Andrew and Abi Vrbas are cofounders of Pacha Soap Co., a social business that creates delightful bath goods that do good. Together, their company and its customers are putting the solution in the hands of those most affected by WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) issues and the cycle of poverty. Give-away bar soaps are made in the very communities that they help, using local ingredients and local talent. Nationals are trained to manually drill clean water wells, creating jobs for those in-country and providing much-needed clean water to hundreds of people per well.
Andrew is CEO and passionately drives the mission and vision of the company. Abi is Pacha’s former head designer and marketing/brand manager. Together, they take on the co-founder role to help spread the mission and build relationships with customers, retail partners and mission partners. In their free time they like to rollerblade and bike ride to the local snow cone shop, fix up their 1890 home, and watch The Office together.
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Develop Your Voice of Influence, Volume 1
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Hey, hey! It’s Andrea and welcome to the Voice of Influence podcast. Today, I’m excited to share with you Abi and Andrew Vrbas who are the owners and cofounders of Pacha Soap out of Hastings, Nebraska. They have quite a story. This is a business with a purpose. And so Abi is with us right now and Andrew is going to jump on in a little while.
Andrea: So Abi, it’s so good to have you here on the Voice of Influence podcast.
Abi: Thank you so much, Andrea, it’s an honor to be asked and have this conversation with you.
Andrea: Now, Abi, you and I met when you were back in college at Hastings College and we lived there and I remember having a couple of conversations in particular with you. So it’s been really fun for me to watch you and Andrew from afar and see this company go from zero to hero, truthfully in a few years. And so I would love for you to share with the person listening what exactly is Pacha Soap? What do you do?
Abi: Well, in a nugget, we create engaging bath products that change the world. So we create organic handcrafted bar soaps. We have froth bombs which are similar to a bath bomb that you use on your tub and it fizzes but it also creates a nice frothy latte like foam in your bath. We have some other Willy Wonka just really fun, engaging, and delightful products that we’ll be launching later this year. So our products are super fun and super clean ingredients.
We use organic ingredients, well-sourced ingredients, and we have a lot of fun with what we do. And then the part that changes the world is we have a mission to help with the WASH sector which is (water, sanitation, and hygiene). So that’s a part of our mission, but really the root of our why for our company is we believe that business can free people. So what we do is we help to create opportunities for people in developing countries through soap making and clean water well drilling.
So like I said, we’re helping with the WASH sector, but really it’s a vehicle which we can help others help themselves. So water sanitation and hygiene is a huge issue in developing countries and the best way to help people with those issues is to allow them to be the heroes in their own countries. Through the sale of our products, we’re able to help startup small scale soap shops in places like Burundi, Africa and hopefully some other places in Africa soon.
And we have a heart for South America as well, wherever the partnership leads us and then also providing jobs for clean water well drillers. So these are well drillers who are natives in the country. The team that we help start is called Intwari Drillers, which means brave drillers. Yeah, they are local Africans who are helping other Africans have access to clean water. So soap and our mission with the WASH sector is the vehicle in which we’re able to further our mission of helping others help themselves.
Andrea: Wow that’s amazing! So how did you guys get going? What’s the origin story of Pacha Soap?
Abi: Yes, so Andrew was in Peru, South America in 2010 for a semester, he was going to Hastings College at the time and wanted to study abroad. And during this time there in Peru, or I should say, he was a construction management and Spanish major obviously very helpful in starting a soap company.
Andrea: Really? That’s awesome!
Abi: Yeah, so he was down there in Peru to further his Spanish and also he was volunteering with some construction projects. But what really transformed him in his thought process was, he’s this Kansas boy, who you know hardly get any rain fall where we are but he goes down to Peru and then they get the worst flooding that they never got in like a hundred years or something. So Kansas boy brought the rain with them to Peru.
Anyway, it was really terrible flooding and it closed off the train that went into Machu Piccu, which is the biggest tourists destination in Peru. He just saw how fragile the economic system is in Peru that it was very dependent on Americans and Europeans and without things like Machu Piccu and other touristy places, their economy was just super fragile.
