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My kids hate to wash their hands. They’ll turn on the water and pretend to wet their hands, they’ll forget to use soap. On other occasions, they’ll leave a mess of water and suds behind for their dad and I to clean up. They will whine and complain about having to wash their hands, in fear of missing out on what their sibling might be doing.
“There are two types of kids, the ones who love washing their hands, and the ones who hate washing their hands,” says Shubham Issar, co-founder of SoaPen Inc. “With SoapPen, we are on a mission to get all kids to love washing their hands and to understand the importance of hygiene.”
I have been screaming “Please wash your hands!” at my kids for as long as I can remember. And now with the delta variant of Covid-19 surging, washing our hands consistently and thoroughly is even more critical. Even before the pandemic began, the Center for Disease Control recommended washing our hands as a key way to help prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses.
And despite what parents might explicitly say, kids can have trouble following instructions, even when we tell them exactly how to wash their hands. “By age 4, many children seem to master the sequence of events involved in hand washing: Turn the water on, soap the hands, scrub, rinse and dry. But it’s rare that they have the self-discipline to do so reliably and completely,” says pediatrician Kelly Fradin.
Enter SoaPen. It’s a soap-filled pen that makes washing hands super easy. I had my kids draw all over their hands using bright colors like red, blue and green. They slightly wet their drawing under warm water, rubbed their hands to create a lather and rinsed off the suds and the drawing, leaving behind clean hands.
Now SoaPen is another item in my parenting tool kit. It’s easy for me to slip into their school backpacks or into our weekend snack bag as we go on our city adventures. The formula is also non-irritating, nontoxic and free of SLS, parabens, ETDA, phthalates and any animal by-product. And for every SoaPen purchased, the company donates soap or a percentage of profits to partner organizations that support children’s hygiene and health. They are building hand washing awareness campaigns in the U.S. and India using SoaPen as a teaching tool.
“More than 50% of infectious diseases that lead to fatalities among kids under 5 can be avoided by the simple act of washing hands with soap,” Issar says. “My co-founder Amanat [Anand] and I are determined to be part of the solution, to make sure every child has access to great hygiene.”
Here are the three lessons Issar has learned from building her company.
1. Hold on to what you’re passionate about
Issar has been obsessed with design from a young age. She doodled on anything she could find, including her family’s furniture. Her love of art and design led her to leave India at the age of 17 to study at Parsons School of Design in New York City. There, Issar met her co-founder.
“For us, Parsons was an incredible training ground,” Issar says. “We learned how to structure a problem, brainstorm solutions, and then ultimately work towards solving the problem.”
After graduation, Issar and Anand went their separate ways. Issar went on to work as a fabricator and designer, and Anand worked in a furniture studio. Both of them had great jobs, but they felt unfulfilled. “We missed working together, side by side, problem-solving together. We were passionate about this idea of ‘designing for good,’ something our day jobs didn’t provide us,” Issar shares. “We just couldn’t shake that feeling that we were meant to be doing something else.”
On a whim, the two decided to apply for the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge to pursue their passion of designing for social impact. The competition highlighted issues mothers and infants all over the world were facing and called for designers to submit solutions to solve them. “We were really moved by the fact that high rates of infant mortality can be avoided by the simple act of washing hands with soap,” Issar says. “We entered the concept of SoaPen. We won the challenges and used the prize money to start R&D to make SoaPen a reality.”
2. Always put the customer first
One of the early iterations for the SoaPen concept was a tube. Issar and Anand were inspired by products such as deodorants that were dispensed this way, so they purchased a large quantity of tubes to test out this concept.
“Being an immigrant, I didn’t have many family or friends here at the time, and I certainly didn’t have access to many kids in my life,” Issar says. So they created a core network of parents to get feedback on the tube idea. Issar vividly remembers bringing the tubes filled with their formula to a group of parents and kids to test the product.
“I watched in horror as the kids squeezed out the whole product at once,” Issar shares. “We bought the tubes without putting our customer first — not thinking how kids would react to using a tube. They wanted to squeeze all of the product out, and they couldn’t control how much to dispense.”
It was a hard lesson for Issar to swallow and an important reminder to always put the customer first. “It doesn’t matter what you think may or may not work,” Issar explains. “Always check in with your customer, and in our case, we need to put kids first.”
3. Build your own network
As an immigrant founder, Issar’s journey hasn’t been easy. “Early on, I didn’t have any family or friends here, and I didn’t know how to even meet or get introductions to investors,” she says. “I had no network.”
Issar didn’t let that stop her; she was determined to build her own network. She applied to design competitions and accelerators, and SoaPen had incredible success on Kickstarter. “Accelerators are a critical way to get access to investors and get feedback on your product,” Issar says. “It has been invaluable for me in building my own network.” At an early stage accelerator in Idaho, Issar met a judge who became one of her first investors. He is still very involved in SoaPen and has helped with access to networks in manufacturing and supply chain.
Since the time they launched the SoaPen prototype, Issar and Anand have been listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 and named Toyota’s 2019 Mothers of Invention list. Most recently, the founders landed a deal on Shark Tank. But as two founders on visas, they still struggle with not being able to get certifications as being a women- or minority-owned business. There is no startup visa available, so immigrant founders like Issar are navigating the visa system while trying to build their businesses. “We are on a mission to challenge the bias immigrant founders on visas face. We hope to pave the way for the next generation of founders who follow us.”