In many ways, entrepreneurship is a singular journey, one ventured by a lone visionary who sees obstacles as opportunities. When that journey is shared with the world, something magical happens. Just ask Anju Rupal, an EO Switzerland – Zürich member, serial entrepreneur and founder of Abhati Suisse, the first skincare line with a social responsibility bent. In this interview, Anju opens up about her philanthropic expedition, the merits of pursuing beauty with dignity, and how through cosmetics, she’s giving people the keys to end an overlooked global crisis.
You’re a longtime entrepreneur with a number of successful businesses under your belt. How did you transition into social entrepreneurship?
“The social responsibility seed was planted almost 25 years ago, when I was visiting India for the first time. As I was walking down the street, a woman approached me and asked if I could watch her two babies while she found a place to go to the bathroom. I was shocked! It had never occurred to me that there were a significant lack of toilets in India, and that not only did people defecate openly, it was a way of life. I found myself returning to India for business later in life, only to find that nothing had changed. People were still going to the bathroom in public, and it was even being recorded on cell phones and shared inappropriately. I knew that I had to do something to contribute to a solution. I just didn’t know how.
“Years later, in 2011, I attended the EO Amsterdam University, which had a theme of ‘Change the World.’ It was during this event that things began to fall into place for me. Each day brought with it a stronger understanding of how to make a mark through entrepreneurship. Best of all, I was able to have a meeting with social entrepreneur and civil society leader, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, which gave me the fuel I needed to help support a sanitation solution. This was the wake-up call I needed. Thanks to the University, I was finally able to pursue my dream of making a difference.”
Inspired, you began to lay the foundation for Abhati, a high-end cosmetics line that combines beauty with giving back. What does Abhati represent?
“I come from the social sector, so I know how frustrating it can be to rely on charity to help you realize your goals. I wanted to change that. After proving to myself that I could make money as an entrepreneur, I set out to make a difference in the social responsibility space. I kept thinking: What if remarkable products and services could be offered in one package … products with an ethical touch? Abhati—which means ‘illuminate your soul’ in Sanskrit—combines my passion to give back with my entrepreneurial experience. It’s my way of shining a spotlight on something bigger than me. Abhati is more than just a premier product line of cosmetics— it’s a movement. I’m using Abhati as a vehicle to generate awareness and education around the sanitation issues that exist in the world, most notably in India.”
As you developed the Abhati brand, you began to gain a greater understanding of the sanitation issues in India and abroad. What did you discover?
“Developing Abhati opened my eyes to the severity of the sanitation issues in India and around the world. In more developed countries like Switzerland, we tend to take advantage of our easy access to public toilets and hygiene products. In India, however, sanitation isn’t a top priority. As I started to do more research, I found myself wondering how a country could build an atomic bomb and boast about how everyone owns a cell phone, but still be unable to address basic human needs. Why do women and children have to hold their bladder—and incur urinary infections—because they’re unable to find a place to relieve themselves? Why are more children dying from diarrhea, due to poor sanitation and hygiene-related diseases, each year than HIV/Aids and Malaria?
“The more I looked into the issue, the more I realized it was a global problem that’s easily treatable. I learned that access to clean water can reduce deaths by 21%, proper sanitation by 37.5% and hand-washing alone by 35%. What’s even more staggering is that four out of 10 people globally have no toilet at home, and one billion people out of seven defecate openly. And there is little education about proper sanitation efforts where it’s most needed. By washing their hands with soap and water after using the toilet, people in India and around the world can avoid life-threatening, water-related diseases. Education and awareness around this issue is desperately needed, which is why I started Abhati. It’s an entrepreneurial step in the right direction.”
You’re using consumerism as a vehicle for change. How, exactly, is Abhati making a dent in this global issue?
“Through our community-focused venture, we’re donating 50% of our proceeds to NGOs that are doing phenomenal work in sanitation, but that aren’t given the funding they need to fully realize their goals. In turn, we’re supporting sanitation education and encouraging awareness. If we can get people to learn how to adopt safe-sanitation methods, then they can teach their loved ones, thus eliminating infection, shame, school absenteeism and allowing for all-around healthier families. Through Abhati, we’re also supplying toilets to communities in India that are most in need. Roughly six out of 10 primary schools in India have no toilets, and girls drop out of school when menstruation starts because they have no privacy. We’re changing that through creative consumerism. When someone buys an Abhati product, they’re not just getting a quality item— they’re serving as a change agent. We’re giving customers the chance to make their own mark through their purchasing power. People are already spending their hard-earned money on cosmetics … why not attach a global cause to that action?”