So he had this idea of starting a company that would employ local people for the local good, so it wasn’t again, not depending on other people for economic stability but being able to provide that within itself. So then he was thinking and it sounds like it’s from a movie, but he was riding on a bus on his way to work. There was a couple of hours bus ride to where he works for the day. He was on this bus and he was reading a certain book at this time and was just really influenced by the philosophy and thoughts behind it and just thought “Oh, I could create a business that does good.”
And he said like there were tons of people on this bus, really hot and sweaty, there’s no air conditioning on it, bumpy road and he just gone through Peru and he got to this place that he’s going to be working for the day and just had this light bulb moment that he went into and create a business that could free people so then he got to thinking like how he could do that and soap was the vehicle in which he could do that.
So the great thing about soap is the ingredients are found in many places where there’s extreme poverty. So things like palm oil and coconut oil and then even plants that can be distilled into essential oils are found in a lot of the places where there’s extreme poverty and then soap making also is a very simple process. It’s been made for thousands of years.
You don’t need special equipment or lots of education in order to do it. It doesn’t take any electricity or lot of funding to start a soap shop. So he was thinking that soap would be a great way to bring jobs to people and country without saying “Okay, you need all these equipments to do it – very, very simple so that is the answer to why soap?
Andrea: Did the soap thing just kind of come to him as well or did he did some research, do you know that?
Abi: His very, very first thought was tea but then got to thinking of all the complexities of like bringing in tea to another country and then his very next thought was soap. He has always been interested in fragrances. And actually, he is able to join now so here he is. This is Andrea of the Voice of Influence.
Andrew: Hi, Andrea!
Andrea: Hi there Andrew! It’s good to have you.
Andrew: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Andrea: I was just asking Abi about your origin story for Pacha Soap and she kind of took us through the ‘why’ of soap. But maybe you could share with us how you moved from your idea to actually turning it into a business, would you mind just jumping in like that?
Andrew: Yeah. Well, I think you kind of answered it in your question. I’m just jumping in because, you know, there’s obviously people just talk about how difficult to start a business but I think, especially when you’re younger and you’re passionate about an idea that could change the way things are done, you just jump in and figure things out.
So we started really small scale with just Abi and myself just dreaming what the future could be, so just experimenting and learning and busying with people and spreading our idea around and I guess you just quickly learn how to do what you need to do, I guess. So yeah, the specific recipe for us was definitely just jumping in and being passionate about what we’re doing and loving to create, yeah I guess that’s it.
Andrea: Yeah. The youthful naïvite was certainly playing in your favor. I mean, why not just jump in and go for it. It seems like the older people get the harder it is for us to start things.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s like you don’t know what you don’t know and ignorance is bliss and all those things that you don’t know how to do, so you just kind of do it. And I think the more that we can keep that as a part of our mentality sometimes, it’d be better off to be and so yeah.
Andrea: I remember seeing pictures of you guys selling at Farmers Market or things like that, is that where you kind of started out?
Andrew: Yeah that’s exactly right. One of our most favorite memories from when we first started was when we’re in the garage in the house that I used to live in where the first soap shop was, we’re just preparing for Farmers Market for the next day and it was like the first time we ever sell our product and telling our story. And it was just funny to think that that was while we’re both in college and it was so much fun. I remember at the end of the night, we just ended up just dancing the music, so it was fun.
Andrea: Oh that’s so fun. We’re you guys dating at the time or what was your situation together?
Andrew: Yeah, we were dating at that time but we didn’t start out dating. We’re friends initially in school and started dating while we’re still in school. I think it was like our interests were aligned and both loving to create things, be creative, and be innovative. And we’re still learning about each other and we feel like we have each other peg down but then we’re learning something new about each other. It seems like every day, like yesterday, we learned something that we both share similar traits and we always thought that we’re innovative but really like in taking that test that you sent over especially was kind of interesting to see how closely we did align.
Andrea: Yeah, yeah. Now, he’s talking about the Fascinate Assessment that I invite guest to take if their interested. They both took it and they both came out with innovation on their top #2. So yeah, that was really, really fun to see that I could see how that just really makes it easy even for you guys to take risks probably.
