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Global health entrepreneur uses risk as springboard to success

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PHILADELPHIA — It was a chance encounter with a hotel concierge that led to the revolutionary Global Soap Project.

Derreck Kayongo, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights Inc. and founder of the Global Soap Project, both in Atlanta, talked about how he got the idea for the project, which recycles used bars of soaps from hotels and reprocesses and distributes them to vulnerable populations.

Mr. Kayongo was living a comfortable life as a 10-year-old in Uganda with his business entrepreneur parents — his soap-maker father and his mother, who taught herself how to make wedding dresses — when a firing squad came to his village and killed several of his neighbors in response to the alleged killing of two soldiers. The violence forced him to leave his family home and belongings behind and become a refugee in Kenya.

“This story began with me in a risky position,” he said.

Mr. Kayongo eventually won a scholarship to attend school in the United States and landed in Philadelphia, site of this year’s Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. conference. He was staying at a hotel in the city of Brotherly Love when he noticed the multiple bars of soap left in the bathroom. Mr. Kayongo began “stealing” the soaps left each day before he became concerned that he would be charged for the soap and confessed to a hotel concierge, who simply laughed and told him the soap was included in the price and he should help himself.

When Mr. Kayongo asked what happened to the used bars of soap, the concierge said they were thrown away.

American hotels throw away 800 million bars of soap every year, but 2 million children die each year because of poor hygiene, he said. He started a process to collect the used bars, cleanse the germ-filled top layers of the soap, recycle them and ship them off to places such as Liberia, where Ebola has devastated the country because of cultural practices that help spread the disease.

Mr. Kayongo seized the opportunity and turned this idea into a $10 million business that operates in 90 countries.

“Nobody had ever recycled soap,” he said. “Once you beat risk, chances are you’re going to lead that market. I love risk — bring it on, because therein is my business.”

Mr. Kayongo said his life and business experiences illustrated the importance of taking risks and urged risk managers to educate themselves and become leaders and risk-takers.

“We are only going to be successful if we allow reasonable risks to happen to all of us,” he said.

Also during the opening RIMS conference session, Nowell Seaman, RIMS president and director of global risk management for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc., said the theme of his presidency is “moving forward together.”

“Together, we can revolutionize how our organizations perceive risk,” he said. “Together we can shape the narrative about the importance of taking intelligent risks. Together, we can create strategic risk practices for the benefit of organizations all over the world.”

RIMS CEO Mary Roth also welcomed the increased attention being paid to the risk management profession, citing CNN’s 100 Best Jobs in America analysis, which concluded that risk management director was the second-best job, factoring in elements such as pay and growth trajectory.

“While we already know how great this field is, it’s nice to see that everyone else is catching on,” she said. “It’s no longer the best-kept secret.”

But it’s still important for risk managers to disrupt the status quo, Ms. Roth said.

“Many of you may be averse to disruption, but we know that in order to achieve success for our organizations, we must embrace and even become the disrupters,” she said.

RIMS is holding hundreds of events to support its membership, including its legislative summit, which will move from June to October to “maximize congressional engagement,” Ms. Roth said.

The RIMS external affairs committee is advocating for several federal bills to aid risk managers, namely the reauthorization and modernization of the National Flood Insurance Program.