Your first product—“One Hand Washes the Other”—is a liquid soap that communicates the connection between proper hand-washing and health. What did it take to launch this initial product?
“We started by crowd-funding through Indiegogo.com, with the help of a chapter mate who guided the process. Once we hit our financial mark, we kicked into product-development mode. I used my resources to recruit renowned cosmetic formulators and a top-tier design firm, Paperlux, all of whom volunteered their time to realize our vision. After years of researching and testing, we had ‘One Hand Washes the Other,’ which embodies the essence of Abhati. Our tagline for this product is: ‘Wash your hands and make a difference,’ which speaks to our purpose of making a statement in a sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing way.
“But creating a product wasn’t enough. We also needed to address the educational component. Coupled with this product is a hygiene curriculum that was developed by the Zurich University of Design and designed to inspire older girls to teach younger girls about proper hygiene. It’s an educational goal we share with our partner, EducateGirls.com. The more we help children in over- looked communities of India ‘unlearn’ what’s been taught to them for generations, the closer we will come to establishing a more permanent solution. Our hope is that the communities we sup- port will begin to take ownership of this cause, and that the local governmental boards will match school funds so the project can scale faster. We have a long road ahead of us, but we’re making progress.”
In true “Engage the World” fashion, you reached out to EO members to help you realize your vision. How did your EO peers step up?
“One of my strongest skill sets as an entrepreneur is the ability to build smart teams to execute on projects; to really engage them in alignment with a vision. Having started several local businesses in the past—from the first privatized walk-in emergency clinic for kids to a financial firm—I was able to apply my diverse experiences to realize Abhati. But as I came to find out, experience is not enough. I needed to leverage other people who could contribute in areas where I lack, and who could take my venture to the next level. What better place to seek resources than in EO? After tapping into the network, I was met with immediate support.
“Having my vision confirmed by my EO peers at the University years ago helped me get things going, and leveraging their unique skills later on helped me go even further. For example, I reached out to Mahmood Al-Yousif from EO Bahrain for video support and Julia Langkraehr from EO UK – London for retail direction, among others. Once I was able to get my peers to buy into my vision, they started donating their time and talents. I’ve always believed that leaders aren’t born, but formed, and having access to EO resources spurred me to take action when others thought I was crazy. With Abhati, I had stepped away from a very comfortable role to address the status quo of an ugly reality … it was risky, but EO gave me the strength I needed to ‘boldly go.’”
As you pave the way toward progress, you’re setting the stage for others to follow. What challenges are you facing as you pursue your dream of seeing global sanitation issues eliminated?
“One of the biggest challenges we face is how to market a high-end product that’s directly tied to public toilets and defecation. It’s hard to make the brand glamorous, even though it’s tied to an important and life-saving cause. Another unique challenge exists in the communities we’re supporting. We’re competing with decades of learned behavior in India, with generations of people having been taught that open defecation is normal and accept- able. Educating these people, especially the children, about the importance of proper sanitation and the need for public toilets is an uphill battle, but it’s one that absolutely deserves to be fought. By developing local partnerships, encouraging community owner- ship and creating a long-term infrastructure built around education, we’re paving the way for a long-term solution— one that can serve as a foundation for generations to come.”
What does the future of Abhati look like, and what are some of your greatest lessons learned so far?
“From a commercial standpoint, we’re gearing up for our next product line: a matching hand cream and fragrance candles developed by Nose perfumer, Geza Schoen, which also use natural ingredients from the Indian and Swiss cultures. From a social responsibility perspective, our journey is just beginning. We see ourselves as aesthetic activists; we’re in the business of changing lives through education and awareness. We’ll continue to strive to make India and other countries free of open defecation, and with the support of others, work toward ending the water issue globally.
“On a personal level, I now understand better as an entrepreneur how the world works, economically, socially, culturally, politically, environmentally and technologically. And I’m able to speak more about the importance of proper sanitation, both for EO and other audiences. I’ve also learned the importance of sharing your vision—no matter how bold—so that others can follow your light. Every path I took as an entrepreneur has led me to this mission, this moment. I’m just going to keep moving forward, and I’ll lean on EO every step of the way.”