Samuel Bistrian is giving children durable footwear and a chance at a better life with his one-for-one shoe company, Roma Boots.
- Posted on Feb 8, 2016
Samuel Bistrian is merging fashion and philanthropy with his socially conscious, buy-one-give-one boot company, Roma Boots. The charitable corporation—which gives away a pair of boots for every pair sold—launched in 2010 and now operates in 25 countries across five continents, bringing durable, colorful footwear to kids in need and promoting education in impoverished areas.
Last year alone, the company was able to hand out 30,000 boots to children in seven different countries.
For Bistrian, the gift of rubber boots has roots that reach into his own childhood in Romania.
When Bistrian was just six-years-old, he received his first pair of boots—faded orange and well-worn by his older siblings (he was ninth out of 11 children in his family), the rubber footwear meant he could help work the small plot of land his family depended on for food without worry of injury.
“I was just this excited kid with his first pair of rain boots,” Bistrian tells Guideposts.org. “They meant so much to me.”
When Bistrian was eight-years-old, his family migrated to the United States. Though his days of eating molded bread for dinner were gone, Bistrian's new life in America was far from charmed.
The family settled in a 13-story high-rise in a gang-infested neighborhood, living off welfare and sharing a two-bedroom apartment. Still, Bistrian remembers his early years with nostalgia.
“Something I recall from a very young age was that my parents instilled in us a sense of hope and gratitude,” Bistrian explains. “We knew we had this opportunity that was given to us and we wanted to make the best of it and eventually use that opportunity to help others.”
Bistrian grew up and took his parent’s lessons to heart, spending time in Cuba and Colombia doing humanitarian work before eventually getting married and landing a job at Neiman Marcus. The experience was both rewarding and eye-opening.
“[In America,], people are paying thousands of dollars for a coat which is a salary for people in these poor countries,” Bistrian says. The disparity made him want to act.
It was during this time that he met Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms Shoes, a nonprofit footwear company that gives a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair sold.
The concept sparked an idea in Bistrian. While Mycoskie’s company was committed to selling and giving canvas footwear, Bistrian saw a vacuum for the kind of shoes he treasured as a boy growing up in Romania.
“Rain boots are a much more practical, sanitary, durable product,” Bistrian explains. “And I remember how much they meant to me as a kid.”
Bistrian went to colleagues at Neiman Marcus and his siblings—some of whom had started their own non-profits to help abused and impoverished children here in the States and overseas—for financial help.
“I had no idea what I was doing,’ Bistrian says. “I just said, ‘I’m going to start a rain boots company.”
He spent four-years, working 17-hour days without pay, selling his car and other valuables on E-Bay and recruiting volunteers, to help him get his company off the ground. It’s name, Roma, is “amor” spelled backwards – a testament to the labor of love involved to get his shoes to kids in need.
The Christmas following the company’s launch, Bistrian was able to go back to his hometown in Romania and hand out 5,000 boots to the community. The experience was life-changing.
“It was just gloomy and gray outside that day, and then we pull up with this van full of bright, colorful rain boots,” Bistrian explains. “I said, ‘Wow, I really want to dedicate my time to not only creating this experience for kids throughout Romania, but throughout the world.’”
Six years later, Roma Boots is not only donating shoes, the company has also launched a foundation, partnering with learning centers and schools in impoverished areas to encourage kids in their quest for an education.
“Our endgame is not to fill every community around the world with Roma Boots, but to educate and help them break the cycle of poverty by inspiring hope, by educating them, by helping them understand that they can do what we’re doing,” Bistrian says. “The boots aren’t a handout. They’re simply a conduit for something greater.”
Bistrian says the reason he does what he does is to give back what he was given as a child: hope.
“Every person, at the end of their life, reflects on it and says ‘Was my life meaningful? Did I leave my footprints in this world?’” he says. “When I see what I can do for just one child, it fills me with a joy that I can’t explain.”
He’ll consider his job done when his company is able to truly give poverty the boot.
“If, as a result of Roma Boots going into this village in Uganda or this village in Nepal or Nicaragua, those kids are off to college or are off doing something meaningful for other people in the world, that’s when [I’ll consider] Roma Boots a success.”