SUPPLIER SPOTLIGHT: on Social Responsibility with Hand in Hand
Meet Zofia Wolicki, Director of Sales and Marketing for one of Nectar's favorite small businesses: Hand in Hand. Not only does this company make a truly natural and environmentally friendly line of incredible smelling bath and body products, they are impacting individuals in-need in a BIG way. Hand in Hand began with a simple mission for change: for every product purchased, one bar of soap and one month of clean water would be donated to a child in need.
This simple act would help reduce the astronomical numbers of preventable childhood deaths each year in developing nations. In the short span of 6 years since the company's launch, Hand in Hand has donated over 350,000 bars of soap, established and repaired several water systems, helped support amazing projects in Haitian orphanages, and so much more. This growing small marvel of a company is fueled by just 4 humans whose deep friendship and real mission-made-manifest has them achieving the seemingly impossible. We had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Zofia at our shop in High Falls a couple weeks back to learn more about how Hand in Hand came to fruition and continues to inspire.
THE BEGINNING: LET'S MAKE SOAP!
Each day, 800 children die from preventable diseases caused by poor water and lack of sanitation and hygiene— that’s roughly one child every 20 seconds! According to UNICEF researchers, regular handwashing with soap can increase survival rates by 50%. When Hand in Hand’s co-founders Bill Glaab and Courtney Apple learned that soap and clean water could save lives, they started strategizing the best way to make an impact. Voila, their first bar of socially responsible, ethically produced soap was born!
“They always wanted to start a social business together,” Zofia explained, passion for what she is helping to build imbibing her every word. “Bill is very entrepreneurial and comes from a business and sales background. Courtney is very creative, has her own photography business and just has a great eye for design. They wanted to start something that brought their skills together and did some good in the world.” And they clearly have: “Every product that we sell now donates one bar of soap and one month of clean water. Additionally, sales from the Espere Collection help fund our micro loan program.”
At the company’s inception, Courtney and Bill initiated a handful of soap donations in South America and Africa, but found it challenging to ensure that their then single-scent bars were being distributed properly. “We didn’t want to drop soap in random places and not go back and check up,” says Zofia.
Seeking reliable support on the ground in countries that most needed assistance, Hand in Hand fostered a relationship with My Neighbor’s Children, a nonprofit that helped pivot their full focus to Haiti— the island that’s suffered repeatedly from deadly tropical storms, flooding, a tumultuous political history, the devastating earthquake, and most recently, the wrath of Hurricane Matthew and the ensuing spikes of cholera. The nonprofit’s founder William Lowry has two decades worth of experience in the country and was the perfect partner to help guide the young company’s products into the right hands.
“They have the infrastructure to get things done, they know what’s going on down there, and William is very knowledgeable about the entire country and where to go,” says Zofia.
To keep things organized and maximize the beneficial reach of their product, Hand in Hand started working exclusively with Haitian orphanages, only expanding to the next when they’re certain that the children’s needs will be met with consistency. “My Neighbor’s Children are the ones who are continuously making sure that our soap is being donated,” Zofia says. “It makes us really accountable for what we’re doing.”
When asked how people have responded to receiving bars of soap as donations, Zofia responded, “I’ve been on donation trips in Haiti and I will say there’s some instances when you have to explain to the children and the people you are giving it to what it is, how to use it and why. There are children who will take a bar of soap and try to eat it because they have no idea what soap is.” Hand in Hand’s team helps to raise awareness about the connection between hygiene and health because in many places, “They don’t have any concept of washing before they eat or after they use the bathroom, that just doesn’t exist. Normally washing means just rinsing with water.”
Before becoming part of the Hand in Hand team, Zofia worked as a middle school teacher in Philadelphia. Heartbroken by the issues that plagued the education system within the city, she transitioned her career to PR and now wears multiple hats for the small-but-purposeful outfit. It’s clear that she’s personally invested; Zofia’s eyes twinkle with amazement at her luck to have fallen into a team that shares such a joined vision and passion for bettering the lives of children in need.
When discussing her experiences at Bon Samaritan, an orphanage in Croix-Des-Bouques, she lit up: “We know the kids there, and because we have this deep relationship and have invested so much in that orphanage —William has invested so much himself— it’s been a huge connection for us as well. We’ve seen it get repainted, we’ve seen them get a new playground and a new kitchen. We’ve seen them get a new well because the water table was dropping. We then paid for their well to get dug deeper, and then they told us they were installing pipes and were actually going to have water inside the orphanage— something they have never had before. It’s been so amazing to see the transitions, and also since the earthquake, with all the overcrowding that was happening in many of the orphanages, we’ve seen that decrease and decrease. So the kids that do need to be there are getting better care because of all that.”
In 2013, when the company was taking off, Hand in Hand expanded to include other soap scents, candles, scrubs, bath salts and more— all while being completely self-funded. “Bill and Courtney went to college in Upstate New York,” Zofia explains, “and Bill had a couple of properties that they were renting to college kids that he sold in order to get the candles going and expand the line.”
