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What Began as a Simple Question has Changed the Lives of People Around the World;
After 10 million Bars of Soap, Clean the World is Just Beginning

By Kate Santich, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 15, 2012--Shawn Seipler was a highly paid global sales executive for an e-commerce business with a wife and four children he adored, two expensive homes and a quick rise up the corporate ladder. He was also spending three or four nights a week on the road, the cities a blur of one hotel room after another.

One day in 2008, on a business trip to Minnesota, he happened to look at the little soaps and shampoo bottles that greeted him at each new destination. And he wondered: What happens to all those things? Do they just get tossed in the garbage when I check out?

It turned out to be a query that would change his life -- and quite possibly the lives of thousands of people around the world.

Seipler is the executive director and co-founder of an Orlando-based nonprofit called Clean the World. In less than three years, his vision has grown from a seat-of-the-pants soap-recycling project based in a friend's garage to an international charity that has distributed 9.5 million bars of recycled soap in 45 countries, including the U.S.

"It's nuts," Seipler admits as he leads a tour of his charity's headquarters west of Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando. "This year, we had a 450 percent increase all around: the number of hotel rooms we serve, the amount of revenue, the number of jobs created."

Seipler, 35, is a perpetual-idea machine -- a man who wakes up at 2 a.m. because his mind is churning over what to do next. He has joined forces with his longtime friend and business partner Paul Till, 48, who moved here from Houston to pursue the then-untested theory that those 1 million bars of hotel soap being dumped in landfills every day in the U.S. could be put to better use.

But unlike most nonprofit founders, the two did not set out to change the world. They set out to make a buck.

"My uncle, who now works in the office directly across from mine -- he was sort of the third co-founder," Seipler said. "He had been watching this show called 'The Big Idea,' and he kept telling me, 'We've got to find a big idea.' He lives in an apartment directly across from an Embassy Suites, so the day I'm telling him about [the soap recycling], he's staring out his window at the hotel. And he goes, 'Hey, that's maybe a big idea.' "

Seipler and Till at first figured they would sell the recycled soap to foreign markets. In the U.S., where disposability historically has been a virtue, the men knew there would be a stubborn "ick" factor, though the used bars would undergo sterilization.

Then Till -- trying to Google his way to a solution -- stumbled on research saying millions of children could be saved each year across the globe if only they used soap and water to wash their hands. In particular, one study found that the top two killers of children younger than 5 -- acute respiratory illness and diarrheal disease -- could be cut by 60 percent if kids had regular access to soap.

"It was our 'Aha!' moment," Till said.

'Incredibly naive'

Because saving poor people seemed unlikely to make investors rich, Seipler and Till decided to form a nonprofit. They knew next to nothing about the world of charity.

They took money from their 401(k)s, Till's job buyout, children's college funds and life savings, and in February 2009 they opened Clean the World. They were, both admit now, incredibly naive.

"We had absolutely no business model," Seipler said. "At the time, we just thought Bill Gates would see what we were doing and write us a check for a billion dollars."

They spent nearly a month preparing their grant application for the philanthropic Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which devotes much of its money to global health problems. Twelve hours later, the application was rejected.

"We were like, 'Uh-oh,' " Till said. "That was supposed to be the mother lode."

To make their plan viable, they would need participating hotels to pay a small fee -- 65 cents per room per month -- to cover costs. But each hotelier they approached had the same answer: No.

In a last-ditch effort, they approached Marshall Kelberman, rooms director at The Peabody Orlando and an enthusiastic supporter of the recycling concept. For him, though, the decision was ultimately about good business.

"Quite frankly, we're a major convention hotel, and when we started talking about an affiliation with Clean the World, the corporate meeting planners simply loved it," Kelberman said.

There was also a small savings on landfill fees and the less tangible warm and fuzzy feeling of being a good corporate citizen. Collectively, the reasons were enough to sway Kelberman's bosses. And with the prestige of the Peabody behind them, Seipler and Till were able to persuade other hotels to sign up, too.

Flood of red ink

Still, it would take time to stem the tide of red ink. That first year and a half, the men earned no salary.

Seipler lost one of his two homes to foreclosure and had the power turned off at the other. His parents lent him money for food. Till saved his Houston "dream home" by finding renters at the eleventh hour, but he still had to sell his car and borrow $35,000 from his new in-laws.

"It became a matter of how long we could hang in there," Seipler said. "So many people were saying to us, 'This is a really great idea.' And I kept thinking, 'I wish every time you said that, money would come out of your mouth so I could get something to eat.' "

But if there was any thought of bailing out, it vanished in October 2009 when the men took their first trip to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Its children clamored for small unwrapped bars of soap like they were gold.

"Two business guys ... went to orphanage after orphanage -- and saw it, smelled it, felt it," Seipler said. "The most shocking thing to me was how many people grabbed my hand and said, 'I'm going to pray for you.' "

Disaster brings opportunity

Then, on Jan. 12, 2010, came a 7.0-magnitude earthquake outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. An estimated 316,000 would die as a result, and more than 1 million were left homeless. Survivors would later be threatened with an outbreak of cholera.

Yet in disaster, there can be opportunity.

As Americans searched for ways to help, it became clear that one of the greatest needs was sanitation -- including soap. The "CBS Evening News" ran a story on Clean the World's contribution, and soon after, Walt Disney World -- with its 28,000 hotel and time-share rooms -- signed on with the charity.

From there, the nonprofit's success snowballed. Hotels began to sign up en masse as Clean the World found increasingly sophisticated ways to clean, melt and recycle soap and the tiny bottles of shampoo and lotions. The charity forged partnerships with global nonprofits to distribute the recycled soap, and it boosted its Orlando work force to 35 employees. Clean the World also opened a second recycling center in Las Vegas and recruited recycling plants in Canada to cut shipping costs for soap from hotels there.

Eventually, Seipler and Till were even able to pay themselves a salary: $79,000 and $46,600, respectively. It's a fraction of what they once made.

"I love them," said Pat Maher, a consultant with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which dubs him its "Green Guru." "They made a big splash in Haiti, but they didn't stop with that, and some organizations did. But they kept getting better and better."

Adds Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who has toured the nonprofit's facility: "It's pretty amazing -- the stuff they're doing. One day this guy's in a hotel looking at the leftover soap, and the idea pops into his head ..."

But as Dyer points out, a lot of people have good ideas and good intentions.

"It's actually putting yourself at risk," he said, "and acting on your idea that's the incredible thing about their story."

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503

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(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services



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