From communist Romania to the Shops at Park Lane with Samuel Bistrian

Samuel Bistrian lived the first eight years of his life under the strict regime of communist Romania. Though they were extremely poor, he and his 11 siblings always felt lucky.

“My parents instilled in us from an early age with a sense of gratitude,” he says. “We knew things were going to get better.”

In 1989 the family secured one-way tickets to the United States. Their departure from central Europe was bittersweet. Bistrian remembers feeling both sad and exhilarated. Saying goodbye to his friends and grandparents was difficult, but he felt hopeful about the future. He recalls getting off the plane at Chicago O’Hare International Airport and looking around in awe.

“There were lights everywhere,” he says. “That was amazing to me because [back home] the electricity was always cut off.”

But life in America presented its own challenges. From Illinois, the family members moved to Knoxville, Tenn. There, they lived cramped in a government housing project, where Bistrian and his siblings heard gunshots regularly and were bullied by other tenants. Rather than worrying, the kids focused on academics. Their hard work helped the family secure a home through Habitat for Humanity.

“It usually takes a long time to be approved” Bistrian explains. “But we all did really well at school, so they were able to expedite the process and get us a three-bedroom house. My parents still live there to this day.”

After graduating from Dallas Baptist University with a degree in communications, Bistrian took a job at Neiman Marcus, loading and unloading boxes. He quickly worked his way up to national sales director. But in spite of his monetary stability, he never forgot what it was like to live in poverty and became determined to help others escape their financial shackles.

In 2010, at the “peak of [his] career,” he significantly reduced his hours at Neiman Marcus and founded Roma Boots, a “socially conscious” company that donates a pair of goulashes to a child in need for every pair that is sold. The business now operates out of a sleek, minimalistic space in the Shops at Park Lane. Original paintings and illustrations line the walls, making the store look more like an art gallery. It’s an impressive sight, and it isn’t a façade — business is indeed thriving — but it took quite some time for Roma Boots to gain footing.

“I went three years without a car,” Bistrian remembers. “I sacrificed a lot and borrowed money from siblings … I just knew in my heart there was a hand of providence guiding this whole thing.”

Starting a new business is always a struggle, and more so for Bistrian because he launched Roma Boots during the recession. However, he managed to turn even that into a positive.

“I think the recession awakened people to the fact that we’ve had it so good for so long,” he muses. “I think compassion is born out of a sense of gratitude.”

The first rain boots were donated, appropriately, to children in Romania, where the weather is often cold and wet. Since then the company has performed “boot drops” in more than 20 countries including Nepal, China, Mongolia, India and Haiti. Word about Roma Boots is getting around. Actress Alyssa Milano is a fan of the footwear, as is “Duck Dynasty’s” Sadie Robertson, who recently helped design an exclusive line for the label. Bistrian is happy to have the support of celebrities, but he doesn’t necessarily want to become one himself. He’s palpably humble and earnest, driven by a desire to give back.

“I just followed my passion,” he says. “I would have quit a long time ago if I had not been stirred by something stronger than myself.”