They say necessity is the mother of invention, and we can’t think of anything more necessary than finding your S.O. the perfect birthday gift (relatively speaking, of course). It was that exact search that led Ian and Brittany Bentley to launch their leather goods brand, Parker Clay (named after their two young sons), in 2014. The pair were living in Ethiopia with their family (more on that in a minute) when Ian fatefully stumbled upon an amazing leather bag for Brittany’s birthday at a local market.
With its high-quality, ethically sourced leather and connection to local artisans and farmers, Ian realized that not only was the bag the perfect gift, but it was also an amazing business plan. The husband-and-wife duo decided to establish their brand that “hand selects the leather to make products by way of traditional craftsmanship, all while creating opportunities for vulnerable women [who could otherwise be sold into human trafficking] to become economically independent.” Indeed, it’s this inherent sense of social responsibility that’s at the heart of all the California couple’s decisions. Brittany and Ian ended up flying to Ethiopia from their home in Santa Barbara for the first time in 2011 to adopt their first daughter after they heard that there were an estimated 163 million orphans worldwide: “Ian and I looked at each other and said, ‘What if that were Parker or Clay? What if we were not able to provide for their needs?’ This became a pivotal moment in our lives that ultimately led us to Ethiopia.”
The family felt a pull back to Ethiopia after that initial visit and finally purchased one-way tickets to Addis Ababa in 2012. It was during that time they adopted their second daughter and launched Parker Clay. They’ve since moved back to Santa Barbara, where they operate a retail showroom, but they return to Ethiopia multiple times a year to reconnect with the community, visit their factories, and explore new opportunities to make an even wider impact. They’re currently in the process of hiring a larger Ethiopian staff and are investing a sizable percentage of their net sales back into their production facility and partners like Ellilta Women at Risk (EWAR), with whom they’re launching a program to train women from EWAR as leather artisans at Parker Clay.
Brit + Co: What was the biggest surprise you found upon landing in Ethiopia for the first time?
Brittany Bentley: We landed in Ethiopia without a home or car and only a few friends — but we loved the adventure. All too often, Ethiopia is in mainstream media for its problems and challenges. It’s been that way since the famine in the ’70s and ’80s, when it was featured on the front page of National Geographic. We were really surprised after our first visits to Ethiopia that it was a land of immense beauty — not just its landscape, but in its people. We were always welcomed and treated like family. It’s certainly a second home to us, and even through the adoption of our two daughters from Ethiopia, it’s given us an even greater connection to the country.
B+C: Do you have a “typical” work day when you’re in California? It must make for some interesting logistics with so much of your business so far away.
BB: We have a wonderful team and recently celebrated the first year anniversary of our shop in our Santa Barbara HQ. We often find that the work starts very early, as Ethiopia is about 10 hours ahead of us in California, and they are ending their day as we are starting ours. We often joke that we have an eight-to-five and then a five-to-eight!
We talk to our team in Ethiopia almost daily to ensure that we stay on top of production and hear about how everyone is doing. Recently, we’ve hired an additional 10 people to our team, and we purchased a van to transport our staff from our workshop to their homes. These types of impact are huge motivators for our team both in the US and Ethiopia.
We often spend our mornings packing up orders from the night before and making sure we respond to every email. Throughout the day, we work with our team on upcoming content, partnerships, and other strategic plans. For me personally, in all this, I’m also coordinating my five children with school drop-offs, doctor’s appointments, and loads of homework, and all that comes with the incredible opportunity of being a working mom. Sometimes, that also means having my two-year-old Kyah at the office — she’s usually coloring in the back of the office, hiding with Red Vines in her hands.
B+C: You’ve mentioned the leather for your bags is ethically sourced. Where does the leather for your bags come from?
BB: Since the days of the pharaohs, Ethiopia has been producing and exporting prized leathers, luxurious spices, and rich coffees. When we first discovered the leather industry in Ethiopia, we were shocked to hear how much of the leather was being shipped to countries like Italy, a place internationally known for its leather.
Ethiopia has a population of over 100 million, and over 90 percent of those people live in rural and agricultural subsistence. We source our leather from traditional tanneries that combine quality craftsmanship with modern environmental innovations. These tanneries source leather as a by-product of the livestock and farming industries, and they recycle all the water used in the tanning process. Our products are dyed with industry standard dyes and, increasingly, with all-natural, organic, vegetable-based dyes.
Our team hand-selects each piece of leather before cutting, assembling, and stitching the products using state of the art German machinery. Our design process is informed by our upbringing in California to create classic products that are built for adventure and styled for the city. Leather develops a distinct patina as it ages, making leather products look better over time and use. We hope to see Parker Clay leather products passed down through generations.
B+C: Okay — here comes a tough one. What’s your favorite Parker Clay bag to use every day?
BB: I switch almost every week, but my regular favorites are the Entoto Zip Tote, Layla Satchel, and Clayton Card Wallet. There are a few new bags we are finalizing development on that are soon to be my new faves! To be honest, it’s like asking me who my favorite child is — they are all my favorite.
B+C: How are your children involved in the business? As a woman, do you make it a priority to teach your daughters business skills?
BB: We love having our kids involved. When living in Ethiopia, they were always with us, and while it might not have always made for the most efficient meetings, we loved it. We make it a priority to teach our teenage daughter Abby about our business — she has an interest in the pop-ups and events we have at our retail shop, so that has been a great way to involve her. Since moving back from Ethiopia, we’ve really enjoyed taking our kids individually on trips back to Ethiopia. In August, we were able to bring Abby, and she was very involved in the design and production process in our Ethiopian factory. When we started Parker Clay, we always said that we wanted to build something our kids are proud to take over. Our kids’ names and fingerprints are all over the business, and that’s important and intentional for us.
B+C: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are looking to incorporate an element of social responsibility into their own businesses?
BB: As consumer demand increases for socially conscious products, brands will respond. It requires consumers who are willing to put their money behind these brands, which may be more expensive than traditional alternatives. We’ve seen many innovative retail approaches to social good, and these efforts are bolstered as the quality of socially conscious products improves and as improved, sustainable impact models are employed. Practically, there are some helpful frameworks that can help you understand, implement, and improve your impact. I’d recommend looking at Models of Impact and IRIS metrics and/or taking the B-Corps assessment for good ideas of where and how to start improving your impact with your business.
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