Samuel Bistrian still remembers his first pair of boots. They were faded orange hand-me-downs passed to him by an older sibling.
Despite being well-used and worn, they brought 6-year-old Bistrian immense joy. He could go outside to play in the rain or snow and not have to worry about his feet getting cold and wet.
It’s due, in part, to these humble beginnings that Bistrian, founder and CEO of Roma Boots, is driven to help people. He grew up one of 12 siblings in a small town in pre-revolutionary Romania — and as he puts it, “life was tough.”
Despite the family’s struggles, his mother always stressed the importance of helping. She’d send Bistrian and his siblings out to help the local widow and anyone else who needed it.
“I was driven by passion, and a purpose to do more,” Samuel Bistrian said.
When Bistrian’s family received the opportunity to immigrate to America, they jumped at the chance. But they never forgot the poverty stricken people they left behind.
Every year, the family would box up shoes and clothes and send them home to Romania.
After college, Bistrian completed humanitarian work in poor countries around the world, and the lessons his parents instilled came back in full force. He knew he had to find a way to make helping people his job.
In the meantime, he took a position at Neiman Marcus, where he met Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes. He was inspired by the buy-a-shoe, donate-a-shoe model.
“I’d always looked for the opportunity to combine my love of fashion with philanthropy,” Bistrian says. “I was driven by passion, and a purpose to do more.”
In 2010, he started Roma. “Roma” is the Spanish word for love spelled backwards, since as Bistrian says, “love is the motivating factor.”
Ready to “give poverty the boot,” Bistrian began making attractive, brightly colored rain boots. For every pair sold, he donated a pair to people in need –- usually in cold and wet climates such as Romania.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning.
For the first four years, Roma ran on the work of volunteers and interns, and Bistrian had to pawn personal items to stay afloat.
To grow the business, Bistrian’s advisers told him that Roma had to go to market. He put his company to the test in 2014, and it grew 500 percent.
Donating boots to children was fulfilling, but Bistrian knew that it wasn’t enough. Companies such as TOMS have faced criticism from economists who say the buy-one, give-one business model actually hinders the development of impoverished countries.
But to Bistrian, his rubber boots are merely a conduit –- a symbol of hope. He donates 10 percent of his gross profit to education, and in the coming years, he plans to expand those efforts.
“By just giving stuff away, we’re not changing people’s futures or their thinking. We have to invest in their brains,” he said. “Roma is taking it a step further in providing help through education.”
“By just giving stuff away, we’re not changing people’s futures or their thinking. We have to invest in their brains,” Bistrian said.
The Roma Boots flagship store at the Shops at Park Lane is a bright, trendy space.
Art lines the walls and upbeat music plays overhead. The friendly saleswoman jokes that people walking by often ask if the place is a boot shop or an art gallery. In a way, it’s both.
The boots themselves are works of art. Many are streaked with prints and designs. Some are chunky and short with laces; some have delicate floral patterns.
On Nov. 29, Bistrian celebrates the “Day of Hope,” an annual art and fashion show where he encourages people to perform small acts of kindness. He also unveils a new limited-edition boot, usually designed by a local artist.
Here in Dallas, where our climate is moderate and our roads are paved, these boots might be a fashion statement, or simply beautiful footwear for a walk on a rainy day.
But they’re also practical, sanitary, and durable. They’re perfect for small villages where there is nothing else like them available — where local-made shoes don’t hold up to the weather.
Whether it’s Guatemala or Nepal or Romania, people need rain boots, Bistrian says.
They protect their wearers not just from the elements, but from hookworms and volcanic ash. Sometimes when he gives out boots, Bistrian remembers his old, faded hand-me-downs.
“Every time you wear these boots, I want you to remember: I was in your shoes –- or lack of –- at one time,” he tells the children who receive his boots.
Currently, Bistrian’s rain boots are in boutiques across the country, and over the last four years, Roma has been able to donate thousands of boots to 20 countries on four continents.
Still, Bistrian says, they’re not truly successful –- not yet.
There’s still work to be done in education, and Roma plans to expand its efforts via supporting learning centers in these communities and assessing need.
“As long as we keep doing things out of hope and love,” Bistrian said. “There’s no reason we won’t grow.”
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