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Conference Recap: Derreck Kayongo on Leadership, Service and Perseverance

October 24, 2016

Human rights advocate Derreck Kayongo began his opening General Session at the PRSA 2016 International Conference in Indianapolis by recounting his days as a 10-year-old living in civil war-torn Uganda.

One day in 1979, he witnessed innocent people methodically shot at close range during an interrogation by soldiers. “This incredible fear … was unbelievable,” he said. “Seeing a firing squad [at age 10] made an indelible impression.”

When Idi Amin took power, he and his family were able to flee. Much of his childhood was spent as a refugee in nearby Kenya where he and others lacked the basic necessities, such as soap.

In 1992, at age 22, Kayongo received the opportunity to attend college in Pennsylvania, where he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Messiah College.

What happened next set the path for his career.

An accomplished orator with an excellent comic timing, Kayongo described his first-ever night in a U.S. hotel. “There were three bars of soap — facial soap, hand-washing soap and body soap. I didn’t know what the difference was,” he said. “I put two bars of soap in my bag. I had never had facial soap before or hand-washing soap. When I came back that evening, they had replaced everything. I wondered, ‘What is going on?’” This process continued for several days before it hit him: “They are going to charge me for the soap!”

An amused concierge told him about hotel soap. Kayongo was then shocked to hear that the hotel — and most others in the country — throw away the partially used bars of soap.

“Life is about events and observations,” he said. “I came from the part of the world that needed this product desperately, and here you are throwing it away.”

This revelation led him to eventually launch the Global Soap Project, which donates leftover hotel soap to impoverished areas around the world. Its distribution network is now active in more than 32 countries, and it has given away over two million bars of soap to refugees, including people affected by humanitarian disasters and redistributes it to vulnerable populations around the world. (Global Soap recently partnered with Clean the World to create an even more expansive organization.)

Now CEO of the Atlanta-based Center for Civil and Human Rights, Kayongo wrapped up by discussing his guiding life principles — the SELF method: Service, Education, Leadership and Faith.

He also had encouraging words for communications executives.

“If you're here in the U.S. doubting where you stand, I’m here to tell you your profession can make a difference,” he said. “I can guarantee you. I stand before you to remind you that your professional can give back… I encourage you to do a fantastic job."

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Tactics and The Strategist. He joined PRSA in 1994.

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