Born in an impoverished village in Romania, Samuel Bistrian had always known the problem. But it wasn't until he was selling fur coats at a Neiman Marcus in 2009 that he recognized the solution.
Bistrian is founder and CEO of Dallas-based Roma Boots, a business that donates a pair of rain boots to a poor child for every pair of rain boots sold. Bistrian first learned of the one-for-model when Toms founder Blake Mycoskie launched his shoe line in the Dallas store where Bistrian managed the fur department.
"I was so moved by his story. I knew that was something that was in my heart," says Bistrian. "And I said, 'Blake, do you do anything in Romania? Or do you do anything with rain boots?' He said no."
Roma Boots is one of dozens of one-for-one companies offering everything from soccer balls to toothbrushes that have sprung up in the wake of Toms. Most draw their inspirational tales from the lives they make better. Bistrian is unusual in that he once lived among the people Roma now serves.
Raised with 11 siblings in a village of 120 people, Bistrian observed how the cold, wet winters ravaged poorly shod feet. "I remember as a kid seeing people being deformed," says Bistrian. "Some had lost their toes to frostbite."
After the Romanian Revolution of 1989, Bistrian's family emigrated to the United States as refugees, leading a peripatetic existence that took them from Chicago to Tennessee to Texas. The family was poor, but "we still felt a moral obligation to give back to those that we left behind," says Bistrian. "So we would send clothes; we would send shoes. But we weren't able to make such a big impact." (Some other family members eventually moved back to Romania to do humanitarian work.)
Bistrian started Roma with $5,000 in savings during the recession--$40,000 in student loans and credit card debt hanging ominously above his head. (In addition to the obvious association with the Roma people, the company name is a backwards rendering of "amor" or "love".) He visited a college friend who lived in Shanghai, and the two toured factories until they found one that could make the boots. For the first three years Bistrian continued to work at Neiman Marcus to feed his own family. Like Toms, Roma received early positive press that drew people willing to volunteer their time and talent for the cause.
On his first "boot drop" (the nomenclature also derives from Toms) in Romania, Bistrian also distributed books, coloring books, and crayons. "Kids who were 10, 11, 12, received boots from us, and they didn't know how to read," says Bistrian. "That was so discouraging." In response he created the Roma for All Foundation, which collects 10 percent of the company's sales and uses it to supply and expand local schools. The goal, says Bistrian, is to eventually build Roma learning centers in the places it donates. The educational services are Roma's solution to the aid-versus-development debate that has bedeviled Toms.
"To eradicate poverty, you don't just give, give, give, give, give," says Bistrian. "I lived in Communist Romania. I've seen how things work. You empower people through education. You let them think freely and tell them that they, too, can make a difference."
Currently, the company donates in 20 countries on four continents. Roma boots are sold online and through retailers in 36 states. It is preparing to go global with distribution in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and Asia.
Toms' high profile benefits Roma and other one-for-one companies that have to do less education with potential retailers. "When Nordstrom's picked us up they said, 'oh, are you the Toms of rain boots?'" says Bistrian "'No. We are Roma.' You really want to be your own thing. But who doesn't want to be associated with a very successful company who is making such a huge impact around the world?"