HASTINGS, Neb. — Andrew Vrbas found himself staring out his bus window, eyes fixed on the sights before him.
That particular day two years ago, he couldn't shake the extreme poverty and the reliance on the land he witnessed during a trip through the Peruvian Andes, a path that had become routine for the then-Hastings College construction management major studying abroad, building construction projects and teaching English classes.
Vrbas, a Kansas native, returned to Nebraska with a fire in his belly to do something about the lack of access to hygiene he saw, while keeping in mind how resourceful the people of Peru appeared.
From inside a spare room in his college apartment, Pacha Soap was born.
The handmade soap company still based in Hastings is aiming to “raise the bar” for business by using a buy-one, give-one model. That business model has been around for several years, at Santa Monica, Calif.-based Toms Shoes, perhaps one of the most widely known companies to use it. For each pair of Toms purchased, a pair of new shoes goes to a child in need.
Similarly, for each bar of Pacha soap purchased, one bar is given away. So when a retailer orders bars to stock its shelves, Pacha sends double the amount. Then the retailer and Pacha coordinate what local group or organization receives the free soap — such as Crossroads Mission in Hastings (for homeless people) or Girls Inc. in Omaha (for the girls).
In addition to local giving, sales generated go toward hand-delivering or shipping free soap abroad. So far, the company has hand-delivered or shipped soap to Peru, Guatemala and Sri Lanka. Last month, the company hand-delivered 200 bars to the Dominican Republic.
Vrbas, known as the “Head Jaboñero” of Pacha Soap, said his experience in Peru pushes the company to spread the word about hand washing, an act that can prevent fatal disease in developing countries.
“It can save so many lives,” he said.
With the help of local investors, Vrbas was able to expand Pacha (which means “earth” in an indigenous South American language) last year into the basement of an 1880s-era former bank in downtown Hastings, where he and three interns produce massive bars of soap with natural ingredients and slice them with guitar strings into individual bars.
Pacha's earnings from sales go back into the company, and Vrbas works part time as a mason to pay for his personal expenses. He also pays for the building that doubles as his home and workplace by helping to restore the brickwork.
Since September, the company has sold about 3,000 bars and given away 3,000. Today, its products are available in eight states — Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and Oklahoma — and about 25 stores, including Whole Foods in Omaha, food co-ops and independent markets.
The company is currently raising funds for an official “soap drop” to Peru through Kickstarter, a website that allows people to contribute to projects. That will be the first time the company hand-delivers free soap abroad together.
When Vrbas isn't making soap, he's giving in-store presentations and meeting with buyers to share his story. Last month, he took a cross-country driving trip to visit retailers, and he recruited retailers in three additional states.
“It's hard for me sometimes to talk about our product, even though it's the best out there,” he said. “It's like, 'But did you also know we're trying to help?' ”
While there's a growing interest in entrepreneurship, there's been a particular uptick the past few years in entrepreneurship with an additional meaning, said Dale Eesley, director of the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Franchising at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's College of Business Administration.
Companies doing well with such social business or social entrepreneurship models have found a way to brand and market charity in a way that inspires traditional nongivers to give, he said. The payoff is that purchasers get a product they want and need while feeling good about providing a greater benefit.
Pacha posts pictures on social media when it makes deliveries, and Eesley said giving consumers the option to track exactly where their contribution goes is valuable.
“There's a whole bunch of people who don't give because they think, 'What I give doesn't matter' and 'I worry if I give too much, it'll be misused,' ” Eesley said. “By using modern communication tools like email and Twitter, you see this little contribution made a difference in someone's life.”
Creighton University's social entrepreneurship program was started about four years ago because of the growing popularity of businesses wrapping a social need into their business plan, said Laura Mizaur, a professor in Creighton's College of Business.
The program, which offers students classes in creativity, social problem identification and leadership, led 2010 Creighton grad Tyler Gassaway to launch Givve, a company that donates 50 percent of the profits from T-shirt sales to an organization of the customer's choosing. The company recently struck a deal to benefit the Nebraska Humane Society.
Mizaur said more social entrepreneurship-focused companies will pop up as consumers demand them.
“That's what people want now, and they're not going to expect anything less,” she said. “When I say social mission, it's not (a company saying) 'Well, we better do something nice for somebody.' It's part of the social responsibility to put it on the face of the company.”
The people of Hastings have taken to Pacha Soap and its mission. It's normal for visitors to stop by when Vrbas is making soap just to take a peek at how it all works, said Hastings Mayor Vern Powers, who found out about the soap and tried some when Vrbas was still in school at Hastings.
Drawn by the message and the product, Powers called Vrbas and learned he was planning to move out of Nebraska after graduation. He told Vrbas that people in Hastings wanted more of the product, and Powers offered to personally invest in Pacha because he saw a good idea, one that could provide jobs in Hastings while spreading a social message globally.
Powers considers himself an angel investor and partner hybrid. In addition to financial assistance, he offered business advice in the early stages and wants to be there to offer help as the company works on its long-term goals.
“I think they can do it,” Powers said of the company. Vrbas “really has his finger on what younger people ... are looking for in companies. You can't just take. You have to give.”
The buy-one, give-one model is an easy, short-term way to help now, but Vrbas says he knows it's not a sustainable approach to lifting people from poverty, which is his company's ultimate cause.
“You can help temporarily, especially for children,” he said. “It's not a bad thing, but you're not solving anything. You're just easing the pain temporarily.”
That's why the company has two long-term goals to better address the root of poverty. The goals are to use profits from Pacha to help fund global clean water projects and establish small soap-making factories in other countries. Eventually, Vrbas said, his company would turn ownership over to the people who live there.
Pacha is currently exploring options to set up factories in four countries, including Rwanda and Sri Lanka. An ancient process, soap is the ideal industry for developing countries because the setup doesn't require a lot of materials and the product is one everyone uses and needs, Vrbas said.
Keeping the company's vision in mind to help others, he said, is far more important than earning a profit for himself. In fact, that's the whole point of social business and social entrepreneurship.
“It's not even about the soap sometimes,” he said. “It's about showing that someone cares enough to give you something. It's totally about community — about connecting community.”
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