At the age of 22, Samir Lakhani spent several long and laborious days cleaning, sanitizing and compressing used bars of soap with one young Cambodian woman.
The woman, Prornh Thearang, spoke no English, but the duo sat side-by-side for hours, listening to Cambodian folk music as they worked.
Lakhani, a Pitt alumnus, is one of 10 nominees for CNN’s Hero of the Year award, which recognizes normal people for their world-changing initiatives. He is the founder of Eco-Soap Bank, a nonprofit that collects and recycles used bars of soap from hotels in Cambodia so they can be used in rural villages where families lack access to sanitation.
“I was extremely startled when I heard the news. I thought it was a prank call honestly,” Lakhani said about his nomination. “I watched the program as a kid. I loved that program … Now that I get to be one myself, it’s crazy. It’s surreal but special at the same time.”
If Lakhani receives the most votes, he will receive the title of CNN’s Hero of the Year and the organization will receive a prize of $100,000. Lakhani’s plans for the future include opening branches in Ethiopia and regions such as sub-saharan Africa and Pacific islands that demonstrate a dire need for access to sanitation and are greatly affected by climate change.
Lakhani founded Eco-Soap Bank in 2014 during his senior year as an environmental studies major at Pitt. He traveled to Cambodia every two or three months to manage the organization during his last year at Pitt and often returned to class with 12-hour jetlag.
“I was foolish to start this when I was a student, but it’s very much a Pitt-founded organization. I was just crazy enough to see it through,” Lakhani said. “I was a personality. I wasn’t much of a student. I’d rather be doing something.”
The soap sterilizing process — which was developed with the help of Dan Bain, an engineering professor at Pitt — only takes about one minute after used bars of soap are collected from the hotels. Eco-Soap Bank’s employees peel off the bars’ top layer, dip it in a chlorine wash, rinse it and use a machine to compress the bars into their final form.
Lakhani first traveled to Cambodia in the summer of 2013 to spend a month with his sister, who was studying abroad. Lakhani returned to the country the following summer to pursue an internship during which he built fish ponds. He witnessed mothers bathing their children, tending to the animals and then cooking dinner for their families without having any access to soap.
“When people talk about clean water, there’s not always an easy solution for that. I think for the most part, Cambodians have access to clean water because there’s been a lot of NGO activity before me, but nobody has really addressed hygiene specifically,” Lakhani said.
Eco-Soap Bank’s first donors primarily consisted of rotary clubs in Pittsburgh, volunteer clubs and professors who had connections to companies willing to donate. Lakhani sought the advice of several professors about logistics during the early stages of the organization’s founding.
Ward Allebach, an adjunct professor for environmental studies courses, taught Lakhani in his sustainability class in the spring of 2014. Allebach met with him outside of class to advise him about if and how he should obtain a 501(c)(3) — a classification which exempts nonprofits from paying federal income tax — as well as how to construct and use a board of directors and manage volunteers.
“If you don’t set realistic goals, you stand the chance of being demoralized. When he and I first got together, he was talking about reaching so many millions of people over the first five years,” Allebach said. “My initial response was, ‘That’s sounds a little ambitious,’ but he said, ‘I don’t think it is.’ So if you don’t think it is, go for it. And look what he’s doing.”
Mark Collins, a former environmental studies professor, was Lakhani’s professor and adviser while he was a student at Pitt. Collins frequently met with Lakani outside of class to discuss the project.
“You realize it’s like dominoes. The number of factors that go into it is breathtaking,” Collins said. “I didn’t do anything. People like Samir take care of themselves.”
Since the organization’s founding three years ago, it has grown to reach 700,000 people with the use of four recycling centers, and provides 75 women with full-time employment and the opportunity to receive an education equivalent to a GED. Eco-Soap Bank processed about 500,000 bars of soap last year.
Thearang, the young Cambodian with whom Lakhani recycled soap in the early days of the organization, was the nonprofit’s first employee. Thearang has learned to speak fluent English through the organization’s educational component and now runs a branch of the organization.
“I [speak very little] Cambodian, so for me to form an emotional bond with a village Cambodian woman is a really odd experience, but it’s very rewarding,” Lakhani said. “Cambodians are really, really warm people, so in that sense, everybody I interact with are my friends.”
As the executive director of Eco-Soap Bank and a resident of Squirrel Hill, Lakhani’s full-time position within the organization has required him to make about a dozen trips to Cambodia during the past four years. When he is in Pittsburgh, Lakhani oversees changes in the organization by Skyping with members of his board.
“It’s my home. I formed a deep connection with the country particularly because the history is so sad. You can see a lot of modern-day struggles come from its tragic history,” Lakhani said about the Cambodian genocide in the 1980s. “I wanted to do something in the humanitarian space, so this was actually very fortunate. We blend an environmental initiative with a humanitarian goal.”
Lakhani attributes his nomination for CNN’s Hero of the Year to the broad impact the organization is able to have, both on its employees and the villagers who receive the soap. The winner will be announced in a show with Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa on Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. Voting is open until Dec. 12, and people can vote up to 30 times a day.
“It’s a coupling of knowing the issue and knowing personally what I could do about it. I had no other choice but to do it,” Lakhani said. “I feel it’s a little bit unfair because there are a lot of people in the humanitarian space who have been doing this for decades and I have been doing this for so much less. I’ll take the award with the instructions that I need to be doing this for the rest of my life.”