Ian and Brittany Bentley had no idea their initial trip to Ethiopia would lead them to launch a global luxury brand (Parker Clay), build a leather goods factory from scratch and ultimately provide employment opportunities for hundreds of impoverished women.
As a certified B Corp, Ian and Brittany aren’t just creating jobs in Ethiopia, they are paying their employees living wages that average 87% higher than comparable positions, while offering their workers life skills that will help them succeed beyond their Parker Clay tenure. Nearly half of Parker Clay’s employees had not previously held a salaried job. Reliable employment has provided many of the folks on Parker Clay’s team a level of financial autonomy they have never previously experienced.
John Greathouse: Ian – great to connect with you. What was the genesis of Parker Clay? What caused you to be in Ethiopia in the first place? (Ian’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.)
Ian Bentley: Hey John – thanks for letting us tell our story! Brittany and I met back in high school, here in Santa Barbara, California. We set down a pretty typical path; marriage, kids, both working in business. I don’t think either of us could have expected the twists that were in store for us.
There was a moment a few years back – seemingly inconsequential, but now totally unforgettable – where we were playing with our boys, Parker and Clay. A story on the news happened to catch our attention, a new study that estimated that there were over 160 million orphans worldwide. We thought immediately about the kids playing just feet away. “What if that were Parker or Clay? What if we were not able to provide for them?” It led to a regular dialogue in our house about inequality, opportunity, and most importantly, perspective on the life we had been so lucky to lead. This dialogue grew louder and louder, and it became the catalyst for some huge changes to come.
In 2011, we first traveled to Ethiopia and came home with our first adopted daughter. In 2012, Ethiopia became our home. We adopted our second daughter while living in Addis Ababa, the capital city, and it was there that we saw firsthand what many news outlets in America would never bother to cover. We saw how many young women, without opportunity or education, ended up in a life of prostitution, or even sold into human trafficking. While living there, we worked with organizations empowering these women through rehabilitation, skills development, and job creation. Meeting these women and witnessing the transformation that can come with just a teaspoon of opportunity deeply moved and inspired us.
But with so much work and inspiration taking place, we couldn’t forget that we were still a little family learning to live in a new place, with some new family members. We took time to explore, to connect, and to celebrate birthdays and holidays like we would anywhere else.
It was for one of these birthday celebrations that I went looking for gifts, and stumbled across an extraordinary leather bag – the craftsmanship was stunning, and we came to learn that the leather was not only of some of the highest quality in the world, but also ethically sourced at every step of the way.
The cogs started to turn, and the first ideation of Parker Clay was born. Could we bring these beautiful products to the world, hire and empower vulnerable women to become economically independent, and protect traditional, sustainable, and ethical craftsmanship all at once? Being able to say, “Yes” to that question would become our life’s work.
Greathouse: Wow, that’s an incredible story. What experiences did you draw upon to get the company up and running.
Bentley: As I stood at LAX with my wife, a flock of excited, but definitely sleepy children in tow, a thought kept bouncing around my head; “This is definitely either the best or worst decision I’ve ever made.” I think that hesitation is only natural, but I wouldn’t trade the outcome for anything.
It was through this journey that we discovered so much potential, inspiration, and opportunity. Parker Clay was never something we went out looking for, but it seems like a natural progression in many ways – we followed our passions and ultimately found a way to unite all of the things we so intensely care about into one beautiful, inspiring, and exciting collective mission.
Greathouse: I admire that as a B Corp, you’ve been able to maintain Fair Trade principles, such as paying wages that are nearly double those of local, comparable jobs. What other metrics do you use to measure your dual bottom-line impact? Are there areas in which you’ve struggled to achieve your impact goals?
Bentley: Parker Clay doesn’t exist without our impact, and I really mean that – if it wasn’t going to make a difference, we would never have started the brand. So yes, the impact model of Parker Clay is extremely intentional, and there are definitely layers to it. At the core of what we do is what we call our “Center of Excellence,” where we’ve brought together some of the best and brightest from around the world to address the challenges our employees face. This team of business executives have extensive experience in both the Relief and Development and Non-Profit sectors, and with that experience, we can purposefully integrate development practices into how we do business.
This program allows us to go beyond providing a living wage. To start, we employ people who would otherwise be deprived of work opportunities. Forty six percent of our employees are experiencing their first salaried employment with Parker Clay, and through research and conversation, a majority of our employees feel they would not have had any opportunity for salaried employment elsewhere.
We can hire employees that have no formal work experience, knowing that we will be able to train them to not only do the work we hired them to do, but empower them with skills that will last beyond their employment with us, should they ever choose to leave. Our Center of Excellence helps us to do all of the above with confidence, assess our impact, and ultimately, help our employees develop personally and professionally.
Early in 2019, we conducted a “Basket of Goods” assessment for Southern Addis Ababa, where our factory is located and 95% of our employees live. We couldn’t find reliable data at the macro level and didn’t want to put any of our staff in a position where they would earn below a livable wage. That analysis allowed us to set a starting wage for our workers, but there were still challenges. In 2016, the Ethiopian Birr (the local currency) was devalued by 20%, a common occurrence in most developing nations. Because currency fluctuation can be a hardship for so many, we decided to formally put all of our salary commitments in USD instead of the local currency. As a result, we have stabilized our staff salaries and eliminated the risks associated with devalued local currency.