Abi: Yeah, and it makes it a lot of fun to create together because like I was saying with our products, it’s really fun to innovate and think outside the box. But also it’s our mission to think forward and have innovative ideas with our mission, it’s also super fun. So we can kind feed off with each other in that way and I think that’s what kind of hold us move forward and starting a business is that you just don’t get down when you think about “Okay, we hit a roadblock.” It doesn’t mean no, it means no for that but there’s another way around that. You can make it work.
Andrea: Yeah you can work around it.
Abi: Yeah, exactly. You got to figure it out someway and having a partner on obviously helps a lot. It helps to be together because if you had to do that by yourself, I can see how terribly difficult that would be to approach those roadblocks with confidence.
Andrea: For context, did you guys start the business, graduate, get married that sort of thing?
Andrew: Well, it’s funny like when we actually first started the business, we used several start dates but really the idea came in 2010 but we officially started beyond just like Farmers Market and really got serious and hired our first employee in 2012 it would have been, but we used kind of like 2013 as our first or like our official starting of our company. We got married actually in 2013 as well. We bought our first house in 2013 so that was a big year.
Andrea: I was reading in your website today too, was it 2013 that you guys got into Whole Foods?
Abi: Yeah, it was.
Andrea: That’s just huge first of all but it’s also just really so much has happened so quickly. Even though I’m sure it felt like a long time from 2010 to 1013 that happened pretty quickly. Did it feel like it took forever or were you feeling like it was clip in along at a pretty good pace?
Andrew: Oh man, I guess both of us like we’ve lived a lot of life being 27 and 26, so it doesn’t seem like it was really quick. But you know from the outside when people talk to us, it seems like it wasn’t that long ago but for us, sometimes like we show like we’re on our 50’s.
Andrea: Old souls.
Abi: Yeah, like the day-to-day maybe seems like a little slower, you aren’t moving so fast. But then when you look at it as a whole, when you look back it does go pretty quickly. I don’t want to take things for granted because you know we were really blessed to be doing as well as we’re doing. So I don’t want to take that for granted because I know it is just really difficult to start things and put yourself out there and be vulnerable in that way. So yeah, it does seem like it has happened pretty quickly but it’s definitely not all because we have an awesome team like both here in Hastings working with Pacha and also in the field working in commenting our mission. It is way beyond Andrew and me. We cannot be where we are without our team.
Andrea: I have so many questions written down and floating in my head because you’ve got a really substantial thing going and there’s so many things I think that we could cover. So one of the first questions that I want to ask at this point is how many employees do you have in Hastings? What’s the team look like in Hastings?
Andrew: We’re like around 40 people.
Andrea: That’s crazy! No, that’s wonderful. It’s so great. I mean, that’s a lot of employees. That’s a big team.
Andrew: Yeah. It is. We’re so blessed to have the team that we have. They make the culture what it is and it’s just so much fun to work with the team that you respect and love to work with every day.
Andrea: How did you manage going from just the two of you to starting to add people into your team who I assumed for the most part older than you as well. Is that true?
Andrew: Yeah, we’re some of the younger ones for sure especially in leadership. I think the main thing when you’re looking to grow or bring people on is making sure that your core values are set and that your hiring based on those core values. You’re living everything through this core values and so that’s something that we learned along the way just recognizing how important that is and making sure that everybody is onboard with those core values.
Andrea: Do you feel like your core values were pretty set when you started or did they really develop as you kept going and growing?
Abi: Yeah, I think like the fundamental purpose of our company has remained the same. It’s just kind fine tuning how that’s played out on a day-to-day like how you write those core values out. So I would say like nothing has drastically changed from when we first started but you know, it’s fine tuning it. And one of the greatest things that we got to do with defining our core values is looking at all around and saying “Yeah, I really like about this person. I really like that about this person.” And then integrating those things that we are inspired by our team members and using those as guidelines in which we created our core values, so using our actual team as our guide for creating those core values or fine tuning those core values.
Andrea: That’s really cool. So you took a look at who was here and how they’re functioning and what you really appreciated about them and said “Okay, yes that’s something we wanna keep.”
Abi: Yeah, exactly!
Andrea: Wow! There’s a lot of wisdom in that. I wonder if you being younger when you got started might have had an impact on the way that you respected the people that were working with and for you.
Andrew: Yeah that probably is true because we had a lot to learn. I feel like when you’re not as full of what you already know and you’re more just like trying to learn and maybe it’s just more of a humble way of being a leader because you’re forced to be humble. You don’t really know a lot and I think that’s something that every human probably struggles with and we all will struggle with to remain humble and have a learning attitude and learning mind all your life. And that’s a hard thing I think probably for all of us because we get to a place where you know we feel like we know what we’re doing.
Truth is like there’s not one person that knows and has all the answers as much as our cultures kind of push towards and are looking towards that you know like “I wanna find the answer. Just tell me the answer.” Although, there’s lots of answers in solving everyday problems especially when you’re growing a business like there’s not one person that can tell you every move you make to grow that business. Yeah, that’s probably a good point. I never had really followed with that.
Andrea: Well, I want to qualify my statement by saying that not every person who’s younger would have had that attitude though. So while it may have helped in some ways you’re willing to learn like you said, it’s a quality that we should all be striving for life, for willing to learn from other people. I love the respect that you guys have for your team and for the people of the world that you’re trying to serve and I think that that respect comes somewhat from that humbleness too. I don’t know, it’s just seems really grounded.
Andrew: Well, sometimes.
Andrea: OK that’s good. I love that. Let’s keep it real, right? So you also have the partnerships carrying out your mission. So what are those relationships like with the people around the world, what do you mean by a partnership that’s helping you carry out a mission in Africa for instance.
Andrew: Yeah, so like in East Africa, we have a couple partners that we work with both on the soap side and in the water side. Those partnerships start with organization here in the US that we work with and then the mission enacted in the developing world and namely in East Africa, we work in Burundi. But we also work in other countries through water nonprofit that we partnered with waterfall.org. So yeah, we break our mission down into two basically like two ways of impact and there’s presale impact and post sale impact.
So presale is like before any product is ever purchased, how is our company having an impact. And then post sale, once the sale is made then how’s our company having an impact to our customers having an impact with their purchase after the sale was made. Largely, in East Africa, where folks come is after the sale of our products, we are helping to start businesses in both soap production and clean water well drilling.
And so it’s essentially soap and water – two very critical elements for development and for health sanitation and hygiene but it’s done in a way that is actually creating, self-sustaining enterprise. That’s the piece of it that is really, I would say, it’s not necessarily the most important element because saving people’s lives with clean water like people have access of clean water obviously that has a huge impact. If people are able to wash their hands and children namely in schools; you can see that that would a huge impact.
But I guess the reason why I mentioned the aspect of our mission to be considered really important and maybe most important is that the people themselves are able to provide the answers for themselves and we’re just the catalyst somewhat of an injection and not an IV you know. And truly that business through clean water and business through soap production is the way that people are employed and that their business are able to flourish and grow on their own overtime, whereas, we just act as catalysts. Anyway, that’s kind of how we partner right now and I guess it all comes back to our why in our purpose for being which is that business can free people.
So we look at a lot of issues that are related to poverty, the way we can help with extreme poverty that people are able to have their own economic freedom or economic independence because these people are able to provide for themselves then issues can overtime be diminished. Like the people can afford to pay for education. If they can afford to buy soap, if they can afford to buy clean water, you know lots of issues can be reduced overtime if people are able to escape poverty. And really the only way that’s done in there in a long term basis is if they’re able to opportunities to do it themselves through business, through the Wealth Creation process. So anything we do comes back to the fact that business can free people.
Andrea: It sounds like when someone is talking about social justice, there’s one-on-one charity kind of like “Let me help you with this thing.” Or there’s the systemic change that happens and it sounds like what you’re talking about is wanting to provide not only that bar soap to save somebody’s life but the systemic change by giving them that opportunity to be empowered to have their own income and everything that’s really, really exciting.
Andrew: Yeah, they’re both okay you know. Sometimes, there are people who maybe would be really staunch and say “No,” like there’s no place to give anything because you’re creating dependence. I understand that because I’ve seen it, we all have it. We’ve travelled in the developing world and that’s not good. That is not empowering. But at the same time, sometimes I want to say like “You know there is a place to give things and that’s okay.” It just has to be very limited and it has to be in a way that is not creating habit-forming dependence. It’s something that it can be done in a good way and it’s not like always a bad thing to help.
