The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us. In honor of its subject, we create a collectible piece of matchbox art for our subscribers.
Mera McGrew is the founder of Soapply, a company that's as well known for its luxurious soap and striking bottles as for helping solve the global hygiene crisis.
We first bumped into Mera while running a candle pop-up in Brooklyn, and immediately bonded on a shared mission: quality products combined with meaningful impact. Our founder Stephen sat down with Mera to hear more about soap, hygiene and the challenges and thrills of being a solo founder.
Mera McGrew, Soapply
Stephen Tracy (ST): I have to start with a very simple question… I've always said "Soap-lie", but wondered if I should said "So-apply"? Please tell me I’ve been saying it correctly!
Mera McGrew (MM): No you’re right! It's Soap-ply, like supply, but with soap!
ST: Phew! So, for those who are not familiar, could you start by telling us about Soapply?
MM: Absolutely! Soapply is better soap that saves lives. Our suds are crafted with you and the environment in mind in Middlebury, Vermont. We obsess about what’s in our soap and are really proud of what’s not — we’re made using food-grade organic oils. Our soap is bottled in recycled glass bottles and we print directly on the bottles to reduce packaging waste.
MM: We say you’re helping us save lives because every purchase you make helps funds water sanitation and hygiene initiatives around the world. We're currently focusing all our impact efforts in Tigray, Ethiopia, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, and hopefully we can talk a little bit more about that..
ST: We definitely will. I'm just going to bring Finley up here so he doesn't eat too much fluff. [Editor’s note: Finley is the Keap puppy]
MM: Oh it's popcorn.
ST: Oh is it popcorn? Okay. Finley might make some features in this interview depending on how I feel. So you've started this incredible business and I imagine—similarly to candles—people's first question having heard the story is often: "How on Earth did you get into it?". Can you tell me more about the idea that sparked this journey, and how it came from that initial idea through to what you described?
MM: I actually entered into the soap world in a kind of unique way. I was living in Africa and I was working across East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania primarily) around water, sanitation, and hygiene, and I got to see firsthand issues around hand washing specifically.
I was seeing children getting sick with dysentery and respiratory disease. These were diseases that could be prevented by the simple act of handwashing. And even when water sanitation and hygiene was getting funded, there was still this product and service gap showing up around handwashing.
With the President of the Hygiene Club, Tigray, Eithiopia.
ST: So there were no hand-washing facilities?
MM: Handwashing stations were either not present, not functioning, or there was a lack of education in terms of when, where, and how to wash resulting in a lack of handwashing all together.
Sitting here in Tribeca, or living in the US in general, the ability to wash our hands is not something that we think about as a luxury. We go into a truck stop on in the middle of the U.S., and we can still wash our hands with soap. But in many parts of the world, soap and even a jug of water are still a luxury that is out of reach. .
So, I began thinking: "Soap is not expensive! Children are dying of preventable diseases because of the absence of something that costs pennies." And my question was: “Can we stop this?”
“That's a pretty amazing opportunity: to be able to help save a life by washing your hands!”
ST: So how did these questions about getting necessary soap into people’s hands lead you back to the U.S. to start a soap company?
MM: So I moved back with this really simple idea to solve the problem: sell soap that's going to get soap into the hands that need it around the world. When I got back to the U.S., the mission of Soapply really expanded. I wanted to provide a product that added value to people’s everyday life here too. So while access to soap is not an issue here in the U.S., what I quickly found out is that safety is.
Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and a lot of what we're putting on our skin can be absorbed directly into our bloodstream. And if you're looking at what's actually in the soap that you're purchasing you quickly realize it matters. It matters to your health, and it matters to your safety. A huge number of soap products on store shelves—many of which are labeled organic or natural—contain ingredients that come with questionable health concerns.
ST: So how did you decide what could go into your soap?
MM: I actually grew up with eczema. I have crazy sensitive skin, and when it came to producing soap, it was personal. Soap is something that I couldn't always use growing up. Many soaps still cause me to break out. So from a very early age, I was forced to pay close attention to what I was lathering up with. Designing a product that we could proudly claim was better (for everyone) was something that I obsessed over.
