The story behind Parker Clay’s stylish leather goods and woven textiles started with a concern for family and blossomed into a passion for humanitarian justice. “I love my kids,” said Ian Bentley of his five children. He cofounded and runs Parker Clay with his wife, Brittany Bentley, whom he met at Dos Pueblos High School. “I think that is a big part of our brand’s DNA.”
After the birth of their two sons, Parker and Clay, the couple began considering growing their family through adoption. “We started paying more attention, and we found there are millions of kids orphaned around the world,” said Ian Bentley. “It really kind of smacked us one day, and I couldn’t even function well.”
The Bentleys went on to adopt their first daughter from Ethiopia and fell deeply in love with not just her but also the country and people. “It was a life-changing experience for us,” he said of their travels. “It’s a beautiful culture. The people are so caring, and yet there are so many challenges.”
In 2012, after asking themselves what they could do to help, the Bentleys sold everything and bought one-way tickets to Africa. “It was crazy,” Bentley admitted of their family’s move to Ethiopia without having a concrete vision of their mission.
However, they knew of the nonprofit organization Ellilta International, which works with Ethiopian women to break the generational cycle of prostitution. “We saw that as a significant issue,” Bentley said of the estimated 150,000 women working in prostitution in the capital of Addis Ababa, many of whom are struggling young moms. “They are brave, and they will do anything and everything to support their kids, but they don’t want to be in those positions.”
The couple quickly saw an opportunity to merge their business talents with the women’s artisanal skills. “A lot of the women wanted to use the gifts that they had,” he said of their handcrafts. “There’s this dignity piece to it.”
The Bentleys began intercepting raw Ethiopian leather bound for the high-end Italian market and built a leather goods factory partially run by women in the Ellilta program, providing them fair wages, pensions, vacations, and transportation. “The people behind our products mean so much to us,” Bentley said. “That has to be the integrity that we stand on.” Through Parker Clay (parkerclay.com), the Bentleys connected their workers with Western design trends to bring the company’s products to fashion markets around the world.
The couple went on to adopt a second daughter in Ethiopia, and then moved back to Santa Barbara in 2014 when their eldest daughter began having seizures and needed surgery for a brain tumor. “It was a curveball,” said Bentley. “But it’s turned out to be a cool thing because it’s given us an opportunity to share and spread our work with Parker Clay.”
He still frequently returns to Ethiopia to manage their factory and is now investing in a second factory to keep pace with product demand — which retails mostly online direct to consumers — and further his work with women at risk.
Parker Clay has drawn support from celebrities who love the company’s fashionable handbags and hope to join its cause. Whoopi Goldberg just named the company one of her “favorite things” on ABC’s The View. Now Bentley is set to present his story at TEDxSantaBarbara on September 8.