And we see it firsthand with like the World Food Program for instance like children coming to school and for some of them that could be their only meal that day. So in that way, children are able to receive education and come to school because they are being subsidized a free lunch. I would say that’s not a bad thing. Obviously, the better thing would be how can we have, you know that food is coming from the outside, how can more acres be converted into small farms for the parents that overtime maybe our food can be purchase locally like obviously that would be better. It’s process and a transition so there’s a place and time. We definitely like to focus on both of those things but if it’s not creating self-sustaining jobs then it’s probably not a long-term solution and could be creating more harm than good, maybe.
Andrea: Interesting. So what is exactly is your role as Pacha Soap, what is Pacha Soap’s role in Africa? What do you actually provide? Are you providing the funds? Are you providing the training? What all are you providing?
Andrew: Well, we provide funds so we kind of act you could say as an initial customer for well drilling team, for soap shops, say help to set up soap shops. We provide some advice in how to do that but then we’ll be that initial customer so we’ll buy soaps from those teams initially and that soap is then given to schools in the surrounding area for children for hand washing. All the while, those teams are growing their own sales with different soap products so that overtime, those giveaway bars could be transferred to another soap shop that could be set up and the process can start over as established team sales increase. So that’s the goal and same with clean water. So Pacha as a company funds those operations and it’s essentially the first customer through subsidizing bars of soap and clean water wells that overtime will leave in a established teams that can sell products on their own and be self-sustaining.
Andrea: It seems like there’s so many different plates spinning, how do you guys manage your time? What percentage of time are you working on soap and sales and stuff overseas, and your mission, your message? How do you guys decide what your roles are and how to divide up your time?
Andrew: We go by the system called Traction. It’s a book and it’s really been helpful process with our time up, but honestly, I think that the main thing that helped us is having an awesome team. We can’t really stress out enough because as much as somebody might say they’re so awesome like it’s a team to do anything. So I think the real answer to that is the fact that we just have a team that handles so many things and does it so well and has extreme ownership over of what they do and so that’s probably it.
Abi: Yeah, it’s hard to balance your time because you want to do everything but you know, you can’t do everything and that they’re actually people who can do that thing better than you. So knowing what to let go and what to still maintain for yourself is a hard thing to kind of figure that out. But like Andrew said it’s just the team that we have that it’s a well-oiled machine. There’s always new things to try and things that we’re currently doing that could be better or different but we just have such a great team that’s willing to jump in there and may use the word ‘scrappy’ a lot. We’re just part of that sort of mentality and we never want to lose that no matter how big our company gets or how many years its life is, just having that scrappy mentality of saying “It’s just a road blocks” but yes we can get pass those barriers and do that together.
Andrea: So as cofounders then since you guys started and everything, I would imagine that quite a few people that are listening to this podcast or people that are dreaming about starting something or they feel like they want to live a purpose-driven life. They want to feel like their message is a part of what they do. So I’m kind of curious about how you guys work together as a couple? Was it hard when you first got certain and kind of got going to figure out who was in charge of what or was that pretty clear from the get-go or did you have any road bumps?
Andrew: I think we worked pretty seriously like at the beginning and on. I think as we grow and things got more complex in some ways that was a little bit more challenging because you had more people to the equation then you have to split up tasks way more. So there’s always some more roadblocks or road bumps there but I think it’s just a constant learning thing.
Abi: Yeah, it is hard as life partners and business partners finding the balance between how you spend your time. When you’re at home, it’s impossible to not talk about work because you’re passionate about it and it’s a big part of your life. And then at work, it’s hard not to talk about your personal life because it’s your life so there’s that overlapping. We really tried to keep those two things as separate as possible because it’s too different mind frames.
When we first started out like that things showed we’re both innovative, so I think that was really good to help kick-start something new. But individually, I graduated with a degree in advertising and public relation so kind of marketing and had some experience with graphic design. So from my tactical standpoint, I was able to help with the marketing side of things and help create the graphics and different visual elements.
