The annual RIMS meeting is an opportunity for risk managers to come together and share stories about risk and risk management and this year’s first general session was no exception.
In the opening keynote for RIMS 2017 on April 24, the packed ballroom heard from Derreck Kayongo, successful entrepreneur, expert in environmental sustainability and human rights innovator, about how bars of soap in his hotel room led him to take a risk that became a $10 million global business.
When he was 10 years old, Kayongo watched as his entire Ugandan village was pulled out from their homes by men with assault rifles. The leader was looking for the person who had killed two of his soldiers the night before. He selected four people, asked who had killed his men. When no one came forward, he executed them. He selected four more people; when no one confessed, he shot them. When he selected four more people, a voice from the back said, “I did it.” It was a young man who was a visitor to the village. The captain spoke to him briefly and executed him, highlighting for the young boy how risky life could become in an instant.
Kayongo’s parents were successful business people, owners of a soap business and wealthy by Ugandan standards. He went to a private school, the family had several cars, and his best friend was the son of Idi Amin, who became president of Uganda. When Amin came into power, Kayongo’s family left Uganda and became refugees, leaving their comfortable life behind.
Coming to America
Eventually, Kayongo won a scholarship to a school in the Philadelphia area. When he got to the United States, he noticed that the hotel provided different kinds of soap in each room and replaced used soap every day. He took the unused soap for several days and then felt guilty about it. When he tried to return it to the director of housekeeping, the man laughed, explaining “Everyone takes the soap, and it’s built into the cost of the room.” Kayongo asked about what they did with the used soap and learned that it’s all discarded because of the risk of transmitting germs or bacteria from one guest to another, which sparked an idea.
"Entrepreneurs look at situations and out of these come ideas," said Kayongo. After he learned that approximately 800 million bars of soap are thrown away each year in the United States, he tried to figure out a way to effectively recycle it for use in developing countries. In many parts of the world nearly two million children a year die due to the poor sanitary conditions. The ability to wash their hands with soap would literally be life-saving.
Working with volunteers from the University of Michigan, Kayongo figured out how to clean and recycle the soap. The partially used soap is sorted by color, and the top layers are peeled off because that’s where the germs are. The soap is crushed into a fine powder and put into reclosable bags for two weeks to kill the germs. “You can find simple solutions for big problems,” he urged the audience. “Here, we’re taking away the risk by removing the germs from the soap.”
Kayonogo said the Global Soap Project (GSP) — the organization he and his wife Sarah founded to process and distribute the soap — sent soap to Liberia to help fight Ebola, with great success. In Malawi, infection rates were 90 percent, and after the GSP brought in the soap, they dropped to 40 percent.
Kayongo’s motto: S-E-L-F
Kayongo’s motto can be summed up in a few simple phrases. “Everything begins with me,” he explained, “and with self.” For Kayongo, the letters stand for
S - service, because risk disappears with service.
E - Education, because risk becomes bigger without education.
L - Leadership, because once you beat risk, you become a leader.
F - Faith, because you can’t solve everything, but you need to go out in faith to try new things, to take risks.
“There is risk for regular people, and risk for exceptional people, and this is where the real power is [in the risk for exceptional people],” he explained.
“My story is full of risk,” Kayongo observed, but because of human will and experience, he kept pushing on. “I came here with $400 in my pocket and built a $10 million business.”
He told the risk management professionals in attendance, “We are only successful because we allow a reasonable amount of risk into our lives.”
Now the CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Ga., Kayongo left the audience with these words of wisdom: “I love humanity because when you give a human being a chance, they do great things.”