After living in Ethiopia and adopting two daughters from the capital, the founders of Parker Clay were inspired to create a leather goods brand with the sole purpose of providing jobs for women coming out of human trafficking situations. Ian and Brittany Bentley fill us in on their company and what motivated them to start it.
Tell us about the company.
Parker Clay is a leather goods company that was created with the intention of providing jobs for vulnerable women coming out of human trafficking in Ethiopia. The country has been producing and exporting prized leathers since the days of pharaohs, along with luxurious spices like frankincense, incense, and myrrh. We hand select each piece of leather to ensure the best quality. Using and often exceeding fair trade practices, we source directly from rural farmers and work with traditional tanneries that have been perfecting their craft for generations. We are closely involved in every step of the production process. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we built our team from just one artisan and a sewing machine to a staff of over twenty artisans in our own production facility. We partner with a number of other artisans from around Ethiopia for woven goods, shoes, and jewelry.
What inspired you to create Parker Clay?
Back in 2008, we were moved by a statistic about the number of orphans living in the world — some place the number as high as 163 million orphans worldwide. Those numbers are alarming and made us think "what if?" questions about our own biological children, Parker and Clayton. From there, our journey to Ethiopia began. In 2011, we brought home our Ethiopian daughter, Selah, who was five-months-old at the time. While in Ethiopia, we spent time with a number of organizations looking for ways to address some of the root causes of poverty and disruption of family. Soon after, we packed up our lives and moved to Ethiopia to help with development work centered around job creation and capacity development with vulnerable women.
What did you do before this?
We lived in Santa Barbara and worked in real estate. Since starting Parker Clay, we've returned to California, where we are raising our five children (two of whom we adopted from Ethiopia) and have gone back into real estate. This allows us to keep Parker Clay sustaining itself without taking from the company to support our lives.
Who benefits from your work?
It's estimated that over 150,000 women in Addis Ababa are involved in some sort of prostitution. They can earn as little as $0.10 per client. Many of the women we have spoken with are often taken advantage of and never even paid.
We started Parker Clay because of our passion and ability to see opportunity and potential in situations when others just see problems. While living in Ethiopia, we worked firsthand with vulnerable women who had been caught up in the commercial sex industry. We partnered with an organization called Women At Risk (WAR) that operates across Ethiopia to help with rehabilitation and job placement opportunities for them. WAR has been going into the streets of Ethiopia and offering women the opportunity to restore what has been taken from them — and they have been wildly successful. Over 94% of the women who graduate their program never go back into prostitution. We trust WAR to have the same foundational beliefs as us. Great business can do great things beyond the products or services they offer. Partnering with them was an easy choice for us.
What's challenging about working with people in Ethiopia?
The distance. When we lived there, it was much easier to manage the production process, check on quality, and make changes to the design of goods. Now we have to wait weeks to have new product shipped to us. The delay for new inventory is something we always have to navigate.
Tell us about a lost-in-translation moment with them.
Ironically, our biggest lost-in-translation moment was with customs at Los Angeles International Airport. We were waiting on a shipment of camel leather bags to come in and our team in Ethiopia had stamped camel on the outside of the incoming boxes. Of course, U.S. customs was not thrilled to see a bunch of leather bags that they thought were made from camel. That shipment set us back almost a month and a half, but it's hard not to laugh at at the absurdness of it now.
How often do you go to Ethiopia?
We lived in Ethiopia for three years and didn't want to leave, but for reasons concerning our daughter's health we had to come home to Santa Barbara. We are committed to visiting Ethiopia every quarter to check on the factories and meet with the people we love.
What do you like best about Ethiopia?
Talking about traveling in Ethiopia can never really do the actual experience justice. That's why we are so excited to release the virtual reality 360 degree video series we filmed there. We want to give our customers the experience of coming along with us to Ethiopia, to be a part of the culture, see where and how their bags are being made in our factory, and hear the stories of the people working with us. We don't want to tell you about Ethiopia, we want to bring you along with us.
Has your work changed the way you think about charity and helping others?
Yes, the difference is that we now think of charity as change. We wanted to institute actual, tangible change for the women we are working with. If we can make that change sustainable for them, in their lives and in their community, then we feel like a real difference is being made.
What's your advice for entrepreneurs who want their businesses to have an aspect of global giving?
It's not easy. We wouldn't do it if we didn't absolutely and completely love the people we work with. When we're reminded of them, it makes it much easier to do our job.
Where do you want your company to be in five years?
Continuing to build relationships with people in Ethiopia. More products, more trips to Ethiopia, more brand awareness, and more sustainability. We want the company to be running full steam ahead. New technology is really exciting to us and we’d like to continue pushing boundaries by sharing our experiences in Ethiopia in new and innovative ways, like our upcoming visual reality video release. The videos will allow us to be even more transparent with our customers by showing them what is actually happening in Ethiopia — how their bags are made and where their money is going.
Where are you traveling next?
It may sound crazy, but any chance we get we go to Ethiopia. We love it. There's no place else we'd rather visit.
Watch Parker Clay's virutal realtiy videos for a closer look at Ethiopia and the makers who craft their goods.
SHOP PARKER CLAY
Beautiful leather goods that support women coming out of human trafficking situations in Ethiopia.