And as we progressed, I started understanding what it means to build a brand which that’s a monster in and of itself so that’s kind of like where I had my focus. And Andrew had such a passion for the vision of the company and just always reaching for how can our mission be better and just dreaming of those ways in which it can happen. It’s cool to be able to look at each other’s strengths and appreciate how each of those strengths helped build the company.
Currently, I have stepped out of my marketing role and I’ve taken on more of just a cofounder role and that has been a big transition for Andrew and me personally. It’s just the decision that we made together that we’re both just thriving so hard in the day-to-day in the company so it was easier to continue that. If someone is in the boat and the other one is drowning, it’s a lot easier than both of you drowning together. So yeah, it’s a partnership and it’s give and take and it’s having grace for one another and don’t know within the next few years are going to look like so just being willing to hold life with open hands is really important.
Andrea: You know that’s funny because I was going to ask you what’s in the future for Pacha Soap? Do you have a vision for the next few years or is it something that you are truly just going day-by-day or what’s that like for you guys?
Andrew: We have lots of visions of what it could look like but the main thing is how can our mission be amplified, so how can we framework people? How can that be the heart of every decision we make? So whether it’s new products that we launch or new categories that we’re in and new channels of trade like the way in which we’re bringing products to people, it will all lead back to how our mission can be amplified and how people can be a big part of that.
I guess it’s not really a specific vision but that’s such kind of the way it’s looking. A lot of ideas of how to get there but it will definitely just take time and the right people who are also believing in the overall mission and message that care about, not only a business doing well and having an awesome product that people love, but also caring about what that product represents.
Andrea: Yeah. So when you look to make those decisions, do you knock on doors and just see which one opens or how do you know what next step that you’re going to take in the moment?
Andrew: Usually that, yeah. Usually just researching things and trying things out, asking a lot of questions, and talking to people you know that’s kind of how and like big decisions are met is trying some things out and asking a lot of questions before we move on something.
Andrea: What advice do you have for someone who is kind of in that dream stage where maybe they feel like there’s something on their heart or maybe they’re in that position where Andrew you were on that bus thinking “There’s got to be a way to help. There’s going to be something that I can do.” Do you have any parting words of wisdom for these influencers who are listening?
Andrew: Yeah, I think just have fun. Ultimately, it’s just got to be something that you like. It’s not every element you’re not going to like and that’s maybe why a lot of business fails because there are these things in starting a business that aren’t as much fun. But if overall what you are passionate about or what you’re doing you like it too, you like the people you’re with; I think that’s the biggest piece is of just being real to yourself about what you like or what you love to do. I think it’s also about why you’re doing it, so just asking yourself these questions.
It’s different for every person but the advice for somebody like myself is just to try it out. There’s nothing stopping anyone from really accomplishing whatever they want to accomplish but you just have to be willing to stick with it and push forward. And I would say the other biggest piece is don’t be afraid to learn along the way.
I don’t feel like you have to figure it out all in its entirety right away because you probably won’t and your idea might shift for the better. Your initial vision might be one thing but maybe you’ll figure out a way that could be even enhanced and just don’t be afraid to learn. That’s probably the biggest piece that prevents people, they feel like they need to have it all figured out right away. But you can figure it out as you go along, as you’re able to learn all the way.
Andrea: That’s a great point. Abi, do you have anything you want to add to that?
Abi: If you’re going into business with your life partner, just try to communicate and have grace with one another. If you’re doing it on your own, look for people to support you through it and be vulnerable with them and don’t lose heart.
Andrea: Well, this has been a very short 45 minutes but I am so thrilled that I could share you with my audience that we could learn more about what it meant for you guys to start something. And you’ve taken it so far and I know that it’s just going to keep skyrocketing because just the humility that you bring to it and the willingness to take risks to listen like you mentioned and to not lose heart like you mentioned, and to communicate like you mentioned are so important. And so cheering you on from over here and looking forward to seeing what Pacha Soap does to change the world in the future. Thank you so much for your voice of influence in the world!
Andrew: Yes, thank you for having us!
Abi: Thank you so much Andrea!