While we make our living selling high quality leather and textile goods, we believe we are really in the business of community transformation. This perspective has influenced our approach at both the company and the factory we launched in 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In fact, the reason we chose to start our own factory is so we could implement our beliefs and make concepts, like a living wage, an everyday reality for our company and our employees.
Greathouse: Do you have any suggestions for entrepreneurs who are either considering starting a B Corp or converting their venture into a B Corp?
Bentley: Be prepared to practice what you preach – the process is about certifying that you do what you say you do and that’s exactly the point. Like any process designed to weed out, like a lengthy interview process or an extremely difficult college course, it may not be the most easy-going or enjoyable of times. But if you indeed practice what you preach, it’s a designation that carries a ton of weight and it will set you apart.
Be open to new ideas on how you can improve your business, not just in profitability, but also in sustainability for people and the planet. The challenge is that you can run a business that can not only be profitable, but also celebrate people and the planet. All these things can, should, and really must, coexist. We are proud to be a B Corp and proud to put in the work to meet the rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
Greathouse: You’ve partnered with Ellilta Women at Risk (EWAR), which empowers women through counseling, and skills training. How has this partnership directly impacted your employees in Ethiopia?
Bentley: Our partnership with Ellilta has been a cornerstone for us. Our Partnership with EWAR helps us to operate beyond the traditional charity model, which has had significant consequences across Africa, and extends into the skills training and job creation opportunities that we make available at our factory in Ethiopia. We have developed methodologies to create economic opportunity, leveraging a trade model built out of mission.
When we lived in Ethiopia and worked closely with EWAR we saw an incredible model in which women would be welcomed in from the streets and given the opportunity to find healing in a safe environment. The counseling and rehabilitation work that EWAR continues to do today ensures that well over 90% of the women who graduate their program choose to not go back into prostitution. We have found that this critical work allows women to be prepared for joining a workplace, and at our Parker Clay factory, we provide them a healthy and safe opportunity to transition into work.
Where aid and charity can help vulnerable populations survive, our model provides an opportunity to thrive, to find stability and financial independence. We have women who just months ago were on the streets fighting to survive, but are now thriving at our factory and are some of our top employees. To see them finally have the space to hope and dream of a better future for themselves and their families is one of the most rewarding things you can be a part of.
Greathouse: Getting the word out in the early days of a venture is always a challenge, especially when you’re building a brand. What marketing channels proved the most effective initially and which ones do you rely on now that Parker Clay is an established luxury brand with a heart?
Bentley: Authenticity is everything. I think there can be such a high standard of perfection in business today, but people see through it – creating this façade of perfection is just asking for people to find the cracks. If you can tell an honest, genuine story, admit your imperfections, and keep your customers or followers up to date on your progress against those imperfections, you’ll find success.
We’ve definitely bootstrapped most of our growth in a very capital-efficient way – we’ve definitely had to fight for exposure wherever we can get it. Along the way, we’ve been lucky to meet some incredible friends who have helped get our story out – one being Mary Louise Parker, who you might know from the show Weeds, who we connected with through Ethiopian adoption. We’ve traveled to Ethiopia together and she has been a wonderful friend who has done so much to amplify our voice.
We’ve found that our vision and impact help us find top talent for our team, as well as helping us connect with celebrities and PR who want to share the story, so that’s another bonus point for being genuine. It also helps to have a beautiful, world-class product that people won’t mind being spotted carrying!
Greathouse: Agreed, a great product solves many problems… I’m impressed by the breadth of your product line. It must be a challenge to manage an extensive inventory of artisan products.
Bentley: This is a really important conversation, especially when a business appears to be hanging in the balance of scalability. When producing small quantities with small investments, it’s easy to add new styles and take risks with what may or may not sell, but as your quantities scale to meet demand, it feels like any mistake could be the end.
We’ve always maintained a fairly evergreen product offering, with products that are built not only to last, but to get better with age. Our designs are not seasonal or ephemeral and are totally timeless by design. It helps us by building a consistent line of products that’s great for brand recognition, but it has also kept our production manageable as we’ve grown.
Strategically, we believe one of our greatest strengths is that we own our own factory, allowing us to be one of the only brands in our industry that controls our process from start to finish. We manufacture our product at the source of the raw material and ship directly to our customers, which provides us with close control over the final product, a pretty darn quick supply chain, and an immense amount of flexibility and ability to innovate when called for.
Greathouse: Your current mission is clear and admirable. How do you see your mission expanding or evolving in the coming years?
Bentley: Being an ethical brand or a brand that “gives back” isn’t good enough for us. It never has been. At Parker Clay, we make leather bags to provide dignified employment and lift women out of exploitation. Our vision is the end of prostitution in Ethiopia.
It’s really come down to this; we promise better – better bags and better production to make a better world. Our factory has grown from a team of five to a community of 150 in just two years, and we plan to have 200 employees by the end of this year. Ethiopia is the fastest-growing economy in Africa, and we hope to be part of the wave that transforms Africa from a destination for aid into a destination for trade. Ethiopia, and all of Africa, has such tremendous talent, potential, and beauty to share with the world, and it’s about time we gave them a chance to show it.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse