York, Parson School of Design, gold standard place to learn about design, and and product. How did you come to do this, when you could have easily just gone to Revlon or some place, doing cosmetics, or a million different things up there, and design? Why did you do this?
ISSAR: I mean, I want to say Revlon or any other company is a great place to work, so no offense to any of those people. But what drives us is just having kids be so happy with the product, and why we started with this was because we really wanted to make some change. Whether it was small, through SoaPen, or larger in time, whether it saves lives or however it happens, but just make some impact through design. And we really feel like good design goes a long way, whether it’s simple products like salad tongs, or anything that’s well designed really can change lives, and we’re happy that it took the form of SoaPen in our cases.
ABERMAN: You know, I think about the difference between, say, an engineer like Bill Gates and somebody like Steve Jobs. Do you think that entrepreneurs who think from the standpoint of design—are your brains just wired differently?
ISSAR: I think the biggest part of what my co-founder, Amanat, and I, how we think, is as problem solvers. So, whatever we’re looking at, whether it’s our own product whether it’s improving the product 1 percent every day, or anything that we’re passing, we’re always thinking of ourselves as problem solvers. So, I think that distinction between an everyday person or someone else, I think that’s the basic difference between a designer and an engineer.
ABERMAN: I also find that there’s another aspect to this, which will tie into why D.C. I find that really good product people tend to be intensely empathetic. And so, I’m wondering, you’re here in D.C., you’re up in New York, but you’re here in D.C. pursuing this venture. And I meet many young entrepreneurs pursuing social ventures here. A lot of them around product-related things. What is it about D.C. that causes people like you to congregate here?
ISSAR: Well, we’re here for the Halcyon incubator, which is an amazing, amazing place for social impact entrepreneurs to be in. We work with about eight other companies who are in the same sphere, and they’re solving different problems as well. So, being with them has been amazing, because there’s such a big impact community in D.C., which is really hard to find it anywhere else.
And I have to say, in the past, we’ve been here since September, and the leaps and bounds our business has taken since then has been incredible. We were so stuck, and really lacking a community in New York earlier. There is a big community in New York, too, but I think social impact specifically is very very deep deeply rooted in D.C.
ABERMAN: So it sounds to me that, when you go up to cocktail parties, and people tell you that D.C. is a city of bureaucrats, and people who don’t care about things, you punch them in the nose?
ISSAR: I completely disagree. It’s been incredible.
ABERMAN: Let me ask a personal question, if you don’t mind. Have you seen children using your product, and how does it feel?
ISSAR: It’s been amazing. One of our best stories has been at Reece School in New York, where we actually tried SoaPen with a lot of autistic kids, and you know, kids at any point, they just love it, which is what keeps us going. But with autistic kids, it’s actually really hard to get them to wash their hands, and teachers were so moved by it, because they were so open to the idea of basic hygiene, of washing hands, because it’s such a fun product. So, that’s been one of the most impactful stories in our journey, and hopefully that’s what keeps us going.
ABERMAN:Well, folks, if you want to help change the world, and also keep your own kids clean at home, check out SoaPen. Shubham, thanks for joining us.