Pay Attention: a message from Derreck Kayongo at NLC

Growing up, one of the greatest lessons my dad taught us was to always pay attention. I still remember driving through San Francisco on a family vacation when I was 13 years old, and if my sister and I fell asleep in the car, he would wake us up and make us look out the window because he didn’t want us to miss out on life going on around us. If we would walk down the street in NY, looking down at our feet or phones, he would tell us to look up and take in whats around us. Back then as kids, these parental corrections were mildly annoying (as we think everything our parents tell us to do is), but the lesson behind it was inevitably an important one.

These memories made a comeback when I sat listening to Derreck Kayongo’s farewell keynote speech at the American Dental Student Association’s Nation Leadership Conference in Chicago:

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Derreck Kayongo

Derreck is a refugee from Uganda; growing up, he witnessed his parents transform themselves from school teachers into wealthy business owners. His mother became a designer and his father owned the largest soap company in Uganda. When he was a young boy his life changed: war broke out in Uganda and people in his village were being killed left and right – he and his family had to leave. He first went to England, and then came to the USA (by the grace of a wonderful woman from Pittsburgh) with one goal in mind: to achieve an education and make something of himself, just as his parents had done.

“Derreck Kayongo was born January 25, 1970, in Kampala, Uganda, just before General Idi Amin Dada seized power in a military coup. The new regime became known for its brutality, and today Idi Amin is one of history’s most notorious dictators. As violence spread through the country and civil war erupted, Kayongo and his family became refugees in Kenya. He later immigrated to America to attend university in Boston. Today, he is a successful entrepreneur and human rights innovator.”

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The Global Soap Project

On his first day in America, Derreck Kayongo was preparing to take a shower in his hotel when he discovered the many different kinds of soap in his room: hand soap, face soap, and body soap. Since soap is so scarce in Uganda, he was shocked at the different types. He had never seen so much soap for one person. He did what every person does, and took the soap. The next day, he was astonished to find the soaps he had took had been replaced with new ones, and he took those too. When he was checking out of his hotel, Derreck was overridden with guilt that he had “stolen” the soap and confessed to the concierge man, who laughed and told him they were all free.

After a few days, he began to wonder what happened to the partially used soap that disappeared from his room each day and discovered that it was just thrown away. Long story short, Derreck was inspired by his experiences as a refugee in Kenya, and knew that in-crisis communities are often without any soap at all; he then created a life-changing international aid organization that collects discarded soap from hotels, reprocesses it and distributes it to vulnerable populations worldwide.

The pivot-point of his idea came to him while watching television: He already knew he wanted to recycle soap in some way, but the FDA had told him that he needed to find a way to kill all the pathogens on the partially-used soaps, without changing the chemistry of the soap itself, and then only his idea would come to fruition. 

He thought of everything from treating the soaps with various chemicals, melting it at high temperatures… but nothing would only kill and inactivate the pathogens alone and leave the soap unchanged. Then, one night, he was watching a television show where someone used a vacuum seal to preserve raw meat for 2 weeks. The gears in Derreck’s mind started turning and he directly applied that methodology to his soap idea. He was going to suffocate the bad bugs with a vacuum, for a long enough time.

Used soap + 2 weeks in a vacuum seal = ALL pathogens killed. 

Derreck was granted FDA approval.

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This weekend at the NLC conference, Derreck said:

“Imagine a world where kids have never seen soap, been told how to wash their hands, or know to clean themselves after they go to the bathroom. Imagine mothers who give birth and the midwives do not clean their hands while assisting with delivery; these mothers die within 2 weeks of childbed fever. Mothers everywhere are dying. You don’t have to imagine this world because it exists, and exists at a very large scale.”

Derreck said he remembers when he brought scented soap to a village in Uganda, and one girl was moved to tears because it was the first time she had smelled a perfume in her life; a simple smell to her was incredibly beautiful.

Derreck’s simple idea fights the #1 killers of children in many at-risk communities: hygiene-related diseases. Active in 32 countries, The Global Soap Project has given millions of bars of soap to refugees and people affected by natural disasters like the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal. This organization has contributed to an amazing 30% reduction (!!!) in child deaths, globally, since 2009.

The Global Soap Project believes that no one should die from hygiene and sanitation related illnesses. Combined, these diseases claim the lives of more than 2.4 million children each year. Because handwashing with soap is the most effective way to prevent those deaths, their mission is to get soap and hygiene education to those who lack access to it around the world.  – https://cleantheworld.org 

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Pay Attention

Derreck said if he had simply not paid attention to his surroundings, none of this would have happened. He would not have realized how much soap goes to waste, and how to recycle it effectively. “Recycling soap was a new concept in the hotel industry space. It would never have transpired if I had continued to ignore the nagging idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. Be attentive, be passionate, and act on it.” He urges us, especially those who are highly educated, to have passion for something greater than we are, and to never back down even if we think they way to our ideas seem impossible. You never know when your purpose in life will come to you, and you never know when the answers you need will be lying right in front of you.

“Don’t seek perfection. Seek balance. Seek consistence. Seek justice. Seek passion. Seek a cause for humanity, and your life shall have meaning.”

“This is what happens when America opens its arms and gives a refugee a chance.”

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