This inspiring family moved from the U.S. to Ethiopia & started a thriving social enterprise company.
We first travelled to Ethiopia in 2011 to adopt our daughter, and eventually moved to the capital city of Addis Ababa one year later. While living there, we had the fortune of spending time with organisations working to empower women emerging from the commercial sex industry.
Parker Clay is a luxury lifestyle brand with goods designed in Santa Barbara, California and made in Ethiopia, where they are creating opportunities for women to become economically independent, all the while crafting gorgeous leather and hand woven products. Brittany and Ian Bentley travelled to Ethiopia and worked with organizations that empowered underprivileged women through skill development, and eventually decided to create Parker Clay with the intention of helping these same women gain financial stability. All of Parker Clay’s products are sustainable and made with some of the finest leather in the world.
Below is a Q&A with Parker Clay founders Brittany and Ian Bentley.
Tell us the beautiful story behind the creation of Parker Clay?
We first travelled to Ethiopia in 2011 to adopt our daughter, and eventually moved to the capital city of Addis Ababa one year later. While living there, we had the fortune of spending time with organisations working to empower women emerging from the commercial sex industry. Meeting these women and witnessing the amazing, transformative work these organisations were doing deeply moved us.
While living in Ethiopia, I was looking for a birthday gift for Brittany and found an incredible leather bag. The artisans’ craftsmanship was beautiful, and we learned this leather was not only ethically sourced, but some of the highest quality in the world. With this leather in mind, we saw our opportunity to empower vulnerable women through enterprise.
From that chance birthday gift, Parker Clay was born as a luxury lifestyle brand that hand selects the highest quality leather to make timeless products by way of age-old traditional craftsmanship, all while creating opportunities for vulnerable women to become economically independent.
You and your family moved from the United States to Ethiopia during the birth of your company, how did this impact the creation of Parker Clay?
Parker Clay could only have ever been made in Ethiopia. Brittany and I weren’t looking to start a business when we moved there, and we knew nothing very little about leather goods!
We really see ourselves as passionate people who care about others and feel compelled to act. In Ethiopia, we found we cared deeply for the vulnerable women we met through our work with non-profits. As we asked Ethiopians what more we could do to help, they kept urging us not for money, but for opportunities.
From there, we connected Ethiopia’s rich tradition of leather working with our business experience, inviting in wonderful Ethiopians we met to help us start this company. The designs and colors are inspired by Ethiopia, and influenced by the ideas of our team of artisan.
Can you tell us what it has been like to partner with the non– profit organization, Ellilta— Women at Risk?
Cherry, the founder of Ellilta – Women at Risk, is one of my personal heroes. During a tough year of post-college unemployment, she developed a soft heart for women working in the commercial sex industry, who she learned had often been driven to this work because they lacked opportunities in the sparse job market (the unemployment rate in Ethiopia is nearly 20%). From there, Cherry founded Ellilta – Women at Risk, where they now offer prevention awareness programs, counselling, skills training, and other services to women and communities in Addis Ababa as well as around the country.
Working with Cherri and the Ellilta – Women at Risk staff and women has been amazing as we see the trials and transformations happening in these lives. One of my favorite memories is when a women, now dear friend, Meselu came up to me and showed my her son’s report card. Her pride and joy were spilling out of her shining eyes – because of her involvement with Ellilta, she had been able to afford to send him to school, and he had received straight A’s! It’s moments like this that make all the long hours worthwhile.
Tell us about your production process!
Our Ethiopian Director, Henok, is a genius in leather production. He oversees the entire process, from ensuring quality and color of the leather we source from local tanneries to the entire in-shop production process and orchestrating shipments to our warehouse in California. Our employees are skilled, certified artisans who perform the cutting, skiving, piecing, stitching, and finishing processes that transform pieces of leather into luxury products. Some of our pieces have well over a hundred steps involved in the process and at every step we ensure that we are making a world class luxury product.
What material do you use to create Parker Clay products?
Parker Clay products are made out of premium leather and hand-spun cotton.
Many people are initially surprised when we tell them we make luxury leather goods in Ethiopia, but to us, it makes total sense. Many Italian leather products use leather sourced from Ethiopia, and so this leather, while lesser known to the American public, really is world-class. We partner with two tanneries in Ethiopia, to source our leather, working closely with them to ensure top quality in beautiful, rich colours. At both tanneries, they have given “Parker Clay” as the name for their best quality leather and we are continually pushing the limits of quality.
Our cotton is hand spun and hand woven by the members of Ellilta Products, a company connected to the non-profit Ellilta-Women at Risk. We believe in this non-profit that supports women coming out of the commercial sex industry. By purchasing woven goods from Ellilta, we support their artisans and programs for vulnerable women.
Where do you see Parker Clay in the future?
While leaving Ethiopia and moving to the United States was a hard, but necessary, decision to address one of our daughter’s major medical issues, living stateside has allowed us to accelerate the growth of Parker Clay in a way that would have been almost impossible had we stayed in Addis Ababa.
This platform for sales growth is exciting for us, because the more products we sell the more people we’re able to employ in Ethiopia. In the future, we’re looking to open more shops in cities across the US, growing our passionate American team while furthering the movement of social enterprises through various speaking events to share our story and inspire others. In Ethiopia, we’re looking to expand our factory and double our staff immediately, envisioning that one day we’ll have multiple facilities and employ potentially hundreds of skilled leather artisans. We’d also love to begin a training program to certify and employ women from Ellilta in our leather production process.
At the end of the day, we care deeply about how our products are made and who makes them. We refuse to compromise on relationship, community, or quality. We craft luxury lifestyle goods by combining beautiful design with premium leather and handwoven textiles. We are made in Ethiopia. That will never change, but we hope the scale and depth of our audience and impact will grow with us as we pursue our mission.
The above article by Grant Trahant first published on causeartist.com in 2017.