Gator entrepreneur mixes business with goodwill to clothe Bengali children
Robert Felder has donated almost enough pairs of pants to fill all the 88,548 seats in UF’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. And he’s just getting started. The founder of online retailer Bearbottom Clothing will soon give away the 100,000th pair of his colorful shorts to a child in Bangladesh.
Making sure Bengali children have adequate clothing — and their parents have jobs — are two of Bearbottom’s prime missions.
Bearbottom Clothing is no ordinary company. Then again, Felder (BSBA ’16, BSA ’16) is no ordinary entrepreneur.
The spark to start Bearbottom came to Felder in 2012 when he was traveling in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations. The magnitude of the poverty there stunned Felder, and he wanted to do something about it.
“How I describe it to people is that I was in a car, and the only thing that was familiar to me was the windshield of that car,” Felder says. “I was in high school so I couldn’t really help, but I took it to heart.”
Once at UF, Felder outlined a business plan that became Bearbottom Clothing. Growing up in Florida, he lived in shorts year-round. But when he would scour stores or the Internet looking for pairs, he often came up, well, a little short. With one of the largest industries in Bangladesh being apparel manufacturing, Felder thought he’d stumbled on a way to help both Bengalis and consumers. So after spending a year planning, developing and building a website in his dorm room, he launched Bearbottom Clothing in January 2014, his sophomore year.
“I thought back to when I was in Bangladesh and thought, ‘Why don’t I sell shorts online? I need shorts, people need shorts, and I can do it in Bangladesh. I can provide some jobs while they’re making my product,’” Felder recalls.
His idea stuck. And it’s more than jobs that Bearbottom provides. Every item purchased from the company — which has expanded to include shirts and swimsuits — translates into a free pair of shorts for a child in Bangladesh. At first, it was just the families of workers in the factories who benefitted from the donations, but now the giveaways have expanded to children in local schools, hospitals and orphanages. A recent single donation was 30,000 pairs of shorts.
Felder, who works from Bearbottom’s headquarters in Tampa, tries to return to Bangladesh at least once a year to visit the factories and to distribute some of the clothing himself.
“There are opportunities outside of Bangladesh that I’ve been approached about,” Felder says. “But I explain why it’s important that I stay in Bangladesh and do everything I can there.”
Felder says there are positive aspects to manufacturing that people don’t often hear about: specifically, women becoming prominent members of their communities. The factories Bearbottom uses have their own empowerment programs that focus on educating women about health care and finance.
Felder is planning to expand Bearbottom Clothing to offer more products, create new designs and improve its core products. But that won’t detract from its commitment to the people in Bangladesh, he says. After all, there is value in conducting business and making a difference, Felder maintains.
“It is a business, but I think you can still do that and do things the right way,” he says. “I have always appreciated people who work hard and are willing to do what it takes to take care of their families or friends.”