We created standards that we set for ourselves, and forced ourselves to transparently disclose what we do and don't use, and why. So I decided to use food-grade organic oils, because food is strongly regulated, which allows us to trace a little bit more openly what's going into our product.
Mixing oils for the perfect soap
Making soap in the back garden, Colorado
Silk Screening the final bottle
Learning how to cut bar soap, Tripoli, Lebanon
MM: One thing that's been personally really rewarding is that we have moms of children with eczema, just like me, that had been looking for products for years and write in raving about Soapply. Having individuals, like those mothers, that write to share their stories is something that really motivates me.
Chemo patients that use our soap and write in is also something that really motivates me. Personally, my mom was going through chemo right before I started Soapply, and soap was a real pain point. If you've had a loved one go through chemo, one of the things that happens when you sit down with the doctor before chemotherapy starts is you're handed a list: a list of products you should be avoiding. Everything from buffets to soap. And the reason that soap is listed there is that most soaps are detergents, they're extremely harsh, and for me, that was a pain point that I'd seen that affect me and my family personally.
ST: So your soap, is it edible?
MM: (laughing) Don’t eat it! If you do, don’t worry about calling poison control, but at the end of the day it’s soap—think twice before consuming it.
ST: You haven't tested it on humans as a source of nourishment?
MM: I do like to use my friends as our test subjects (laughs). We never test on animals. So when we do tests I can assure you it’s on my friends (laughs). I'll let you know next time we’re testing. Maybe you can be a new tester?
Mera and Stephen smiling, BEFORE Stephen tried eating soap
ST: Sure… Moving swiftly on! You've made it sound like this was an obvious vision and an easy process, but as I'm sure anyone who's started a business knows, it is not easy. What’s been the biggest challenge in bringing Soapply to life, particularly as a sole founder?
MM: Well, if I make it sound easy, that's great—it's not. I’m doing a good job of bluffing. I'd say one of the biggest challenges was getting a product off the ground. Especially one that is looking at the entire life cycle of a product. Finding the right people to help make that a reality was really difficult.
I traveled around the US for nine and a half months meeting with different soap makers! I came with a very long list of criteria: a dream list and a must-have list. And it just so happened that a soap-maker in Vermont was able to come to the table and say "no problem" to absolutely everything. That process of finding the right people to work with was really difficult though.
The first bottle!
MM: One of the biggest challenges for me was just staying true to what I knew I wanted to create. You're sitting across from people that have been in the industry for a really long time, and they're looking at your model and saying "I'm not sure", and "Why would you formulate soap in this way? You can formulate soap with much cheaper ingredients!". For me, I think that was a learning curve, and also challenging.
ST: At Keap, I have the benefit of Harry my co-founder: we help each other stay true to our ideals. How do you do that? Do you turn to friends and family? Do you have daily mantras? How did you not let yourself be swayed by the industry that you were trying to change?
MM: I'm a pretty determined person! The very first day that I decided to start Soapply—so this is pre- all of what we're talking about now, and this seems cliché to even say—I was at a bar in New York and I had a napkin! I had come back from Africa and I knew I wanted to start Soapply. I was waiting for a friend, and on that napkin I wrote a list of things that Soapply stood for, and I put that up and it's above my desk still. Before making any big decisions I consult that list and ask if my decision speaks to what I set out to build.
ST: So the napkin still exists?
MM: It doesn't exist in a napkin form, I called it my manifesto, and it's now in printed form. Although I should find that napkin. It’s a list of ten things that are really core to what I believe in; things like craftsmanship, things like knowing what you're putting into and onto your body, things like believing in a product or company that stands for more than just a bottom line.
“Little did I know, her following is close to ten million people. I didn't even know at that point who she was.”
ST: Have you had any big breaks along the way?
MM: We've had Hollywood get involved, and spread the word. A great example is Jessie J, the singer and songwriter. She met me at a pop-up event and purchased Soapply. She left, and then came back to the pop-up, and asked me: “do you mind if I take a photo? I'd love to share it.” And me, not being very savvy in the world of Hollywood, had no idea who she was. And she takes the picture and tells me she's going to share it on Instagram, and I say: “Thanks so much, any little bit helps”. Little did I know, her following is close to ten million people. Suddenly, our website started blowing up, we saw a ton of orders coming in. I didn't even know at that point who it was or who she was.
MM: And it was only as she continued to re-order that I realized who she was. She wrote us, she messaged us, and said she'd met us, that she wanted to share Soapply, and that's just been amazing.
ST: It's exciting to see people get so inspired by your story and purpose. Can you tell us a bit more about the on-the-ground work in Ethiopia. How do you do that?
MM: We fund a grassroots local organization, REST, in Tigray, Ethiopia. It is one of the communities with the most to gain from the type of support we're offering.
We offer a cash donation that is attached to every sale. So for every eight ounces of soap sold, we give a dollar. Working with REST ensures we empower local individuals, and local communities, with local employment, dollars on the ground, and local ownership.
Hand-washing impact in Tigray, Eithiopia
ST: It's so exciting to see what can happen when a for-profit business has a purpose. It leads to all this potential for the future where, as the business grows, the impact grows too.
MM: Right! When I was deciding to start Soapply, one of the things that was central to the decision, was that I realized that this was a personal passion. I'd seen the impact firsthand. I also realized very quickly that even with the most compelling statistics, the best story, and proof of impact, it was unlikely that I could even convince my own family to divert all their annual giving to fund water sanitation and hygiene. It was unlikely that I could convince my friends to give up getting their morning coffee to fund hand washing education on the other side of the globe.
But regardless of when, where or how you give back, or where you get your morning coffee, you're going to wash your hands.
So when you take a product that's an essential good, a product you use every day, and tie it to this problem, you're looking at a sustainable solution. That's a pretty amazing opportunity: to be able to help save a life by washing your hands!
“When I tell people that we're going to change the world by changing their soap, they sometimes laugh, and I don't understand why, because I really believe that we can.”
ST: Yes, I imagine if everyone shifted to buying Soapply, the problem would be solved pretty quickly.
MM: Here’s an example I like to give. Two hundred and seventy million plastic bottles ended up in our waste system just because of liquid wash last year. That's a lot of single use plastic bottles that are ending up in our marine ecosystem, floating around with adorable little sea turtles. That's one of the reasons that Soapply is in recycled glass bottles, not single-use plastic.
And that's an example of one of the small things that we're obsessing over, so that you don't have to as a consumer. But if you think about... that if enough people get on board, and that shift happens in say, the hospitality industry, it’s going to have massive impact. We're already in hotels, and at that level, they're refilling Soapply bottles. So every week they're not throwing away another plastic bottle. And that's pretty cool because you can see the impact so quickly. And when I tell people that we're going to change the world by changing their soap, they sometimes laugh, and I don't understand why, because I really believe that we can.
ST: Wow, what an exciting vision. With all this talk of soap, and a dog on my lap, I’m feeling unhygienic! Where can I get some?
MM: You can buy Soapply online through soapplybox.com. You can buy once off bottles and you can also buy subscriptions to keep the good stuff coming all year. We are available at West Elm online and in stores throughout the US and Canada. We're available online through Credo, Credo Beauty, and also on store shelves with them. We're available at Feed, and we just launched with Hudson's Bay in Canada!
ST: Wow. Congrats on the wonderful partners. So, that’s it! Now this is the part where I ask, "Did I press record?".... Yes, I did!
More From Mera
Interview by Stephen Tracy
Artwork by Dan Abary
All photography courtesy of Soapply/Mera McGrew (unless noted).
The Keap Ignite Series
We share something new and inspiring every month alongside our subscription candles. The Keap Ignite series is a 12-volume interview series with artists, creators and community leaders that have inspired us. For our subscribers, this takes the form of a collectible mini-zine and matchbox in each monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.