If you’ve ever seen Hand in Hand’s products showcased on Nectar’s shelves and website, you’ll have noticed their exquisite packaging. But consumers are getting a lot more than just a well-designed aesthetic (one that, by the way, caught the eye of Anthropologie last year and Target this year for exclusive partnership lines).
Hand in Hand's newest line just in time for the holiday: Noble Fir
In addition to their philanthropic pursuits, the company uses all high quality, natural and ethically sourced Fair Trade ingredients that are vegan and cruelty-free. Unlike many other bath and beauty lines, Hand in Hand refrains from using palm oil, a widely used vegetable oil that is highly detrimental to the environment. “I think that makes us very rare in our industry,” said Zofia. According to Vice News, “It’s estimated that palm oil can be found in roughly half the manufactured goods in any [American or European] supermarket or drugstore. Everything from peanut butter to soap to cosmetics contains the oil in its various forms.” Zofia went on to discuss how the use and consumption of palm oil leads to displacement of indigenous peoples, widespread deforestation, loss of biodiversity and is a huge contributor to global warming.
“Many natural soaps use ingredients that ultimately come from intentionally cleared rainforests, which was something we wanted no part in. Every ingredient in our soap is not only natural, but is harvested and grown in an environmentally friendly way" - Bill Glaab, Hand in Hand co-founder
Admirable ethics aside, all Hand in Hand products are produced domestically and almost completely by their small team. “We’re manufacturing in Philadelphia,” says Zofia, “and we’re making everything completely ourselves, except the soap!” And when this woman says “ourselves” she means it: 4 people making and packaging all the products- bath salts, candles and lotions- applying and sealing every label by hand. (Though they do bring in some part-time help for the holiday crunch time.) Lacking the machinery to make the soap on their own, Hand in Hand relies on a factory in Vermont. Zofia added with a coy smile, “Yeah. We all work a lot, and though we have distinct responsibilities in terms of what we are each in charge of, and what we’re doing, everyone collaborates on everything. What’s so great is that we are all so dedicated.” Her obvious enthusiasm for what she is co-creating transmitted through every sentence, “We want to make it work. And we’re all very close to each other, we’re friends and we enjoy each other. We laugh!”
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Helping to put a solid dent in annual fatality rates, Hand in Hand’s team has traveled to Haiti several times now, always with a rigorous itinerary. “Each time we go,” says Zofia, “We have 15 things we want to do and then we maybe get to 6 of them.” And while navigating the country to visit partner orphanages and well sites has its challenges as Zofia explained- “We were in a traffic jam for 3 hours one day; you just can’t prepare for that!” -the beneficial outcome of their work is what keeps the group going.
“It’s absolutely life changing for people to just suddenly have water.”
“We went out to Fonds Parisien, an hour or a little bit more outside of Port au Prince. It was jungle. It reminded me of being in Jurassic Park: super overgrown, beautiful clear water. There was a cistern system there that had been built in the mountain and then destroyed by a hurricane about six years ago. We were there to see it, and then we were paying to try and repair the system that brings water directly to the villages in spouts. They had everything set up, they just needed the system fixed so the water could be accessed by the six villages there. So we walked out into the woods and we saw these women washing clothes in the stream. They weren’t even women, they were girls that were traveling up there and we stopped to talk to them. They said, “Yeah, we travel 4, 5 or even 6 hours a day to bring back home 3-5 gallons of water.” They were carrying it on their heads. To watch them come down the side of this mountain was just mind blowing, it was absolutely crazy. But then you think of simple things like that and it’s absolutely life changing for people to just suddenly have water.”
Circumstances like this are unfortunately far too common in developing countries, and women and children often bear the burdens disproportionately. According to UN data, “when provided with clean water and toilet facility,” 15% more girls enroll in school since they no longer spend hours each day fetching water for their communities.
Learning the names, faces and stories behind the people impacted by Hand in Hand’s work has been especially powerful for Zofia. She told us about Michael, a 16-year-old at Bon Samaritan Orphanage who can’t wait to pursue his academic dreams. “He’s gotten a lot of help from William, My Neighbor’s Children and the orphanage. He is in school, he speaks five languages, and he wants to be a linguist!”
This holiday season, Hand in Hand is launching into all 1800 Target stores with an exclusive holiday line of 3 bar soaps— a collaboration that will allow them to donate another 60,000 bars of soap and install one well! And there’s still so much more work to be done. “I can’t help but think,” remarked Zofia during our conversation, “the potential of all these people… if you can just have basic needs met.”
Towards the end of the interview, Nectar’s owner Jenny commented about the circuitous route it seemed Zofia’s life had taken to get her to exactly where she needed to be: “From teacher, to nanny, to publicist, to part owner and enthusiast for a growing business...” Zofia answered, beaming, “Yeah, you never know! I feel like now I am exactly where I am supposed to be and need to be. But I never thought I would be working in business, in a small business." Still, this is not just any small business but rather one that seems to be living and growing each day by the tenet, ‘Whatever it is you do, do it with your whole heart.’
And they are, hand in hand in clean hand…
Interview & words by Jenny Wonderling, Editing by Lacey Seidman and Bea Rue, Graphic Design & Layout by Bea Rue